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For benefit, amusement of audience

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You know the drill. Someone in the audience starts to heckle a performer. It goes on for awhile and eventually the performer demands that the errant audience member come on stage and show what he can do. As soon as the heckler gets on stage, he wows the audience with some outstanding ability. Before long, the chumps in the audience understand that they have been duped and it was all part of the show.

In another version, someone feigns an injury on stage. The audience, thinking it has seen something heart-wrenching, extends its sympathy to the performer and leans in — only to see the performer is quickly back on her feet and right back to it.

It’s all part of the show.

So when I sat with my daughter at the Nebraska State Fair to watch Cirque Ma’Ceo, we marveled at the aerobatics and the athleticism of the performers as they flawlessly executed circus routines including a strong man twirling a 30-foot log on his shoulders — with both ends of the log sporting flames. Another performer entertained with whips, cutting off the blossom of a flower held in her teeth.

All amazing stuff, even for jaded audiences.

Then came the equine performance. A young woman started the sequence by standing on the back of a trotting horse moving in a ring. A man jumped on the back of the horse, lost his footing and jumped to the ground. He tried again with the same result. The third time, he fell. Hard. This time he stayed on the ground, motionless.

I watched, thinking he would jump to his feet and continue the performance. In a few seconds, he stirred and held his head with one hand. The other hand went to his knee. I still expected him to rebound but he didn’t. The final cue came when the man controlling the sound board turned off the lights and sprinted to the ring. At that point I knew something was very wrong. Eventually the other performers helped him to the backstage area.

I wanted to write about this event because as audience members, when we see more and more performances, we expect heightened consequences. We expect to see performers take greater chances. I felt insulated from the dangers of the performances — one man breathed fire and then juggled flaming batons. Another one jumped over barriers on a tightrope.

In 1998, the American Psychiatric Association estimated that by the time an average American child reaches the age of 18, he or she will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence. Growing up in the 1960s, I watched more than my share of Westerns. I assumed that movie directors worked closely with prison officials and used individuals on death row in the many gun battles I watched. For a man condemned to the electric chair, why not donate your life to an episode of “Bonanza” and let Hoss blast you apart as you come out of a bank with sacks of cash? Clearly my young mind skipped over a few important details such as giving a convicted killer a hand gun on the set of a Hollywood movie.

Somewhere after watching my, oh, I don’t know, 500th simulated murder, I began to see these actors in different roles, alive and doing well. Slowly I built up an expectation that hardened the line between fiction and reality. That concrete wall of division masked my concern for the circus performer writhing in pain on the floor of the Heartland Events Center. Will he be selling Cirque Ma’Ceo ball caps as we file out of the performance?

I reached out about the injury through the website of Cirque Ma’Ceo. Rachael Estrada, who handles media relations for the circus said the performer injured his knee and is recovering. “Unfortunately these things can happen and it comes with the territory,” she wrote in an email. “This is actually the first time the performer has encountered an injury such as this.”

As an audience member, I still feel haunted about watching another human take a dangerous risk for my amusement. I understand that artists feel compelled to express themselves in ways that look dangerous. I also understand the tremendous amount of time and energy that goes into perfecting those types of routines and artistic endeavors, whether it is on horseback or spending hours upon hours playing a guitar.

Regardless of the desire to entertain, I will try to remember the humanity of the stage and err on the side of compassion.

THE AUTHOR Rick Brown lives and writes in central Nebraska where he covers the arts, and other topics, as a journalist and columnist.

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