ATCA, Day 4
This being Sarasota, home of several Ringling Brothers and their circus' winter quarters, yesterday was steeped in the town's unique legacy. (At left, ATCA's esteemed leader, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Chris Rawson and several other highly credentialed colleagues get their clown on during a panel discussion about circus arts.) We toured Ca D'Zan (John and Mable Ringling's estate), visited the Ringling Museum of Art and settled in for a discussion at the Historic Asolo Theatre--not to be confused with Asolo Repertory Theatre (Long, confusing story)--before being wowed by Howard Tibbals' insanely detailed and extensive miniature circus. Blah, blah, blah, a swell time was had by all.
But let's get back to that panel discussion, because its label, "John Ringling's Circus Legacy in Sarasota," is deceptive. We certainly learned about Ringling's philanthropic largesse and the circus' roots here. Mr. Ringling, it seems, is the font from which every Sarasota cultural institution springs. As Golden Apple Dinner Theater artistic director Robert Turoff noted during another panel discussion, "He is in everything we do, in our hearts and in our minds." Amen.
However, we also heard about the schism between respect for the arts on Florida's "Cultural Coast" and circus somehow taking a backseat to that culture. There's irony for you.
Occasionally, as theater critics we're called on to review the circus. In Philadelphia, it's generally either for Ringling/Barnum/Bailey, Cirque de Soleil, or some circus-themed Fringe Festival event. Panelist Jim Ragona, managing director of Circus Sarasota, noted that circus arts seem to garner more respect in Europe than in the U.S., with 700 different circuses thriving in Italy alone (though I'd argue the form is maybe less prolific, but equally respected in Canada, Cirque's birthplace). Steven Smith, former dean of Ringling Brothers' Clown College and current guest director of the Big Apple Circus, who happens to have attended Chicago's Goodman School of Drama, also argues for Circus' parity with its stagebound cousin, and certainly Bill Irwin has crafted a solo career on the notion.
And yet despite all this on-site agitating for circus as an accepted, respected art form, the first Ringling International Arts Festival, a co-production of the Ringling Museum of Art and Florida State University, to be held October 7-11 2009, doesn't have a single circus-related act on its (nonetheless pretty compelling) roster. As a critic, I can't help but be critical of Ringling's decision (the institution, not the man). A circus legacy is the one thing Sarasota has to offer the national arts landscape that distinguishes it from every other metro area putting on a fringe-ish festival. Maybe this year the Ringling felt it had something to prove. Hopefully, next year they won't be too embarassed to put on the red nose and wear it with pride.