(c) Mitch Tobias

My Turn:

My Nights with the Circus

by Marcie Brown

Transcribed from American String Teacher, February 2007

I ran away to join the circus when I was 41 years old.

I packed up my husband, my five-week-old daughter, and my cello and headed for the lights of Las Vegas to perform 10 shows a week with the Cirque du Soleil's "O" show. As a freelance musician, I had always been able to piece together a modest living through a combination of teaching and performing, but there was never enough work and I had always dreamed of the day that I would get an opportunity to play full time. I could only imagine what it might be like to perform two shows a night for star-studded and adoring audiences, and to collect a handsome paycheck every two weeks. So, as we drove away from our lovely lagoon home in Alameda, California,, I felt very luck. I had a beautiful new daughter and a flashy job with a successful company. What could be better than playing in a posh theatre for a packed audience nightly?

Well, maybe not playing the same music every night?

The "O" show is an amazing theatrical production composed of Olympic gymnasts, divers, trapeze artists, clowns, and contortionists who weave in and out of a somewhat questionable fantasy-based plotline in and around a giant swimming pool. I played the cello and sang in the sound booth for most of the show, but I also had a special stage appearance. I wore thick make-up and an elaborate costume for this, a kind of awful-looking black granny dress with a long lace skirt that dragged behind and an odd headpiece adorned with sparkly sequins. Early on in the show, I would run down the steps to the stage where someone would strap a cello around my waist with a leather bely. I would then make my grand entrance, walking slowly and gracefully across the stage while playing a lovely cello solo beneath Russian twin trapeze artists named Alfia and Zulfia. When I got to the other side, someone would take off the instrument and I would throw off my black platform heels and my wig and run down hallways and up stairs to rejoin the band for my next musical entrance.

Up in the booth, the band was playing along with prerecorded tracks to create a somewhat live sound. Our director was a bit of a garage band leader with two repeating suggestions: that we play with the click track and that we play in tune. The band was quite good, though. In addition to bass, drums, percussion, and saxophone, we had a fantastic Chinese erhu player that I got to play duets with, and a Senegalese Kora player with a voice that could melt chocolate. Bagpipes and woodwinds were expertly played by a spirited young French Canadian woman, and our lead singer was always doing amazing things with her voice.

During the show, we would find things to do to entertain ourselves and to stay awake. When the clowns did their routine, the erhuist and I would run up and down 1- flights of stairs as fast as we could several times behind the sound booth. We would then jump back into our chairs just in time for our next entrances, smiling and invigorated, our hearts heating, our vibratos working exceptionally fast. There were funny things too, like the time I saw the head trapeze artist struggling to balance her tea in the cafeteria, or the time I took a Pilates class between shows and realized that I was stretching beside a Mongolian contortionist.

It takes a lot of energy to perform nightly at the level that the "O" show demands, jumping off Russian swings and doing aerials high in the air, balancing upside down on your head gracefully while swinging on a moving trapeze, or contorting yourself into unlikely positions to create hauntingly beautiful choreography. I was always impressed by the unfailing dedication that the cast had to make the show work.

But even the "greatest show on earth" gets old after several hundred performances. And though it may seem glamorous to play for Oprah and Dr. Phil one night and Paul McCartney and Carlos Santana the next, any creative artist will begin to question his own sanity in this type of repeat situation.

One night after performing two hundred shows with Cirque, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that I had to perform the same show with the same set of musicians forever, and that I would never, ever be allowed to play anything but that particular musical score. W hen I got to work the next night, I wasn't sure if I was still in my dream, or in reality.

I performed more then 500 shows with Cirque before heading back to the Bay Area where I now play regularly with an all-girl band called the Druid Sisters Tea Party. My daughter is four years old, and when I rock her to sleep at night, It ell her stories. Her favorite one begins like this: "When you were just a little baby, your mama played in the big circus, every night..." As I recount this story softly, and her eyes begin to droop, it seems magical and a big unbelievable, even to me.

Author: Marcie Brown California cellist Marcie Brown teaches and performs regularly with classical and jazz groups in the Bay Area, where she specializes in improvisation. She lives in Alameda with her husband and four-year-old daughter Isabelle, who plays Beethoven, Brahms, and Mississippi Hot Dog on her tiny cello and who has never been to a circus.
Marcie Brown in her Cirque du Soleil outfit Marcie Brown with the Russian twins