Circus News

TV Talent Shows: Raising the Profile of Circus or Killing Audience Development?

Shows like  America’s Got Talent, The World’s Best and Showtime at the Apollo  have become permanent fixtures of network television around the world. For many performers, they seem to offer a shortcut to success in the entertainment industry. Television’s reach promises money and exposure beyond anything easily achievable in live performance; suddenly people recognize you, doors open, casting directors come knocking.

At least in theory.

But for circus artists hoping for their big break, how helpful are these shows in practice? Is being an overnight sensation (the Susan Boyle of Circus!) a reasonable, or even desirable, expectation? Are circus artists taken seriously in this context? Do these shows pay well, do they understand safety and rigging regulations? Does it actually lead to further work?

Troy Semaj at Cirque de Demain in 2019, where he competed with his contortion partner, Ess Hödlmoser. Photo credit: Kim Campbell

Troy James is a contortionist and TV talent show veteran. Over the last few years he’s performed on  Showtime at the Apollo, America’s Got Talent,  and several other shows in Europe and Asia. Prior to his television career, Troy was working in Human Resources and considered his contortion act more of a party trick than a viable career.

“Troy-Does-the-Bendy-Thing was strictly limited to work functions after wine o’clock,” he says, “and on more than one occasion has ended with me ripping my pants.”

His very first TV appearance was Showtime at the Apollo, an experience that he found terrifying and gratifying in equal measures.

“(Showtime at the Apollo) was a ton of fun, and while I didn’t win the grand prize, (or any money–these talent competition shows don’t usually pay) I did get to sightsee and meet a bunch of amazing people.”

I was expecting to hear some tidy packages of network-approved talking points from Gaulthier, but instead got a refreshingly frank series of truth bombs about the harsh realities of making television.

Ah. Money. This brings up one criticism that many in the circus community have of talent shows: performance fees, or often lack thereof. Do the artists competing on these shows pay for their own travel and living expenses on the road? According to Troy, the showsdo cover those expenses but most don’t pay an actual performance fee, unless of course you win the prize money. But exposure doesn’t pay the rent, as many an internet meme has quite rightly pointed out. How valuable is exposure in practice? It’s true that the right appearance at the right time does open doors if you play your cards right. James discovered this for himself when he appeared on America’s Got Talent, a show he describes as both the biggest show he’s done, and the one that helped his career the most.

“I didn’t even make it to the finals (of America’s Got Talent), but I get recognized on the street because of it. I’ve received fan mail. I’ve gotten job offers because casting directors watched the show and liked what they saw. The fact that I can be googled, or if you YouTubed “Contortionist” for a while I was up there on the first page, was a real help. Even when I went to Paris for Cirque de Demain, one of the ushers recognized me from AGT, so it has some amazing reach in terms of putting yourself out there.”

The true value of these shows for circus artists is up for debate, and it’s clear that there seems to be a general mistrust among most industry people about them. The format invariably prizes sparkle over substance, tricks over technique. There’s nothing terribly wrong with this. It’s the way of the television world, at least historically. It’s when TV audiences then come to circus shows in a theatre with expectations already set, and perhaps less patience for narrative building, sophisticated dramaturgy or anything that is off the beaten path, that’s a serious problem for audience development, even as it simultaneously raises the profile of the circus arts with mainstream audiences.  

James, to a certain extent, agrees. “What I found interesting was that audiences consume circus art differently. It’s all about the end product, pizzazz and spectacle. I saw some acts that weren’t well received, but these were feats of technical brilliance, amazing strength and control which perhaps lacked the immediate payoff as something extravagant: a singer holding a high note, or someone doing something incredibly dangerous, or mind boggling.”

As a career-bolstering strategy, TV talent shows have been largely positive for James. He’s launched a steady career in film and television off the back of his appearances. He’s currently in China preparing to shoot a TV show, and doesn’t see the work drying up anytime soon.

“For me, as a variety act, these talent shows have been a huge boon. I get to travel and see places I haven’t otherwise been able to see, it keeps the momentum going in between film and television shows where I can’t always reveal what I’m working on at the moment, and then there is the sheer joy of performing. Getting a reaction out of people and knowing they are enjoying the show is ultimately the greatest gift, and talent shows have definitely helped me with that.”

However, he acknowledges that he isn’t your typical circus artist, so his experience may not be shared by everyone else. “My act wasn’t one that took 10 years of intense discipline and practise to perfect and perform… I’d hate to say, ‘This is amazing, everybody do it!’ because I’ve heard from others who have had complete opposite experiences than I have.”

Photo courtesy of Nathalie Yves Gaulthier

I wanted to gather some intel from the television industry side, so I talked to Nathalie Yves Gaulthier, a circus consultant and choreographer on numerous film and television projects in Los Angeles and Europe and founder of Le Petit Cirque. She’s currently the circus expert on The World’s Best, a new CBS show judged by Drew Barrymore, RuPaul, Faith Hill and hosted by James Corden.

I was expecting to hear some tidy packages of network-approved talking points from Gaulthier, but instead got a refreshingly frank series of truth bombs about the harsh realities of making television.

“What I hear at networks and on the film sets I work on is this;” she says. “Celebrity Circus (NBC 2008) was deemed such a brutal failure for TV that it traumatized network executives and the shied away from anything circus-related for many years. The film Water for Elephants piqued the circus interest back a bit, then The Greatest Showman finally took the circus world off of life support.”

I ask about her selection process for The World’s Best.

“We look firstly at acts that will translate well on camera and something the audience can relate to… Good ol’ standard circus acts translate much better than someone doing aerials on a shovel or a music note or something deemed creative in our circus vocabulary… We select acts that can be verified via an unedited video of the act in its entirety. Montages do NOT work, anything over 1:30 mins, I fast forward… We all do.  Cut right to the act and the wow factor. No one cares in TV about the “emotional journey” of a piece: you will be on TV for about 90 seconds: Get to it!”

Gaulthier is also candid about the aesthetic demands of television.

“Sadly yes, for television, network usually requires artists to be physically appealing. Girls with long hair and nice looking men are indeed preferred. The odd, the shaved, the trying too hard to make a statement will fall into the “ridicule” category.”

And what can circus artists expect during the actual shoot?

“What artists need to expect is doing the act over and over for people who have zero understanding of what you are going through. They also need to be prepared to cheat things for camera angles, demand and often fight for a mat and understand that television is completely smoke and mirrors and nothing is really real. It is not fair, it is not kind, it is not about you. It’s about ratings and numbers. They will tell you during the shoot that you are incredible, fabulous and you will work a lot: they will tell you everything you have always dreamed of hearing so that they can get the most out of you during this shoot and hopefully get you to give them some free overtime hours… they are business people.  They will probably not recognize you at the grocery store the following week.”

Wow. Ok. What about safety?

“Usually, they will have a stunt coordinator and a rigger now on all sets, or at least a circus consultant. I have done many films/TV shows with amazing stunt coordinators and some projects it was just me. Nowadays, the networks are very afraid of lawsuits, they adhere to safety big time. Also, important to realize: before you get on the “Safety in Aerial arts” Facebook page and start freaking out that the reality show you just watched “had no mats”, the “rigging looked shady” or “they didn’t even put the canes the right way” etc, please kindly realize one thing: most of the filming is done with multi-camera shoots, literally smoke and mirrors and tons of editing. Most of the time, the shots with the mats are edited out. But they are usually always there during shooting.

Lastly, hoist chain motors are not deemed for human weight and networks will not use them.  Hence, your act is a lot more costly to the network than you thought because they will only use a very expensive winch systems, no chain motors.”

Once you are done shooting, she says, you wait until the show airs.

“You never know how the ratings will go, so be prepared that if you are on a show that is ridiculed or bombs, you may want to wait a bit before promoting yourself internationally. If the TV show is deemed a hit, then you’ve encountered the Holy Grail of the circus world, as you can then parlay that success into almost anything.”

But hurry, Gaulthier cautions, as the opportunity glimmer of stardom is fast, unpredictable and fickle.

“If you have a “great TV face” you can have a run with it and your 15 minutes could be turned into 15 months, but rarely does it goes past 3 years, because there will be other winners on other shows after you. Unless of course, you learn to strike while the iron is hot, get an agent fast and get other TV/film and personal appearances projects lined up fast. Timing is everything in the TV world.”

For those who can take rejection and face the reality of television work, then perhaps there is nothing wrong with entering a TV talent show. Some would say it is the best step they’ve ever made. But it’s clear that it’s not a path for every circus artist.

If you are considering the television talent show route, Gaulthier has a final word of advice: “Be nice to everyone and don’t burn a bridge in this industry.”

Rebecca Galloway
Writer -Canada
Rebecca is a writer, critic, commentator and communications consultant based in Montréal. She has worked across a mish-mash of arts and design disciplines over her 15 year career—contemporary dance, circus, data visualization, opera, visual art, digital storytelling, ballet and literature. Originally from NZ, she’s spent the better part of the last decade living and working in the US and Canada.

Rebecca Galloway

Rebecca is a writer, critic, commentator and communications consultant based in Montréal. She has worked across a mish-mash of arts and design disciplines over her 15 year career—contemporary dance, circus, data visualization, opera, visual art, digital storytelling, ballet and literature. Originally from NZ, she’s spent the better part of the last decade living and working in the US and Canada.