Kevin Venardos is the Big Apple Circus ringmaster. (Brian Harkin)
Grandma and Bello the Clown may get most of the laughs at the Big Apple Circus, but their antics wouldn’t be the same without the show’s ring master, Kevin Venardos. This year is his debut season with the company, but he’s no stranger to the rowdy atmosphere under the big top.
“I have to deal with people acting like idiots around me all the time,” Venardos said. “But they wouldn’t be as funny without the straight man there to play against.”
The ring master is the director of the show. He announces performers and entertains the audience between acts.
Venardos is the first new ring master at the Big Apple Circus in more than 30 years. The company is in residence at Damrosch Park Lincoln Center until Jan. 18.
‘It’s not just a job’
Venardos, who is 33, came to New York to pursue a career in musical theater. He worked various jobs — at a children’s theater and as a waiter — until he “ran away to the circus” in 2000, when he was hired as Barnum and Bailey’s youngest ring master ever. Since then, he’s come to think of the circus as a kind of family, albeit a very flexible and daring one.
“It’s not just a job, it’s a whole life,” he said. “I’m surrounded by people from all over the world and we get to do this huge production every day.”
Confidence is the most important characteristic a ring master can have, Venardos said. His job is to set the audience at ease, and over the years, he has learned to “listen to the audience” and adjust his performance to their needs.
No sick days for circus acts
The cast and crew perform two shows a day Tuesday-Sunday (with added shows around the holidays). The company keeps up this pace all year, taking the show on the road to Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Boston. And there’s no calling in sick for an acrobat or horse charmer.
“I’ve been amazed at the work ethic of the circus,” Venardos said. “People may be achy, but they do what they have to do and go on.”
The cast and crew of the Big Apple Circus live rent-free in trailers that surround the big top. The circus village includes trailers for cooking and washing clothes, and performers travel with their families. Two New York State-certified teachers travel with the circus to give lessons to the children of the cast. Bello the clown, a seventh generation circus performer, has two daughters in the show.
When he first came to New York, Venardos dreamed of being on Broadway. When he arrived at Lincoln Center, it struck him that he’d finally arrived. The two-month run allows him plenty of time at the famous venue, but the best part of his job, he said, is being part of the memories people form while watching the circus.
“The best moments don’t happen in big flashes of light,” he said. “They are gentle moments after the show, after a crazy two hours. As people are leaving, I know that the experience will stay with them forever.”
Go Ahead, Run Away to the Circus
You don’t have to be a daredevil clown or a seventh generation performer to be a part of the circus. Here’s how you can get in on the action.
1. Ushers, ticket takers, ring crew, tent masters and other team members are all crucial to the production of the Big Apple Circus. These positions include travel and lodging. bigapplecircus.com.
2. Dreaming of a life of balloon animals and big shoes? Apply to clown college. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College accepts several lucky clowns every year. ringling.com.
3. Take a class in classic circus skills such as fire-eating or sword swallowing in the Coney Island Sideshow School. Burlesque and banner painting classes are also offered. Visit coneyisland.com for more information.