From its humble beginning in a borrowed white church tent in 2005, the McLaren Circus has grown to become one of the largest and few remaining big-top travelling circuses in South Africa.
The circus has everything, from big-footed clowns to highly skilled trapeze artists that fly through the air and even motorcyclists that zoom past one another in a dome.
It is also one of the few circuses that still boasts animal stars, from Burmese pythons to Bengal tigers and even donkeys and poodles.
David McLaren, who started the circus in 2005 when he was only 21 years old, talked to us about his journey into this nomadic world of entertainment.
What did you do before you started McLaren Circus and why did you start your own circus?
As a child, I always sought ways to entertain people. It started with magic tricks and clowning acts for family and friends, and as I grew older, to street performances and shows at birthday parties.
I have loved the circus for as long as I can remember and started my own circus in an attempt to recreate the magical culture and variety of a traditional big-top circus that I came to know as a child.
My desire was to create something that would bring smiles and generate happy memories.
Where did you get the capital to start the circus?
I saved up some money while working at a carnival that travelled through the United States. It was a horrible job in which I had to manage a catering wagon, selling hotdogs and corndogs, but a great learning experience.
I was way out of my comfort zone, as it was the year after I finished school and I was in an unfamiliar country. It taught me a lot about the logistics behind an on-the-road business.
The money I had saved up was not that much though, so the circus really started out on a shoestring budget. For our first show, performed at the Blue Route Mall in Tokai, I borrowed 100 chairs and a white tent from a pastor.
My brother did some clowning acts while I served as the ringmaster and we were assisted by a band of artists trained by a circus school in Cape Town. We enjoyed a lot of goodwill and favour.
In the first year, shows were held during school holidays. I kept the boat afloat by doing entertainment work on the side. In 2006, I decided to roll out the circus to the countryside. I bought my first tent, a 22m x 28m red-and-yellow marquee, and set off down the Garden Route with two caravans, a trailer, a bakkie, my animals and five artists.
The first three to four years were exceptionally tough, but I think it is like that for most new ventures – no matter what business you’re in.
How has the business grown since then?
I am really living my childhood dream now, with the circus touring across the country throughout the year. We use a large red-and-white 32m x 32m tent that can seat up to 1 600 people when we perform in big towns. We also have a smaller tent, with the capacity to seat 800 people, when we perform in smaller towns.
The circus employs an average of 42 people at a time, with performers coming and going from all over the world.
We have many animal stars, consisting of various big cats, poodles, Burmese pythons, Arabian camels, horses, ponies and miniature donkeys. We’re one of only a handful of circuses that still boast animal performers.
To what do you ascribe your success?
Sales greatly increased between 2011 and 2012 as more people came to know us and looked forward to our return the next year. I guess it is a matter of more people becoming familiar with the brand. Increased revenue allowed us to get bigger and better, in terms of infrastructure and performances, which in turn helped to improve the quality of our acts.
Is it hard to find employees and manage circus folk?
It is hard to become a great entertainer as there are no universities or training programmes that guarantee your success. Most artists are self-taught, making do with little snippets of information and tricks they pick up and refine over time.
It also takes a special breed to pursue a lifelong career in this industry. While our employees and animals get annual breaks, like in any other industries, it is a nomadic lifestyle that does not suit everybody.
Managing artists is not that difficult. It is true that the talent usually comes with a temperament, but this is simply because artists take so much pride in their work. Their goal, like mine, is to create the best entertainment they can, something they constantly work at.
Keeping that in mind helps you to see things in perspective.
Sometimes you cross paths with a prima donna, but you just have to manage the situation. Everybody is contract-bound and if they don’t deliver, they have to move on.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
Safety rules and regulations that govern the industry. The problem is that different municipalities have different interpretations of national rules and regulations, which can cause a lot of chaos if you do not comply.
Compliance is also expensive. In some municipal areas we are required to employ 15 registered security guards, which drive up costs by about R45 000 per day. In Cape Town, to give another example, we are required to get a fire inspection certificate that cost around R16 500 each time we move the tent to a new venue around the city.
This is despite the fact that a fire has never broken out in a circus tent in the city.
What are the latest trends when it comes to circus performances?
With the growing international concern over animal welfare, the majority of circuses are getting rid of their animal component. Many circuses have also started using more elaborate lighting and special effects, and instead of having special individual acts there is a move towards one big act that evolves around a story. As such, it is becoming much more like theatre.
How has the market changed?
For us, there has been a definite shift away from the major cities. Where we used to attract full houses all the time, attendance has declined in cities, especially during the week. This is, firstly, because many of our more affluent clients have been exposed to more extravagant and bigger international circuses.
While our show compares well with international shows in terms of performance, we struggle to match their special effects, which can really drive up costs.
Second, animal rights movements are scapegoating circuses for all kinds of abuses never committed. Did you know there are more than 40 animal rights movements in Cape Town alone? Is it really necessary? It seems as if it has become a money-making business for some organisations.
I have been in court twice because of animal rights violation accusations and won both times. The problem is that city people are projecting human-like attributes onto animals. You then end up with arguments that claim, for example, that it’s better to cull a baby elephant than to have it live in captivity, even if it is well looked after.
We do not have this problem in rural areas where people are more connected with nature and clearly differentiate between animals and humans. Tickets in these areas are usually sold out. The market as such has become more middle to lower middle class.
We have created all kinds of initiatives to ensure prices are affordable to almost anybody. In mining towns, for example, we agree to deduct payments after payday.
So do you think the days of show animals are numbered?
Sadly, yes. Most circuses are no longer acquiring new show animals when the ones they have retire. Hence, I don’t think there will be any more show animals left in the modern world, over the next 10 to 15 years. But that does not mean the end of circus. Shows will simply become more dependent on humans, as is the case with Cirque du Soleil.
Circus animals have always been a big passion of mine and I have always dreamt of training elephants. I have made peace with the fact that that will never happen, since people are no longer allowed to trade in elephants.
Do you think the circus is under threat by the digital era, where everything is becoming automated and digitised?Going to the circus is like going to a rugby or soccer match. It has to be live to be fully appreciated. It cannot be digitised or replicated by a robot. The effect won’t be as spectacular.
I am nevertheless worried about the millennials, who do not seem to be active spectators.
The majority of people who attend live performances these days are 30 years and older. To continue the tradition of live shows and performances, something has to be done to get the millennials more active and to ensure they also bring their children to shows.
What is your advice to people who would like to venture into the entertainment industry?
As my idol, Cher, once said: “Making it in showbiz requires a little talent but a lot of luck.” And as they say, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
This article originally appeared in the 15 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.