CLEVELAND, Ohio – Johnathan Lee Iverson never set out to become a ringmaster. Who does, really? But the New York native always knew he wanted to be an entertainer – and what better way to entertain millions than with the Greatest Show on Earth?
Iverson comes to Cleveland this week when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus rides into town Wednesday for a nine-show stand. The ringmaster shared some of his thoughts on life under the big top – and why circus performers don’t get the respect they deserve — with The Plain Dealer in advance of the show.
Q: How did you become a ringmaster?
A: Opportunity met preparation, and history happened. I was making my rounds of auditions after graduating college in hopes of raising funds to continue my operatic training. One such audition was for the Fireside Dinner Theatre, which led to me auditioning for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey when the director of the dinner theater, who also happened to be directing The Greatest Show On Earth, contacted me after my dinner theater audition and thought I’d be an ideal candidate to apply for ringmaster along with other potential candidates.
Q: Did you see the circus as a child?
A: Of course! I grew up in New York City, home to the legendary Madison Square Garden. Madison Square Garden and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were perhaps the most enduring partnership in show-business history. As a child in New York City, it was like a requirement to attend The Greatest Show On Earth when it came to town.
Q: Did you ever imagine you’d be a ringmaster?
A: Absolutely not! No one thinks of having that as an aspiration. It’s like being selected as the poor man’s Dalai Lama. The possibility of such a thing just doesn’t exist in your mind.
Q: What are the biggest challenges of the job?
A: Telling your own story. The circus as a business has failed to communicate its story to the public, and as such, mainstream respect for what it is we do as artists and a company is nonexistent. You would think people who risk their lives for your entertainment and do it glamorously with the soundest skill set would be celebrated and, yes, endorsed by the energy drink, credit card, sports wear companies, etc. Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where mere fame is the new talent. You don’t have to be capable of anything, just get a million likes on YouTube or get your nude photos “mysteriously” hacked, and the world is yours.
Q: What’s the most unusual thing that ever happened on the job?
A: In the circus, there is no “usual.” Every day is unusual. Our expectation is the unexpected, which is perhaps why our personnel tends to function at such a high and efficient level compared to most other companies. I’ve done theater. I love it, but, I’ve seen Broadway caliber professionals completely fall apart in our world. Maybe that’s why the circus is mistakenly used as a metaphor for chaos. It’s all about perspective. Some people are defined by circumstance, others determine how they will define the circumstance. The “others” are called Circus.