Olivia, a performer at Paranormal Cirque sits in front of her trailer 2 hours before show time. She performs 7 days a week, with two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays.
The life of a circus performer, there's a romance to the idea of living that lifestyle, but the reality is that the life of a traveling performer can be demanding, grueling and sometimes lonely. It's a nomadic life, with the vast majority of their time spent on the road, away from home. To put it another way, home is the road, an absurdly small space in a trailer. Scant few perfomers can afford a luxury motor home or private"5th wheel" trailer, most live like Olivia, in a room not larger than 10 feet by 6 feet, if that.
For all intents and purposes, this space is Olivia's home. She spends fewer than 3 weeks a year at her actual home in Las Vegas.
So, this is home. But thanks to the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, home has taken on yet another manifestation, this time in the form of a parking lot at the Sunland Park Mall in El Paso, Texas. As they have many times before, the Paranormal Cirque caravan of trucks and vehicles rolled into town, set up their tents and made camp expecting to be in town for two weeks, after which they would pack up and hit the road, making their way to the next town. But not this time. On March 16th 2020, the day they arrived, the cast and crew were notified that all shows were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of the writing of this article, they've been in El Paso for 3 months. El Paso has become home, albeit, a temporary one.
But this article is not about that particular and unusual set of circumstances, that story has already been told in the local press https://kfoxtv.com/news/local/roadshow-circus-stuck-in-el-paso
Instead, I thought I'd share with you the human side of life on the road as a performer and a behind the scenes look at the hours leading up to the big show. Because these are people, just like you and I. And their camp site is a society and subculture all it's own, with the ups and downs, drama, life and love that in many ways mirrors the society that the rest of us live in.
The trailer camp site is a corral of big rigs, motor homes, living quarters, a food truck and various other vehicles, all of which serve to support, house and feed around 60 cast and crew members. Of the 60 personnel, only 16 or so perform in the show, the rest work in various capacities as vendors, cooks, truck drivers, production crew and so on.
It's no surprise, like the people that make up other entertainment shows and productions, theirs is a family. There are romances (love and heartache), drama and cliques. They come from nations as far away as Russia, Senegal and Italy. But what seems to bind and connect all of them is their love of performing, the rewarding feeling of the applause, laughter and delight of the audience. The satisfaction of spending themselves in a worth performance, leaving it all out there, on the stage, much the same way a professional athlete leaves it all on the field of play.
Preparations start about two hours before show time. Around the camp site cast and crew begin to appear, some of them making their way to the kitchen trailer where they are provided two meals a day. Those not opting to eat at the kitchen trailer receive a modest meal stipend. I can only assume that the experience of eating at the kitchen trailer every single day isn't too unlike what we soldiers go through, eating at the Army dining facility every day, the food is good, but becomes mundane over time. I cannot confirm what, if any, salary the performers and crew may have received during the two months they were not performing any shows, but they still received free meals and housing, which I would have had to considered a blessing, given the situation.
By the time I arrived to the camp site, around 5pm, a good number of the performers already had their first base of make up on. Olivia came out to meet me, and for some reason, it came as a bit of a surprise that she already had her make up on, but even with that thick white base of make up, I could tell she was an exceptionally beautiful young woman. She was extremely personable, greeting me with a big smile (made to appear even bigger with her exaggerated lipstick) and a hand shake. I'd say we hit it off right away as I am no slouch in the "warm and friendly" department.
From the moment I originated the idea of authoring an article about the show, I knew I wanted to get a glimpse of life behind the scenes and thanks to Olivia's hospitality, I was able to do just that.
One of the first cast members she introduced me to was Mommy (pronounced 'moe-mee') which is short for Mohammed, he's from Senegal, the Western-most country in Africa. He greeted me with a big smile, his energy is immediate and infectious. It's safe to say, I liked him right away. He seemed to be in a hurry but before he ran off to attend to whatever task had his attention at that moment, he agreed to let me come to his trailer to photograph his pre-show preparations.
Mommy's trailer is significantly larger, if not more modest and rudimentary, than others. He has his own shower and bathroom, whereas others (those without their own motor home or 5th wheel) share the use of a bathroom and shower. He turns up the volume on what is clearly an African genre of music, he begins dancing to the beat and rhythm as he begins his daily make up ritual. Olivia and I laugh in approval and I can't help but dance a little myself.
The ticket office opens about an hour before show time, more cast and crew can be seen moving about and their pace has noticeably quickened, food concessions are heating up their grills and fryers, although popcorn seems to be the favorite fair among circus-goers.
Olivia leads me to the stage, under the big tent. It's larger than it appears from the outside, with ample seating, although, as of the writing of this article, the show is only allowed to be at 25% capacity. They are considered to be a "theater" and their allowable capacity will increase at the same rate as movie theaters, as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. Olivia tells me they have been selling out every show since reopening, which seems to be a clear sign that El Pasoans are eager to get out of their homes and enjoy life in all it's cirque-splendor!
On the stage, there are a pair of uneven bars, 4 bars total, forming a square, this is the equipment set up for the first act. 4 gymnasts who will perform their routine with impeccable timing and a high level of difficulty, made even more so by having to avoid hitting each other while performing their impressive physical feats. My super human talents of deductions and detective skills tell me these four male gymnasts/performers are from Russia and that this act is known as the "Russian Bars". Ok, ok, so there's a "set list" posted backstage, not unlike a set list that a rock band might have on stage. It might not have required talented detective work, but I still consider myself to be a keen observer.
Guests make their way to the main stage via a haunted tunnel, along the way they might encounter scary creatures, ghouls and goblins. Come see the show and experience it for yourself.
Once I started snapping photos of the show, I definitely had to change gears, I worked up a good sweat actually, moving from shooting position to shooting position to get the best angles. Lighting conditions at any stage performance can be difficult due to various intensities and colors of lighting etc. But they can also provide and support a feeling of drama and suspense that hopefully bring the photos to life.
The theme of the show is horror-magical-mystical, for example; the Russian Bars features the four Russian gymnasts not only performing their routine of physical prowess and talent, but they do so in the character of zombies. In fact, this theme runs throughout the show, with all performers in some sort of mystical and/or horror-like make up and costumes.
Take for example the contortionist, who is wheeled out onto the stage in the confines of a cage. The mystical sorcerer releases him to perform is act, which must be seen to be believed (who knew a human body could twist and bend like that?). At the conclusion of the routine, he is placed back in his cage and given a severed human arm to eat, as his reward. It's clever and funny in a macabre sort of way.
Having formerly been a performer myself (not a circus performer), I always feel a kinship with other performers, regardless of their medium or stage. Putting yourself in front of an audience takes a certain type of courage, even more so when you add elements of danger and physical feats. The performers at Paranormal Cirque have no days off, none. They perform shows 7 days a week, with two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays. Their only days to rest are days on which the show is moving to the next city. It has to be an exhausting schedule that puts tremendous strains on their minds and bodies. And in the case of their extended and unexpected stay in El Paso, it had to have added financial stress as well.
Olivia tells me that the fewest number of people they've performed for is six. As I already mentioned, the seating capacity is currently limited to 25%, and while I am certain the talented cast would prefer to perform in front of a packed house, the show must go on. And go on it does, with each and every performer giving it their all, and spending themselves for the entertainment of the audience. The roar of the applause on the night I was there sure sounded like a packed house. If I had closed my eyes, I would have been hard pressed to believe that there was only 25% of the seats filled. As far as I can tell, El Paso enjoyed the show and appreciated the efforts of the entire cast and crew. I hope that at the very least, Olivia and friends will remember their extended stay here fondly and be able to cast aside the troubles that the first half of 2020 brought with it.
A big and sincere thank you to the entire cast and crew of Paranormal Cirque, for letting me into your personal space, inside your trailers where you live and backstage at the show. It was a real pleasure and I hope the photos do you, your hard work and your talent justice.
Ticket prices start at $10 for youth (ages 13-17) and $20 for adults and are available on site at the box office or online at https://www.paranormalcirque.com/
Enjoy the rest of the photo gallery!
Follow Olivia on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cirquedragon/