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The finale performance involving all acts, sparklers, lights and smoke
The greatest show on earth is back!
Feld Entertainment

Wondercade Goes Behind the Scenes at the Revival of Ringling Bros.!

After a six-year hiatus and with no more animals, the 153-year-old American institution is back. Join us on an exclusive tour.

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

March 14, 2024 11:25 am

Last month, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey hit the road for a triumphant return after several years — a big deal, considering it was around for a whopping century-and-a-half before. It’s back, and better than ever. To get a sense of what the new show is all about, we went behind the scenes and got up close and personal with the insanely talented cast. If these performers don’t fill you with wonder and awe, I dunno who will. -NPH

Clown balancing on a board
Jan balances the many talents of being a clown with aplomb (and cool suspenders)
Matallana for Wondercade

Jan Damm: Clown and Show Guide

What made you decide to run off, join the circus and become a clown?

When I was a kid, my mother helped get me into juggling as a hobby. I was a real ham. [laughs] When I was 11, I started doing birthday parties and things. I went to school for economics, but then did a 180-degree turn back to clowning. I’ve worked all around the world on cruise ships and on four different continents. I’m doing more comedy as I get older, but I also love acrobats and juggling. For many years, I’ve done a balancing act called Rola Bola: it’s like a tube with a board on top, and I juggle on it and jump rope on it and do a handstand.

All of which I’d love to know more about, but the far more urgent question is: The clowns in the new show don’t wear makeup?!? What gives?

For this show, Ringling really wanted a modern image, and for the show to look and feel contemporary. The greasepaint makeup used by clowns 100 years ago was an adaptation to the times: the venues were getting bigger and bigger. We might have about 8,000 people here tonight, but the old tents sat 13,000 people. It was like a moving city. So you can imagine how far away they were, and they had to play to that audience at such a distance. But now we have image magnification and modern lighting and an amazing arena that seats people more vertically, so it’s more intimate, in a way.

Low shot of a drummer practicing with sticks on air drums
The circus came to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and we got a front-row seat
Matallana for Wondercade

Alex Stickels: Drummer and Show Guide

You’re a show guide — what’s that? Where’s the ringmaster?

We’ve taken the ringmaster character and split it up three ways — like the Zelda Triforce. I am the rhythm and heartbeat of the show, Lauren [Neil Note: You’ll meet her below] is the melody, and Jan [You met him above] is the funny bone, or the comedy. We help guide the audience to what they should be looking at and make sense of everything that’s going on.

I need that in my daily life! Hit me up when the Ringling tour wraps. How does a drummer end up in the circus?

I had no idea Ringling was coming back — they saw some of my videos on social media, and I got an email out of nowhere. I just wanted to be in rock bands growing up. With a rock band, it’s you and three or four of your closest friends, but with this, you really feel like you are driving an entire community and ecosystem. It’s wonderful.

Uniclyclist zooming around stage
I say we start a petition to make unicycles the new bicycles
Matallana for Wondercade

Wesley Williams: Unicyclist

How’d you become a unicyclist? I bet it’s one hell of a story — wheel settle in for it.

I got a unicycle for Christmas when I was 6, and learned to ride right away. I got it out of a toy magazine, when those were still a thing, and then Santa Claus brought it for me. So I say it’s Santa’s fault I ran away with the circus.

Wide shot of a unicyclist riding 34 feet in the air
Behold: Wesley riding the tallest unicycle in the world. It’s over 34 feet tall!
Feld Entertainment

It’s also his fault that I burned my hand on an Easy-Bake Oven my neighbor got from him in the early ‘80s. I feel like unicycles don’t get enough love these days.

I played sports growing up, and riding a unicycle is like riding a bike, once you learn how to do it. You can learn how to ride one in about two weeks. And now I get to ride in front of audiences, and I can spread some of the unicycle’s magic to one little kid, to some little Wesley. The circus is one of the oldest forms of live entertainment — Ringling is over 150 years old, so it’s older than Coca-Cola or MLB or the Kentucky Derby.

Portrait of the circus host and lead singer in front of a red background
Lauren’s voice slays as the singing show guide
Matallana for Wondercade

Lauren Irving: Singer and Show Guide

You’re a singer, Lauren. Tell me about the journey that brought you to Ringling.

I was at home, having just finished doing Six the musical on Norwegian Cruise Line, and had a cake in the oven when I got a message from one of my managers. She was like, “My colleague is looking to fill this role. And by the way, are you afraid of heights?” We had a Zoom interview. We talked and I sang, and the next week, they were like, “Congratulations, you’re going to be in the greatest show on earth!” Also, fun fact: I sang next to you, Neil, when you were a narrator at Disney for the Candlelight Processional.

Acrobats riding a giant spinning wheel and flipping
Ringling’s Double Wheel of Destiny is like a roller coaster meets parkour
Feld Entertainment

That’s some Magic Kingdom magic for you! How’s singing in a circus different from the theatre?

With musical theatre work, the show is built; we’re not going to change it, it’s set in stone. Here, in the circus, sometimes we have to make adjustments and have to be ready to roll with it. During one show, the Double Wheel of Destiny — two giant wheels going back and forth that performers jump on — wouldn’t go back up. The show guides just looked at each other, and we knew we had to skip that part. Honestly, at this point, I think we three can communicate without words. Plus, we have people from 18 different countries in the show, and that’s very special.

Acrobat flying through the air holding another acrobat
The strength, the balance, the artistry. Unreal.
Feld Entertainment

Mattia Ruggeri and Giulia Serra: Aerialists

You guys are kinda fit, huh?

Mattia: We train every day for at least three to four hours — no less than this.

Giulia: Sometimes we won’t stop for 8 or 9 hours. And it’s like, “Guys, go eat something.” [laughs] Mattia was a circus performer who went to circus school, but I was a dancer. We met 5 years ago in Italy: He’s from Florence, and I’m from Sardinia. We are a perfect combination in the show because we’re an actual couple!

Whoa, plot twist! So I take it that trust comes easily between you two during your act?

Giulia: Yes! He helps me to be stronger, and I help him to be more flexible, which for us is a good combination.

Mattia: I started circus school really late; I was 26. I was playing soccer for 10 years, and then did some breakdancing. But it’s never too late to do something you have passion for.

GIF video of acrobats twisting through the air on a trapeze
Physical feats like this = why the circus has delighted for centuries
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey/YouTube

Marlon Caceres: Trapeze Artist

Translated from Spanish

Marlon, how long have you been doing trapeze?

My whole family is in the circus. The first time I tried the trapeze was when I was four years old, and I have never stopped. The first time I did it professionally was when I was 17, in Japan. Trapeze is special because if we go one second before or one second after our cue, it can cause a fall. We have to have so much trust in our partners. Timing is the most important thing. Trapeze has a lot of risk, a lot of passion and a lot of adrenaline.

Trapeze artists soaring through the air
Y’know that meme, “It’s like a Renaissance painting”? This is like a Renaissance painting.
Feld Entertainment

For the audience as well! There’s a sense of danger, maybe even fear from those of us in the seats. Your trust in your team and in your strength must be limitless.

Of course. I think that I feel better — stronger and more flexible — than your average athlete doing any kind of sport. Circus is a sport, just like wrestling or football — but with very high risk. We are always pushing our limits.

Woman standing on top of the machine that she shoots out of for the human rocket
Imagine getting shot out of this at 65 mph. (Skyler doesn’t have to imagine. She does!)
Matallana for Wondercade

Skyler Miser: Human Rocket (formerly known as Human Cannonball)

Skyler, bravo on having the perfect name for your job. I’m so anxious to hear your backstory. I have to assume you didn’t just wake up one day and say to yourself, “I would like to get shot out of a cannon.”

I get launched from the Ringling Rocket at zero to 65 miles an hour in less than half a second. I go over 110 feet until I land in a giant airbag on the other side of the arena. And the cool thing about my story is that my parents did the same thing, so I grew up on Ringling and am carrying on the family tradition!

GIF video of woman shooting out of a human rocket at the circus
I mean. Epic. Wild. Insane.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey/YouTube

It’s 7 gs of force when you’re shot out of the rocket…. It’s really hard to describe, because there’s nothing like it in the world. The best analogy I could offer is just a roller coaster that goes from zero to 65. And then multiply that force by 10. Maybe more.

I’ll stick to the teacup ride, thanks. How does it feel to be carrying on your family legacy in such a unique craft?

It means the world to me. Not only carrying on the family tradition, but also working for Ringling. It’s such a big deal. Ringling has such a storied place in American culture. Honestly, I think I always knew that I wanted to do this. I was 11 the first time that I got shot out of the cannon.

Wide shot of the entire circus arena performance
A true — and timeless — spectacle
Feld Entertainment

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