CL Feature: PBS whisks viewers away with new series, Circus (with trailer video)

Have you ever imagined being part of a world where home is a traveling caravan and your neighbors are a creative tribe of talent who spend afternoons balancing on tightropes or flipping bowling pins through the air? Have you ever dreamed of a place where clowns are treated with high artistic regard, or had a wanderlust to escape to a world beyond the pages of children’s storybooks — where the shared goal of every inhabitant is to advance the art of mesmerizing and create magic?

According to a new PBS documentary series, Circus, the dream of running away to such a place is, in fact, a reality and goes beyond any cotton candy-coated fantasy from childhood. [Photo courtesy of]

By teaming up with Show of Force filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre, PBS has created a six-hour series to immerse viewers in the whimsical realm of trapeze flyers, rubber noses, sawdust and never-before-seen appeal, while revealing a visually stunning take on the real-life feats and falls behind the shining smiles and spectacular stunts of circus life.

“If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, PBS’ Circus, takes you inside the tent with intriguing stories and real-life dramas that illuminate one of the world’s oldest living art forms,” says John F. Wilson, PBS’ senior vice president and chief TV programming executive.

According to Chermayeff, the series’ director, it was the idea of people still sharing a collective circus-life fantasy that peaked Show of Force’s interest in the showbiz subject matter, as well as her own directorial desire to capture a band of people who live, travel and work together with a common motivation, like she did in her previous 10-hour PBS series, Carrier.

Chermayeff says she and her team did a bit of research on modern-day circuses, and what they found was “wilder than you can imagine.” So, Show of Force narrowed in on the New York-based Big Apple Circus because it is a high-quality, traditional one-ring show, she says.

“Big Apple is absolutely considered one of the top five circuses in the world and it has an absolutely stellar reputation,” says Chermayeff. “In a Barnum or Cirque show there’s a quality where it’s less about the individuals and more about making big spectacles, but we knew we wanted to go with acts that are traditional to the original ideas we all have from the circuses of our childhood.”

From August 2008 through July 2009, Show of Force documented the stumbles and scrapes, breakdowns and sweat behind the vivid sets and daring performances of Big Apple’s world. The film begins on day one in Walden, N.Y., and takes viewers through the process of Big Apple, from developing its Play On! show to traveling with the show along the eastern seaboard with a cultural troop of 150 people and an assortment of animals.

Chermayeff says with any filming endeavor of this magnitude, where people have to open up their world for an extended period of time, there is always a trust-building challenge; however, because the circus realm revolves around perfectionist performers, the initial thought of having natural mistakes and anxieties caught on camera was, perhaps, more unnerving for Circus participants.

“Their goal as performers is to show you the best of the best every night, so it’s hard to get anybody to go, ‘Oh, yeah! Here I am, once and for all,’ but eventually they saw we were really committed,” says Chermayeff. “They loved our perspective on the show and the life and some of the larger themes we wanted to talk about, from families and commitment to excellence and the question of is this a dying art form.”

International Clown Hall of Fame inductee Barry Lubin, who has been performing with Big Apple since 1982 as the legendary and universal character-clown Grandma*, admits he was hesitant at first about letting the cameras in. [Pictured left, photo courtesy of]

“Grandma is my life’s work, and I did not want Grandma to be seen in any sort of negative light as a result of all the editing that goes into this sort of project,” says Lubin.

However, because of the generous way Show of Force handled the material and their ability to, essentially, stay out of the way as Play On! created circus magic, Lubin found the cameras to be less of an unwelcomed stranger and more of an enlightening medium for capturing the truth of life on the big lot.

“When I look at the poetic way they filmed it, I am just in awe and it gives me even more appreciation for the magic world I work and live in,” says Lubin. “After 35 years of doing this, it’s a unique perspective and it’s not just about what goes on inside the ring, but the stories and everything else around the ring.”

One of those stories is Lubin’s own intimate one, when he is given a cancer diagnosis in the third hour of Circus; however, he assures that, since filming completed, he is free and clear.

According to Chermayeff, it was her goal as television-documentary filmmaker to find characters who help realize certain universal life-themes that she intended Circus to capture, such as relationships, failure, success, expectations fears and ambition.

“The thing I was invested in from the beginning was that we are not making a children’s show, we are making a show about people who are making family entertainment,” she says. “So, we didn’t want to just capture the spectacle of the show, but, ya know, who makes that show, who are these people, what are their lives like.”

With characters coming from places like Russia, Brazil, Alabama and New York, all hailing from different walks of life, Circus is a juggling act of stories, covering everything from Lubin’s cancer to artistic director Paul Binder’s bittersweet retirement; to German wirewalker Sarah Schwarz’s yearning for motherhood in spite of living a hard-knock, circus-performer life; to Maine-native, ring crew member Tommy Decoteau’s devotion to his job with Big Apple and his love story with fellow crew member Tara Draginin. [Pictured right: Luciano Anastasini, Photo credit: Courtesy of David Smoler]

“With those stories, you sort of see yourself in those kinds of people, even though their lives could not be more different then your own, and I love that about the series and television,” says Chermayeff.

Ultimately, Circus is a documentary driven by character and theme development, but it is the visually stunning camera-play and soundtrack effects that make viewing the series a spellbinding experience.

According to Chermayeff, it was important to make viewers feel what the show’s performers, crew and managers feel in being a part of the circus world, which was accomplished through things like steady cams and phantom cameras as well as the music chosen for the soundtrack to the circ-doc.

“Lyrics in music can often drive story points for us, so we sort of make music another character in our series,” she says. “But, ultimately, I felt what all of our work needed to do was elevate the medium, so it becomes the circus of your fantasy and for you to see a world you have already seen in a way you have never seen it before.”

Episode Guide

First of May — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 3, 9 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 4

One Ring Family — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 3, 10 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 4

Change On — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 10, 9 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 11

Survival of the Fittest — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 10, 10 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 11

Born to be Circus — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 17, 9 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 18

Down the Road — Airdate: Weds., Nov. 17, 10 p.m.; Online premier: Thurs., Nov. 18

Find Circus DVD for purchase at

*If you travel to New York City for the holidays, catch Grandma and the Big Apple Circus in their newest show Dance On! through Jan. 9, 2011.

Watch the full episode. See more Circus.

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