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The Boss of Bosses

Just minutes after the end of the first performance, of the first show, of the 2012 season Barbara Miller-Byrd, the matriarch of the Carson & Barnes Circus family —the boss of bosses— is sitting at the dining table in her private trailer making notes.

Outside there’s lots of activity as the audience streams out of the Big Top onto the Midway. Performers gather behind the tent at the artists’ entrance. Crew members are already resetting props and equipment for the next show while the clean-up team rakes up popcorn boxes, empty, wet, snow cone cups and other trash left behind.

Barbara starts the process of tweaking the show set — which acts will stay, what will go…

With husband and partner Geary Byrd sitting nearby, Barbara starts the process of tweaking the show set — which acts will stay, what will go and which will need to be changed in some way to make sure the nearly two-hour show keeps moving fast enough to keep the attention of the hundreds of youngsters in the audience. It’s not an easy task. With a lifetime spent with the Circus, Barbara understands that pacing is everything.

The Process of Change

You might think that after 76 years the Carson & Barnes Circus would have locked down every possible second of the show. But you would be wrong. The cast of performers changes, the animals act and react differently to the mood of the tent, and even the replacement of a crew member responsible for positioning a prop can affect the timing of a performance.

even the replacement of a crew member responsible for positioning a prop can affect the timing of a performance

As Barbara talks through the set list (which acts appear in what order and how long they will be in the center ring) she instinctively knows what works and what doesn’t after just the one show. The audience itself is the best barometer. Their “oohs” and “aahs” or lack thereof, speak volumes about what is working.

“No matter how much rehearsal you do in the staging barn before the tour starts, you just cannot predict what plays in the tent for a particular audience,” said Barbara Miller-Byrd. Today, the boss has to cut an act or completely reset it to keep the show moving. “That act went about 30 minutes too long,” said Barbara of the performance that actually went less than fifteen minutes.

Serious People Skills

Barbara Miller-Byrd is an interesting hybrid of diverse management styles. You need only be with her for a few minutes to know that she is tough, but fair. It may sound like a cliche, but Barbara uses her feminine intuition and nurturing skills to supplement a “non-nonsense” attitude about the business of the circus.

Watching the staff, crew and performers interact with Barbara it is clear that she is liked and most of all respected. She is always the final word, and she always gets what she wants. Her leadership skills are evident.

This is a creative group of people. Each person here wants to please.

‘This is a creative group of people. Each person here wants to please. A performer wants to get that positive feedback from the crowd and you do that by keeping the audience engaged every second,” said Barbara. “When you are not hitting the mark, either because you’re not quite on for that particular show or your animals or equipment is not cooperating, you are dying in that spotlight. The circus life is about getting that love from the audience. When you are falling short, it’s painful.”

On with the Show

With the next show less than two hours away, Barbara grabs up her notebook and heads out to begin the process of making changes in the set list. She will have to make some cuts, manage some egos, shore up some confidences, shuffle things, and keep the show moving.  She might even have a minute to grab a bite to eat. Her last meal was nine hours ago.