Crista Marie Jackson has been practicing handstands in her dad’s house in upstate New York. The 33-year-old New Yorker had been working as the Assistant Artistic Director for Alegría, one of Cirque du Soleil’s most popular shows, for nearly a year before the coronavirus brought the world to a halt. Prior to that, she had accrued decades of experience as an aerialist, actress, dancer, and stuntwoman who’s worked with everyone from Adam Sandler to Beyoncé (and recently appeared in blockbuster circus flick The Greatest Showman as Zendaya’s stunt double). Now that all of that is on hold, she’s doing her best to manage the isolation and the lack of a creative outlet. For her, that looks like Zoom calls with her friends and baking pastries for her father, an emergency room doctor, to take to work with him.
“No matter how this pans out or how long it takes, our industry is never going to be the same again,” she says from her quarantine.
The circus has been one of America’s most beloved pastimes since John Bill Ricketts staged the country’s first modern circus performance in 1793 (and marketing genius P.T. Barnum elevated it to bombastic new heights a century later).
The big tent, the ringmaster, the lion tamers, the clowns, the popcorn, and the magic of the flying trapeze are all deeply ingrained in the American psyche, even as the circus’ popularity has waxed and waned when new challengers have periodically appeared, from vaudeville and the radio to television, the internet, and social media. Even after the 1918 Spanish flu decimated the U.S. population, the circus—and its scintillating little sibling, the sideshow—weathered the storm. But the coronavirus pandemic that currently has the globe in its grip is different. From the high-concept, high-dollar Cirque du Soleil to the grime and glory of the Coney Island Sideshow, the necessary shutdowns, bans on public gatherings and social distancing rules, as well as mass unemployment, have dealt a body blow to the live entertainment business. Now, the circus community is scrambling to adapt.
“The whole point of live performance is being with people, it’s a community activity between the artists onstage and the audience, and it’s dependent on every person involved in it, from the box office to the riggers to the technicians to the directors to the touring company that makes everything happen,” Jackson says. “I think that for myself personally, there is a lot of pain associated with [the shutdown], but I’m choosing to look at it as growing pains, as opposed to letting it be something that’s impossible. Nothing is impossible…”
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