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Career Day

She went from fire-eating to running the ring

Big Apple Circus ringmaster Stephanie Monseu on whip-cracking practice, animal accidents, and the act that leaves her breathless

By Alix Strauss

Stephanie Monseu became the ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus last year.  

Why does a circus need a ringmaster?
The ringmaster is the connector, the welcoming presence that invites the audience to really enter the world of the circus. I’m the normal human in the ring. I’m not flying, I’m not superhuman. I’m laughing with the audience as they react to the clowns, and I’m shouting as the equilibrist kicks a soccer ball up to his head while precariously rocking on a 10-foot unsupported ladder.

How many times have you seen the show?
300-plus. 

What kind of training did you need to do this job?
Acting, improv, and clowning classes and studies with master teachers; experience in the circus arts so I know what I’m watching and how it may vary from show to show; long years of performing and speaking before large groups of people so I’m comfortable in the ring; vocal training and practice so I can use my words to carry audiences along on the journey that each show presents. 

What circus skills do you have yourself?
Fire-eating and other sideshow feats were the first performance skills related to circus that I learned. It’s very transporting and magical. I don’t do much of it because it’s dangerous: Working with petrochemicals for many years caused some health issues that make the risk untenable. I love aerial work and rigging, love climbing, and love the physics behind making human flight safe.

“After lunch I practice juggling and whip-cracking.”

What does your circus day entail?
Warm-up vocals for 60 minutes, followed by stretching and makeup. Then I get into wardrobe and goof around with the ladies in the dressing room. At 11 a.m., there’s a 75-minute show for school groups. After lunch I practice juggling, whip-cracking, and aerial conditioning in the tent. I take a 40-minute nap, then do my morning routine again before the two-hour 7 p.m. show. I eat something afterwards and collapse by 10:30 p.m. 

Do you think, as a woman, you bring something different to this role?
I may challenge some folks’ ideas of what authority looks like. But the ringmaster isn’t the boss. I’m part of an amazing team that includes ushers, cotton-candy-makers, acrobats, and technical crew.  

What is the hardest thing about your work?
I’m a kinetic person, always moving. Sitting in a truck for 12 hours as I drive from location to location makes me loony. 

Why do you think people still go to the circus?
The circus will always be a place where folks can witness other regular folks doing amazing things. It’s inspiring. It makes the impossible possible. It’s emotional, visceral, and thought-provoking. And it’s relatively inexpensive when you consider the tremendous personal risk the artists take and how difficult it is to move a tent into a city. It’s amazing. 

What do you do when the animals go to the bathroom in front of the audience?
It doesn’t happen that often! I know, I’m surprised too. But we laugh, just like everyone else. 

Is there a moment in the show that still takes your breath away?
Ekaterina Abakarova’s numerous drops during the Desire of Flight aerial straps act. Her partner, Valeriy Sychev, is perfection itself in his catches. And they use no net. 

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Illustration by Verónica Grech

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