P.T. Barnum’s legacy has come full circle.
Years before his circus days, the showman made a name for himself by exhibiting dubious mythological critters such as the embalmed “Feejee Mermaid” at his Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.
In “Legends,” the latest touring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, fantastical creatures are once again in the spotlight, with circus producers touting the news that a unicorn, Pegasus and woolly mammoth will join the usual menagerie of elephants and tigers when the circus comes to Orlando’s Amway Center this week.
Yet behind the magic, it’s still the very human qualities of hard work and talent that make the circus tick. Just ask Johnathan Lee Iverson, a former member of the Boys Choir of Harlem. “Legends” marks his sixth show as ringmaster, a job he describes with a humility that belies his bombastic duties.
“The ringmaster’s honestly a glorified fan,” says Iverson. “He’s lucky enough to be dressed up in gorgeous costumes and be the voice, the link between the audience and the ‘extraordinary dream,’ as Ernest Hemingway would call it, of the circus. He translates what’s going on.”
Iverson certainly knows the language. For 12 of his 15 years with Ringling, he has been married to Priscilla Iverson, a former dance captain for the circus. Today she is an associate producer who manages a diverse army of backstage performers — including her husband — for “Legends.” During the touring show, the Iversons travel by train to a different city each week, along with more than 250 other performers and staff, and 85 animals.
Technology has made touring life somewhat easier since Barnum first took his “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus” on the rails in the late 1800s, but the close quarters remain. How do the Iversons keep their relationship and spirits alive?
“We’re New Yorkers,” quips Johnathan Iverson.
On the “Legends” tour, the Iversons will share their home with colorful characters such as Brazilian and Romanian acrobats of the Madieros Troupe and the Cossack Riders of Russia. Also along for the ride are another married couple, Kelliann and Wages Argott. A California comedian, Kelliann met Wages during her first stint as a Ringling circus clown in 2009. Wages was a trumpet player and now works as a bandleader on “Legends.”
These days, Wages’ job means that they travel in a slightly bigger space on the train. Their first room was little more than a full-size bed and a fridge. (“Yeah, I married up,” laughs Kelliann.) But the opportunity to travel more than makes up for the accommodations.
“The great thing about Ringling Bros. is that we travel by train, so our house goes with us,” says Kelliann. “We don’t have to spend all our time living out of a suitcase or a hotel room, even though we’re in a different city each week. … We’re full-time tourists.”
With performers from nearly 30 countries, the circus can be as noisy and chaotic backstage as it is magical onstage. But stagecraft is a strong bond in any culture.
“Mark Twain said that traveling is a balm to prejudices,” says Iverson. “There’s so much you learn about other people.
“These are people who practice, practice, practice because their livelihood might cost them their lives,” he says. “And this wonderful craft has a way of transcending language and culture and people’s personal prejudices. By the time we’re done with our setup here, everybody’s really a family.”