Playing to the Back Row
A Conversation with Ringmaster Chuck Wagner
The front man for the
Ringling Bros. and Barnum &
Bailey Circus on directing the
attention of 20,000 people
today while balancing 138
years of tradition on his back.
Playing to the Back Row
A Conversation with Ringmaster Chuck Wagner
harvard business review • january 2009
COPYRIGHT © 2008 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Idea in Brief
Chuck Wagner performs a balancing act that many leaders will relate to: He must be the standard-bearer of his company’s revered past while also serving as a visible part of its reinvention.
It helps to be so well versed in the history of the organization that he feels he can channel the spirit of the founders—who were innovators, after all, and not traditionalists,in their own time.
Change can be consistent with heritage if it respects the founders’ philosophy. For the circus, that means understanding what constitutes run-of-themill and always delivering larger-than-life.
It’s hard to imagine a leadership image more iconic than the ringmaster. Merely say the word
and the picture springs to mind of a dashing captain presiding over a menagerie of beasts
and people, taming chaos into clockwork with judicious snaps of the whip. Historically, the role
was hard earned; the ringmaster, if he wasn’t outright owner of the circus, was head trainer of
its equestrian team. He was first and foremost a
horseman—a veteran of the stable and, in earlier times, the cavalry.
Chuck Wagner, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s 138th edition, is none of those things.
He’s part of a new breed of ringmaster—a musical theater star who brings Broadway-style
razzmatazz to the show. For him, the move from stage to ring was an exciting, but not overwhelming,
transition. “When I used to go on the road with a national tour,” he says, “it always felt like
I was running away and joining the circus. This is just literally doing that.” Possibly more jarring is
the transition that confronts his audiences if they came to the circus expecting a quaint, nostalgiatinged
affair. In the quest to stay larger than life, the show has evolved into a high-tech spectacle
P.T. Barnum could never have envisioned.
HBR thought its executive readers might have something to learn from how Wagner keeps a
foot in both camps at the circus—respecting its tradition while trumpeting its reinvention.
Special Issues Editor Julia Kirby caught up with him on the West Coast en route from Portland
to Seattle on the circus train. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Everyone knows what a ringmaster is, but what does the job actually entail? What does a ringmaster have to be good at?
Back in the day, the ringmaster didn’t have a whole lot to do. He was almost like a ring-card
girl at a boxing match—someone to blow a whistle and say, “Now we’re moving on to the next part.” In my case, because I come from a Broadway background, I’m also there to bring some Broadway magic to the experience. I do
a lot more singing than another ringmaster would. Still, a big part of the job is my saying,“Here’s an act”—and there it is. That’s why I love my job so much. I get to be in the circus and at the circus at the same time. Like everyone in the crowd, I only wish I had the talent to be on the high wire or the trapeze. I do have to be able to keep the crowd’s attention on the right things. I’m lucky to have a big voice—and by the time it’s amplified it’s really powerful. But any actor will tell you that pulling in an audience is something you also have to do with emotion and your own enthusiasm and investment of energy. It comes from the power of your own will. If you’re personally focused and, hopefully, have got that charisma thing going, you can feel it when it happens. You’re in command, and wherever you put your focus, the audience comes with you. You can’t drift off while an act is performing, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. If something goes wrong, everyone’s eyes go to the ringmaster, and he has to help coordinate what to do next.
Has that happened on your watch? What do you do when something goes wrong?
We have contingency plans, and they cover pretty much anything that could go wrong.
If something happens, there’s quick communication between me, the production manager, and the stage manager. The most important thing is to spot the developing problem in the first place, before it turns serious. Once we had
a gas cap malfunction on a motorcycle up on the high wire, and gasoline started to pour down. But I was watching the stunt and able to move some audience members very quickly. If there’s a problem in an act that isn’t a safety concern, it’s up to me to try to cover it so that, as far as the audience is concerned, nothing has gone wrong. I have to stay poised, stay polished, stay calm, and keep that smile on my face. But sometimes the audience clearly sees that an accident has happened—like when seven motorcycles have been speeding around inside a small steel cage and suddenly there’s a pileup. All you can say is, “These stunts are real, things can go wrong, and let’s give them a big
hand.” And you move on.
After so many years doing theater, was joining the circus a huge transition?
The travel we do is not a whole lot different than a national theater tour—although I’d never toured with elephants. In some ways the circus is more straightforward. In theater you aim to take an audience on an emotional journey, with a whole range of angst and anger and frustration and romance. Bringing those emotions alive on a bigger-than-life scale is very cathartic. Here, on the other hand, it’s mostly about smiles. But it’s also an opportunity to really play to the back row. When actors talk about playing to the back row in the theater, they’re trying to move maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people at most. The back row is achievable. When we play places like Madison Square Garden or Salt Lake City, we have 20,000 people at a single performance. That changes the scale exponentially—it’s like playing the Roman Colosseum—and we have to play that much broader. I’m a big man and that helps, but I also feel like I have a big focus. I feel like I can individually address them all.
What about after hours? When the show is over, is that the end of your workday, or is there something more to being a ringmaster?
I help put the set up and take it down, moving equipment like the big video screen. I like doing the elephant walk. But these aren’t requirements of the job—I do them as part of what’s called cherry pie.
It’s a circus term that means a kind of casual labor that the performers can pitch in on to make a little extra money on the side. They call it cherry pie, I’m assuming, because it gives you the spare cash to treat yourself a little. You might see cast members pulling out wardrobe boxes, putting the lights up, getting sound cables in place. It takes a lot of people to pull the rubber floor up. There’s a lot of cherry pie to be had. I’m told, though, that I’m one of the first ringmasters to get involved and do all these things.
Does the fact that you and other performers contribute extra labor help break down the barriers that might exist between cast and crew?
Oh, absolutely. It brings us all together. It’s good for morale. We feel like we’re all part of the same team, and everybody works very hard. Part of the beauty of the circus is that every cog in the machine is crucial. Even
the people on the floor shoveling after the animals make an important contribution— maybe not as earthshaking, but what if we didn’t have it? I think that my jumping in and getting my hands dirty helps the energy of the show. It’s like a General Patton or MacArthur saying, “I don’t expect my soldiers to do anything I wouldn’t do.” I watch their back while we’re putting the show up, and if something were to go wrong during the show, I know that all of the crew would be watchingmy back, too.
When the show ends, you’re still in the company of your colleagues. Does your ringmaster role translate to any leadership role offstage?
To a degree. I really try to bring a sense of professionalism and confidence to the show, not just on the stage but also living the life on the train. You know, we have kids from around the world who come and work with the circus,
and sometimes they get a little rowdy or party too hard. They’re in their early twenties. We work 11 months out of the year, and sometimes in a week we do 13 shows. In a very crazy week we might have 16 shows. That’s a lot. It means that people really have to stay focused to stay at their best. And we arrive in every townas ambassadors. We’re there to bring good family entertainment. So it’s important that we present a positive energy to the public, whether they see us performing in an arena or riding on the subway. I think I do have some influence as a role model. People see me doing my job then coming back to the train and staying out of trouble.
The whole idea of running off to join the circus has such a mythic appeal. It must come down to that potent combination of living on the road and consorting with such an exotic group of people.
We really are the United Nations of entertainment. We’ve got people from China, Russia, South America, Mexico, many parts of Europe. Our talent coordinator, Tim Holst, is constantly traveling the globe, and Nicole and Ken Feld,
the owners, are out there too, always bringing in new talent. And then we’ve got the different crews, like the
concessions crew, the train crew, the floor crew, the set and lighting and sound crews. We’ve got some people that have been here for a long, long time—and it’s a rugged life.
Being part of such a storied institution, there must be a feeling of having a lot of tradition to uphold.
When I signed on, I accepted a certain responsibility not only to the Felds and Feld Entertainment but also to the spirit of the Ringling brothers and P.T. Barnum and Mr. Bailey—the people who built the Greatest Show on Earth.
I’ve done some research on this, and I know that the ringmaster is sometimes a dark character, so I try to bring as much positivity to the role as I can. I really try to channel the spirit of P.T. Barnum, who was a teetotaler and basically
a good, wholesome American guy. He had two major philosophies that I love. One was always to give customers more than their money’s worth, and the other one was, in a business dealing, to make it a win-win situation.
So I do try to learn about Barnum and the Ringling brothers and what they brought to the circus. And I also talk to all these grand people here—people from seven- and eight generation families of circus people, who tell me about traditions that are really fascinating.
At the same time, you are part of the modernization of the circus. It’s no longer a three-ring show: There’s a big video screen, and the ringmaster belts out show tunes. For the purists out there, you might be a front-and-center example of how the show has walked away from its roots.
But, you know, it used to be five rings before it was three rings. The point of all those rings, and this was a Barnumism, was to give people so much that they couldn’t possibly see it all in one visit. They’d have to come back.
I think even people who love the traditions appreciate that the show has to evolve to survive. A century ago, it made sense to expect the same visitors to keep coming back. It’s a different world today. There’s so much available for entertainment. We need to give people a chance to appreciate everything we do, allow them to focus on each act, and not leave them feeling they’ve missed something. You have to create the right show for the world you live in, recognizing new realities and the financial requirements of what it costs to do certain things. Some things don’t change: Our two full-sized shows, the Red Unit and the Blue Unit, each have a mile-long train. If we want to play a town, we’ve got to find a place where there’s a mile-long place to park it. But 40 years ago, Irvin Feld realized that the traditional tents no longer made sense, given the new sports arenas that were being built. Why go through the whole process of putting the tent up when there’s already a permanent tent—these fantastic venues that are already built?
[Editor’s note: Irvin and Israel Feld’s partner in the 1967 purchase of Ringling Bros. was Judge Roy M. Hofheinz, the Houston developer of the Astrodome.]
And now his son Kenneth, and Kenneth’s daughter Nicole and his other daughters as well, are bringing twenty-first-century technology to bear on this grand tradition. For me, coming from a theater background, it’s very
impressive that every single instrument of lighting we have moves. The tradition to uphold is the quality of the acts and the spectacle they create. When people come to the circus, they don’t expect to see run-of-the-mill things. They expect to see things that are larger than life and more exciting.So you’ve got to live in your own moment and create a circus that the kids coming today will love. Then this will be the one they miss when they get to be old.
Another way the world has changed is in its sensitivity to the use of animals in entertainment.
We have to deal with animal activists everywhere we go. Their hearts are in the right place, but they misunderstand the nature of animal care here at the circus. The whip-andchair approach to tiger and lion training that people recall is from pictures in old books and practices from long ago. When Gunther Gebel-Williams came to Ringling in the sixties,
it all switched over to positive reinforcement training for the animals, and it’s been that way ever since.
We don’t travel with 50 Asian elephants like they used to. Now we have seven. They’re beautiful, grand, and glorious creatures—it’s an honor to work with them. I know from personal experience that these animals are treated with respect and absolutely doted on. And what the Felds have done with the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida shows how seriously they take the stewardship responsibility.
Let’s end on something that probably won’t ever change—the opening line welcoming people to the Greatest Show on Earth. You say it so well, and it’s a classic.
And it’s a real treat to get to say. But back when we first opened the 136th edition, they had me saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and children of all ages...” I thought, let’s look it up and just make sure. It turns out the original line didn’t have that middle bit, and really it takes away from the meaning. So we changed it back to, “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!”
You actually looked it up?
I did. I wanted to make sure that we were doing the right thing.