When the war horses of Broadway galloped across the stage at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont, the audience caught its collective breath. There they were: breathing, whinnying, cantering horses. It was astounding to believe War Horse featured title characters operated by puppeteers, even with them working before your eyes.
The majesty of those creatures and the lifelike portrayal elevated the 2011 Tony-winning Best Play to landmark status. That magic and emotion is what director Neil Dorward sought to evoke when he envisioned Circus 1903—The Golden Age of Circus, the new spectacular that opened at Las Vegas’ Paris Hotel July 25.
With Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ending its 146-year run in May due to a slump in ticket sales many attributed to the outcry and subsequent victory of animal rights activists, there was no way Dorward’s circus could feature live animals—but there was also no way Dorward could put on a circus without animals at all.
“Inclusion of animal representation was paramount in order to successfully emulate a circus from this [turn-of-the-century] era,” Dorward tells Playbill. His creative producer, Simon Painter, had seen War Horse and immediately imagined using puppetry to emulate a different four-legged creature.
“The reason I brought elephants back to the circus is, for me, they are the classic, grandest, most overwhelmingly amazing creatures you’d ever see in a circus show,” says Painter in the video above.
For tickets to Circus 1903, click here.
So in addition to the high wire acts, bicycle ballet, contortion, juggling, and more, are the breathtaking elephants of Circus 1903. “The sight of Queenie, our mother elephant, nuzzling her offspring, Peanut, has been described by many as ‘breathtaking,’” says Dorward, himself among them.
“We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the War Horse puppets,” says puppet designer Mervyn Millar, who was also the associate puppetry director on the Broadway production. “The sculpture and the art of designing a puppet, it’s about creating something that triggers those recognitions in the audience. It’s got to feel like an elephant more than it’s got to look like an elephant.”
Still, the mechanics of pachyderm magic came with obstacles. “I think the sheer size and weight of the mother elephant were challenges during the initial rehearsal process,” says Dorward. “The puppeteers could only work within the puppet for short intervals, which during the creative process—when material is being conceived—isn’t ideal.”
Inside her massive frame, Queenie houses three puppeteers who coordinate authentic movements to create the mannerisms of a mother elephant. Queenie amazes, and with circuses, performance spectacle is key. “In modern day terms, [circus] was the Super Bowl Halftime of its time—an Olympic-sized feast of theatrics,” says Dorward.
For more insider videos about the design of the elephants of Circus 1903 and more, click here.
The director keeps that high standard in mind. At the turn of the century, before Broadway shows lit up the road with national touring productions, the hottest ticket in town was for the circus.
“Unlike today when we have a multitude of entertainment options, in 1903, circus was truly a holiday across America,” says Neil Dorward. “The actual arrival of the circus to a new town and subsequent setup of the infamous ‘Big Top,’ coupled with the hustle and bustle of necessary preparations ahead of the performance was, in fact, a show within itself.” As such, Dorward incorporated the setup storyline into Circus 1903. Consulting with a Circus historian, studying archival footage, pouring over design plans—from costumes to puppets, Dorward committed to a full-on resurrection of the dangers, excitement, and phenomenon of the circus.
Unlike in 1903, Doward has a lot of competition in the entertainment sphere—particularly on the Vegas strip. He knows audiences who choose a night at the circus demand “wonderment unfolding before your eyes [that] captivates your senses like no other,” which is why he’s toiled to create a show that is—with some puppeteering wizardry—spellbinding.