By MIKE CHAIKEN
When fans of the circus head into Hartford next week they will be witnessing history.
They will see the first ever female ringmaster of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.
Unfortunately, they also will see the last ringmaster ever of the venerable circus because earlier this year Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced that it is shutting down for good after its current tour.
“Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME” comes to the XL Center April 27 to 30. The stop is being billed as “one last time to see the most extraordinary performers and exotic animals in the ultimate circus spectacle before it permanently closes in May of this year.”
Stepping into the spotlight as ringmaster at the Hartford stop will be Kristen Michelle Wilson, who is the first woman to take on that role with the circus in its 146 years of existence.
Speaking first about “Circus XTREME,” Wilson said the show “is an incredible adventure. It takes audiences all around the world… deserts, mountains… jungles.”
There are a lot of traditional circus elements, said Wilson, such as the human cannonball, high wire acts, aerialists, and “zany” clowns. There also are exotic animals such as two humped camels, 13 tigers, 16 prancing poodles, horses, goats, and more.
There are also more cutting edge acts that are drawn from the world of extreme sports. There is an acrobatic troupe. There is a trampoline act. Audiences will witness Parkour performers. They will see wall walkers. And there are BMX bike riders drawn from the X-Games.
“It’s a fun show for the whole family,” said Wilson.
Wilson said it has been an “absolutely amazing” experience as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’s first ever female ringmaster. But she said the circus has always been an “all-inclusive” environment where women were taking on tasks long before it was accepted by the rest of society.
“It’s always been about who is best for the job,” said Wilson.
When she was tapped for the job, Wilson was aware it would garner publicity, but she had no idea that it would create such a buzz. She said she has been approached by everyone from grandmothers to young girls who were excited because she was proof a woman really can do anything they want to. They can be in charge and still be a woman.
Wilson said she never set out to be a circus ringmaster. She definitely was an aficionado of all things entertainment. Growing up, she went to as many stage shows as possible. She grew up being a performer. She was a TV news reporter. She hosted local talk shows. She had a band in college. She made a living filming commercials.
“I love entertainment.”
But her arrival at the circus was more serendipitous, she said.
Wilson said she moved to Orlando and one of the gigs she had was serving as a ringmaster for a magic show at a dinner theater.
About a year ago, Wilson said she heard that Ringling Bros was looking for ringmasters. “I threw my hat in the ring.”
Wilson said the circus wasn’t looking necessarily for a man… or a woman. They were looking for a “dynamic” personality.
Wilson attended the casting call and found she was the only woman in the room. But she persisted and when she was in the casting room, she sang, “I Will Always Love You.” When she returned to the waiting room, she was greeted by a standing ovation from the cast of “Disney on Ice” who had been in the next room rehearsing. They stopped what they were doing to see who was behind the voice. They told Wilson that if the circus didn’t want her, Disney did.
However, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey was interested. She received a callback and was hired as the new ringmaster.
“Overnight my life changed,” said Wilson.
Once the circus announced her appointment, Wilson said she was all over the national media.
“It was a pinch-worthy moment,” said Wilson, who said it all felt like a dream.
But the joy was shortlived.
Three days into the circus’s current tour, which began in December, the owners of the circus, Feld Entertainment, pulled all the circus performers together and told them this tour would be the last for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
“We were caught off guard,” said Wilson, “it was so sad, we were shocked.”
For her, the news was especially “bittersweet.” Wilson said, “I found my dream job and very quickly, I found out it was temporary.”
“But I’m so grateful to experience it.”
The circus performers, however, are determined to have Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus go out with a bang and not a whimper, said Wilson. Each night, she said, they are giving it their all. “We’re not resting on our laurels,” she said.
Wilson also advised families to come an hour earlier than show time for a free All Access Pre-show where they can meet the cast and some of the animals.
Ticketholders also can purchase an upgrade and go backstage with a VIP Behind the Scenes Tour of Ringling Bros. and Performances at the XL Center, 1 Civic Plaza, Hartford are Thursday, April 27 at 7 p.m.; Friday, April 28 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 29 at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, April 30 at 1 and 5 p.m.
Tickets start at $15. For more information, visit Ringling.com. Tickets are available at XLcenter.com or by visiting the XL Center Box Office.