“Circus 1903” uses modern stage craft & pachyderm puppets to recreate a turn-of-the-century traveling show

“Circus 1903” uses modern stage craft & pachyderm puppets to recreate a turn-of-the-century traveling show
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30+ years ago, David Williamson almost ran away with the circus.

“I was a teenager growing up in Ohio,” Williamson recalled during a recent phone interview. “And this one ring circus came to town. They found out somehow that I did magic and then tried to recruit me to come join their show. The idea sounded so romantic, but my mother wouldn’t let me go.”

We now jump ahead a few decades and Williamson has become a conjurer’s conjurer. Voted "Sleight of Hand Magician of the Year" two years in a row by Hollywood's Magic Castle, David had also been declared the “Most Wanted Magician” by the International Federation of Magic Societies. Which is why organizations like the Disney Cruise Line regularly sought Williamson out to come perform on their boats. Which is where David wound up doing sleight of hand in front of 1500 people at a time.

Now while this level of professional success (not to mention repeatedly receiving the recognition of your peers) is the sort of thing that every other magician on the planet craves, Williamson was looking for new fields to conquer. Which is why – when producer Simon Painter (i.e., the impresario behind the highly successful “Illusionists” shows) offered David the opportunity to circle back on an old dream – he jumped at it.

“This must have been 3, 3 & a ½ years ago, when Simon first talked with me about this idea for a new stage show that he was exploring. One that would celebrated all of those one ring circuses that used to visit small towns at the turn-of-the-century. Only to make this retro show a true theatrical experience, Simon was going to have the animal acts done as puppets a la ‘War Horse,’ “ Williamson explained. “And as Simon was talking, I remember thinking that it might be fun to play the ringmaster in a show like that. That I could do a lot with a role like that.”

So more than 3 decades after his mother expressly told him not to, David did finally run away with the circus. Which – in this case – involved traveling all the way from Ohio to Docklands Studios in Melbourne, Australia. Which is where Williamson then spent three weeks rehearsing with this veteran group of circus performers who had never before been in a stage show.

Mark Turner

Neil Dorwood -- our director -- showed incredible patience with the cast because … Well, I’m not an actor. I’m a magician. And these circus folk? They’re a really different breed. By that I mean: They’re good natured & competitive & athletic & hardy & a lot of fun. And they quickly form a family. But that said, they’re kind of hard to manage,” David said.

“And here’s Simon & Neil who are trying to build ‘Circus 1903’ from scratch. Which means that they have to teach us to do all of these theatrical things, learn intricate steps and choreography. And since our first performances were already scheduled for December, they honestly didn’t have a whole lot of time to pull this retro circus show together,” Williamson continued. “But in the end, Neil did a great job. Which is why – as you now watch ‘Circus 1903’ – you get to see all of these great acrobats using new & different muscles. When they’re out onstage, these people are fully invested in making this show a genuine theatrical experience for the audience. You should see them emote when the elephants come out.”

And speaking of emotions & elephants … David said that the most memorable moment during rehearsals of “Circus 1903” came when the cast first got to meet Queenie & Peanut (i.e., that full-sized, mother & child pair of pachyderm puppets which Significant Object spent five months building for this show).

Mark Turner

"The puppeteers had spent two weeks rehearsing their routine with Queenie & Peanut. And when these elephant puppets first made their entrance on Soundstage 4 at Dockland Studios, as they stepped through the mist with their music & their lighting … I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction that I’d have when we were rehearsing that scene. And as I looked around at all of these supposedly hardened circus performers, they were almost in tears as well,” Williamson stated. “And once we actually started performing ‘Circus 1903’ in theaters around Australia, that’s the exact same reaction that people in the audience had when they first saw these enormous elephant puppets. Just a second they’d think ‘Oh, there’s puppeteers there. Isn’t that clever?’ And then – through the magic of the stage – what you’re seeing suddenly somehow transformed into this real enormous elephant with its misbehaving calf. And you – as an audience member -- are just dazzled to be in the presence of these magnificent massive animals.”

Mind you, the live circus acts that David introduces & interacts with are pretty dazzling as well. Williams had especially high praise for the Lopez Family, the tightrope act which is presented in the first act of “Circus 1903.”

“Maria Jose Pontigo – who performs with the Lopezes – is fourth generation circus. And she says that ‘Circus 1903’ is like this love letter to her family’s traditions,” Williamson enthused. “That’s why Maria and all the other circus acts just love performing in this show. They consider it a real validation of what their families have been doing for decades now.”

Mark Turner

And what about David, who’s still something of a newbie when it comes to standing under the big top? Williamson believes that it was all those magic shows which he presented aboard the Disney Cruise Lines that properly prepared him for playing a ringmaster.

“When you work on the Disney boats, you’re constantly in front of three generations -- kids, parents and grandparents -- all sitting together, laughing and thrilling at the exact same thing. And when we were traveling around Australia late last year – we presented ‘Circus 1903’ to over 30,000 people there – what was really great was that I’d look out into the house and see the exact same sorts of audiences that I saw when I was working on the Disney Cruise Line. These families sitting together with their kids, many of whom had never been to a proper circus before,” David stated. “And what’s especially fun about ‘Circus 1903’ is – because of the theatricality of this show – all of these already great circus acts are amplified somehow. I remember looking out from the wings on opening night looking at this family in the first row. And their two boys are sitting there with their mouths open slack jawed, just wowed by everything that they were seeing.”

Of course, one of the things that was sure to have wowed these small boys was Williamson’s performance as Willy Whipsade, the ringmaster character that he plays in “Circus 1903.” Margaret Gray of the Los Angeles Times – when she reviewed this show’s just-completed stand at the Pantages Theatre – said that …

… the real secret weapon of “Circus 1903” is its ringmaster, Willy Whipsnade, played by the magician David Williamson (who toured in “The Illusionists,” a magic show produced by the same team). Williamson, tall and imposing, with a bushy white mustache, a booming voice and a quick wit, is now my Platonic ideal of a ringmaster. His Whipsnade has a faintly disreputable, carny edge; he’s the sort of irresistible showman you know will send you home flat broke but happy. He keeps the action moving at a nice pace as emcee, but the show is even more fun when he is the main attraction, inviting children from the audience to the stage and making gentle, hilarious sport of them.

While David is obviously pleased that his character in “Circus 1903” has been singled out for this sort of praise as this new stage show is just getting started on its five-month long, 15-city American tour, Williamson is quick to turn the spotlight back on his brand-new circus family.

“I have to admit that – after all these years of working as a magician – I feel kind of naked when I’m up there onstage without a deck of cards in my hand,” David concluded. “But when I see how the audience reacts to those elephant puppets – not to mention all these wonderful circus acts that I have the privilege of presenting as ringmaster – that’s when I realize that I’m still in a magic show. It’s just the whole theatrical experience of ‘Circus 1903’ – rather than just me – that’s providing the magic this time around.”

Mark Turner

The American tour of “Circus 1903” continues with a stop at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts February 21st – 26th.

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