Just the word “circus” conjures up images of high-flying, death-defying excitement. For more than a century, one circus in particular has claimed the title “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is celebrating its 143rd season this year.
Ringmaster David Shipman feels that the reason for the circus’ sustained success has remained the same.
“People saw circuses when they were 5, 7, 8 years old, and they come back to it year-round to remember that joy and excitement, and they always get it,” Shipman said.
Shipman first saw the circus as a young child, and it inspired him to follow a career onstage. But it wasn’t until he saw an open audition for the coveted role of ringmaster on the Ringling Bros. Facebook page that he realized he could literally run away with the circus.
“I just knew that I loved performing, but I had no idea that you could audition for something like this. It was mind-blowing that I found the audition on Facebook of all things and sent off my information to be considered for the ringmaster,” he said.
As the man entrusted with keeping the show running smoothly, Shipman has a lot of responsibility. However, he always makes time during shows to take in the wide-eyed wonder on the faces of the audience.
“It’s a high-energy show from beginning to end, and I just make sure that everybody has a great time while they’re there,” Shipman explained. “I get to introduce what I consider to be my family now and watch them do their thing. What’s so exciting about standing on the sidelines is that I can watch the people in the audience’s reactions. It really is true that no matter what age you are, when you’re at the circus you are transported back to being a 5-year-old kid.”
In addition to tightrope walkers, acrobatic jugglers and the animal acts people have come to love and expect, this Ringling Bros. production, titled Fully Charged Gold Edition, boasts some truly death-defying acts.
“We have a knife-throwing act where, just when you think it’s over, they light the knives on fire and spin the girl around on a wheel. It’s amazing,” Shipman said. “We also have the smallest Globe of Steel in the world, where three motorcyclists race around with a woman standing in the center. I don’t care how brave you are, when you see that, your palms sweat.”
However, Shipman said his favorite part of the show is actually the free pre-show, where showgoers can mingle with performers an hour before the big event.
“The family gets to come backstage, see how we do things, interact with the animals, meet the performers, and learn circus skills like walking on a low wire and learning how to juggle,” Shipman said. “It’s really interactive and fun for the whole family and free with the cost of your ticket.”
Shipman admitted that the idea of working with lifelong performers who come from multigenerational circus families was intimidating at first.
“Our animal trainer is Catherine Carden, and her family dates back to circus life in the 1600s. Seven generations of circus family trainers. I was not expecting to be so welcomed by everybody. They have just accepted me into their family,” Shipman said.
That new family has taken Shipman on a journey to more than 20 cities so far, with 20 more to go. While he has relished the chance to travel, his greatest joy as a ringmaster was taking the stage in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla.
“I got to perform in my hometown in the same arena I saw the circus in as a child,” Shipman said. “It was so cyclical and so beautiful, and all of my family and friends came out to see the show and cheer me on. It was really special to be able to share that with them.”
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