Here is the second part of a look into the life of one of our concessionaires!
“We moved into a tiny bunk in one of four trailers. Our room was about the size of an average bathroom, with 2 bunks, up and down, and a tiny closet. It was crowded, but comfortable enough. That first night I was surprised by the motion of the trailer every time someone moved around. After a few days that became my method of ascertaining whether my neighbors were home.
It was beautiful at the barn. There were fireflies at night and a hummingbird living near the concessions storage trailer. The fields were full of wildflowers. Each night before going to bed, I looked up at the amazing array of stars. The air in Greensboro in June was cool and crisp and during the pre-tour days I slept very well.
The other people on the Concessions crew were all in their mid-twenties and we got to know each other while we worked. Some of them had been working at Smirkus for many summers. They had lots of energy and a wonderful positivity about the tasks at hand. Their lives were very different from mine. Naturally, they were surprised by me, but after a while, realized that I was there to help. I enjoyed getting to know them. They were intelligent, well-read, sociable, passionate, funny and playful. They worked really hard, but everything might stop for a moment while we looked at a particularly interesting moth or admired the clouds. Many of these people have become very dear to me. Ross Whitlock and I have worked side by side in novelties for five summers now.
Our concessions routine has remained the same over these five summers. During the rehearsal period, our days are spent preparing displays, counting and tagging merchandise, cleaning and testing equipment, painting signs and displays, moving boxes and bins, tables, road cases and racks from their storage places in the barn and the storage trailer. We set up the tents as they would be set up for shows, making everything as attractive as possible. We hang beautiful old banners from past shows. We think about what people will see when they enter the midway tent. When it is just right, we take it all down, pack it up, and arrange it on the truck in an exercise called a ‘mock load-out’ to assure that we are able to fit it all into the reefer, the refrigerated truck we share with the pie car. This is a challenge, but a couple of my concessions colleagues excelled at spatial planning, a result of time spent playing Tetris, I was informed. Next, everything comes back off the truck and back into place.
All around the lot, excitement steadily builds as all the many pieces get ready to come together. The troupers, of course, practice and rehearse constantly, all day, even after dinner. By mid-evening they are all in their trailers. But there is plenty of activity still going on around the lot. Some things can only be done in the chapiteau after rehearsals are over for the day. The creative and production teams stay up late painting sets, building props, adjusting costumes, programming lights and sound, and tweaking acts and music. There is a restless urgency as everyone works toward being ready to take it all on the road.
The staff is encouraged to watch the dress rehearsal. We are eager to see the show, which we have only had hints of: someone running by in a costume, the clowns rehearsing loudly in the Studio, snippets of music. It is fun to see what the troupers had been working on so hard. The following day is the first show. We put on our newly issued staff shirts and do it all for real this time, with a real audience. The show is well attended by friends and families of the troupers. It is an exciting day for everyone.
After the show is over, we have our first real load-out. It takes a while. The lot in Greensboro is covered in large wood chips and road cases do not roll easily across them. We get everything onto the truck and headed for bed. The next morning, we get up early and began preparing for our first jump. The troupers go off for the day. Staff bunks have to be packed down securely, cables and hoses coiled and stowed in the appropriate pickup trucks. Big sheets of plywood, mud boards, have to be gathered and brought along in case we encounter the rainy conditions which give “mud shows” their name. There are legendary tales of past challenges. Trash needs to be collected, dishes gathered and washed, all belongings stowed away. Everything is in motion. We are hitting the road. It is a strange sensation to see my house begin to move and also to leave my car parked in the big grassy field behind the mess hall at Smirkus HQ.
Personal vehicles can’t be brought along because everyone has to help get the show down the road. Most of the circus travels by truck. Each vehicle requires a driver and a navigator. Since I drive a standard shift, I drive the personal vehicle of the CDL driver, Richard Epinette, so that he can get home after driving the big trucks to the next site,
At the next site the staff sets up the back lot; the tent crew sets up our tents and everyone gets to work loading in. This process takes concessions several hours and it is a long day.
On jump days, there are no shows, and the counselors and the troupers go off and do various recreational activities. Once, a well-meaning trouper parent asked me what my jump day plans were. I had to politely explain that I would be working, because the staff moves the show down the road. This is one of the parts of the circus that is generally invisible to all but the most observant. The circus is big, so it’s a lot of work, but it’s also very organized, so it goes smoothly, most of the time. We are up late tearing down after the last show, and we are up early the next morning for the jump. Everything is packed away and each person has their job to do. Mine is to pick up litter on the lot. Circuses are hard on lots and we pride ourselves on leaving the area clean and free of trash. If one department needs extra help, others pitch in. We aim to be on the road early, because there is always the possibility of a flat tire or other mishap to delay our schedule. Once we arrive at the new site, we start loading in as soon as the tent is up.
We jump sites every few days. In the beginning, it was a little disconcerting to move so often. Now that I am used to it, however, I welcome the change. I love the beauty of New England and the drives are often really lovely. Sometimes there are surprises, like the 2-humped camel at a farm on route 7 near Shelburne, VT, or the fields full of wildflowers growing everywhere in July, backlit in the early morning light. Sometimes there is tedious construction or rush-hour traffic. There is always, however, laughter and interesting conversation with my navigator and passengers.
Many people in my life don’t really understand why I spend my summers doing this work. They think I just like circus. It’s true that I do, but it has become much more than that. It is not glorious and it does not pay much. But what I do here is important, though that importance is not always visible. It is easy to see what the tent crew does. They create spaces that are essential for our work. The cooks keep everyone fueled and energized. The band accompanies the show. But concessions? Is it necessary to sell Smirkus gear and mementoes? Well, yes, actually. It is crucial for Smirkus which is a non-profit organization. One hundred percent of the revenues generated from the sale of food and novelties goes to our scholarship fund. That money helps to pay tour tuitions, camp tuitions and to bring residencies to more schools, bringing circus arts to more children. That feels like a really good cause to me, as I am a strong believer in the transformative power of circus as a healthy discipline for children. What more wholesome (and fun) activity could there be?
Here is a metaphor I often contemplate: the circus is like a cake. The audience comes to the show and through all of their senses, savors the beautifully decorated cake, its sweet smells, its exquisite taste. They appreciate the beauty and the artfulness of the finished product. What they don’t so readily perceive is all the mixing and measuring, stirring and cooking that went into its creation. They aren’t aware of how many hours in the hot kitchen it takes for the cake to be prepared. Likewise, they don’t see the hours of rigorous, disciplined practice and rehearsal that the troupers put in with their coaches. They don’t see the hours the crew spends setting up, tearing down, adjusting every aspect so that it is the best that it can be. They don’t see the late hours, the mud, the sweat, the blisters and mosquito bites. It’s okay. That’s not the part they come to see.
I wouldn’t trade any of this. Ultimately, like everyone else in this company, I am part of what makes Smirkus the way it is: full of heart and good will, the willingness to work hard, and devotion to the undefinable magic of which circus is made. These people are the best. They come back year after year to work hard with others who believe in this work and take pride in it. And that is why I do as well. This is our circus.”