What’s It Like to Work at a Traveling Circus?

A circus performer hangs upside down during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Washington on March 19, 2015.

Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Megan O’Malley, musician with Ringling Bros., goofball on a train:

For some really good insight on this topic, check out Big Apple Circus’ documentary Circus, a six-episode documentary that follows the troupe in their daily lives, covering performances, what it’s like to live on the road, how children are raised, problems faced, drama abounding, etc. It’s a really good glimpse into the life of a circus worker. Best of all, you can view the entire thing for free on PBS.

To answer this question personally, what you experience in the circus very much depends on the type of circus and what kind of job you’re doing. Touring shows are full of hard work, bad food, and incidents that make for great stories later on.

In the circus that I travel with, we arrive in a city on a weekday and set up in an arena (usually a basketball or hockey arena in a large city). Setup or “load in” takes around 12 hours to complete, and both crew and performers are involved. Once load-in is complete, we usually will have a rehearsal and then about five to seven days of shows in any given city. If there is time between shows or a day with only one show, we are free to explore the city, and that’s really a nice perk of the job. On the other hand, sometimes there’s no time for exploring at all; this year I didn’t get to see any of Nashville because it was freezing and we had lots of shows.

After our show schedule is completed (usually a Sunday night), we do “load out,” which is pretty much packing everything back up. That takes around eight hours. Once that’s done, we move on to the next city.

One thing that is special about the circus I work with is that we travel the country by train. This is an experience that you really can’t get anywhere else. We travel via freight lines, so we get to see lots of things that few people ever get to witness. For example, one day I woke up and looked out the window to see that we were on Salt Lake! Sometimes we pass through very remote areas, like national parks or steep mountain passes. Other times, we travel right through the heart of a city or small town, and people come running out of their homes or workplaces to take pictures and wave. This photo is from La Grange, Kentucky, where the tracks are on the town’s Main Street. People were very excited when they saw our train passing through!

It’s a life of constant movement and of stresses that you wouldn’t experience in a normal 9-5 job. Lots of scary things can happen—people can get hurt during shows, or we can be housed in unsafe areas for the week. But the things you see when you travel across the country, the unique people you meet, the friends you make, the food you get to try, and the amazing animals and people that you get to work with—for me, that makes the circus life a life worth living. It’s exciting and romantic; it’s dirty and painful sometimes. Totally worth it.

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