As Ringling Bros. Dies, “Circus 1903” Reinterprets An Old Artform

The Illusionists producers and War Horse puppeteers mine the niche between cirques and circus to celebrate their roots.

As Ringling Bros. Dies, “Circus 1903” Reinterprets An Old Artform
[Photos: Mark Turner, courtesy of MagicSpace]

Though it began slowly germinating nearly four years ago, it seems eerily prescient that Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus would make its U.S. debut just three months shy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus closing after 146 years.


The show, from The Illusionists creator Simon Painter and directed by Neil Dorward, is a love letter to the old-fashioned circus acts from the artform’s golden age period of rapid innovation during the 1880s through 1920s. The show offers a backstage glimpse and routines of that period, with specially designed elephant puppets from the company that created the puppets for War Horse, a Tony Award-winning stage show featuring life-size horse puppets.

Circus 1903 runs Feb 14—19 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as the second stop of a five-month tour, 15-city American tour.

David Williamson

The show tells the story of what it would have been like to be part of a traveling circus coming to a small town in 1903, through audience participation; interspersing acts and gags into the set-up, performance, and tear-down of the wagons and tents; and culminating in a mother and baby elephant act, guided by six puppeteers, that took a year to develop.

“It’s a snapshot of the circus at that time,” says David Williamson, a magician who serves as ringmaster and narrator for the 26-member cast. “There’s no dramatic structure other than the story of the circus coming to town and acts rehearsing for the show. We’re all playing ourselves, but interacting with each other.”

“In the first half of the show, you’ll see the laundry on the line, the tents and props getting set up, me walking through the crowd selling popcorn and introducing the sideshow acts,” says Williamson, who previously toured with The Illusionists. “The wagon opens and becomes a set for the sideshow acts and blow-off gags. I bring a kid on stage from the audience. It’s creating a setting for these acts, so people can appreciate pure showmanship without technology.”

Even the performers were smitten. Maria Jose Pontigo, a tightrope walker from a lineage of circus performers who works with the Lopez Family (see below), told producers, “My grandfather did some of the things I’m now doing in 1903.”


The Elephants

But the pièces de résistance are the elephant puppets—a regal mother and her mischievous baby—developed by Significant Object, the London company run by Mervyn Millar that designed the puppets for War Horse.

“No one had ever built an elephant puppet of this size,” says producer Andrew Spencer, who had originally commissioned The Illusionists when he was executive producer of the Sydney Opera House.

It took months of design and engineering, several prototypes and models, using new types of materials unavailable for War Horse puppets, then eight full-time workers nearly five months to build. The puppeteers and director then spent two weeks crafting and rehearsing a routine.

Once the elephants were worked out, the production came together quickly, pulling cast and crew from more than seven countries in four continents. Casting began last summer, while the producers pulled in circus and magic historians Chris Berry and Mike Caveney, (who penned The Illusionists’ script), to develop bits, flesh out the show, maintain its authenticity, and write the backstory for the program. “They contributed to the vernacular of the time,” says Spencer.

Rehearsals took place for three weeks in Melbourne before opening in Sydney and Canberra in December and January. They’ll return to Australia at the end of the year. “There are more moving parts to this show than anything we’ve done before,” says Spencer.

Painter began forming his idea as circus animals waned due to finances and pressure from animal rights groups. Ringling Bros. last month “tied in accidentally.”


“This is a way forward for circuses,” says Spencer. “[Ringling owners] the Felds brought it forward for decades, but it became harder to reinvent themselves. Our shows offer a throwback and remind people why they fell in love with the circus in the first place.” And, in fact, some the 1903 performers toured with Ringling Bros.

At the Australia shows, “The children didn’t see the puppeteers; they saw a baby elephant with an attitude,” notes Williamson. “There were multi-generational families sitting together in the theater and nine out of ten mouths were open. No superhero movie can compete with seeing men actually fly through the air.”


About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.