Shrinking the Big Top for the Small Screen: The Problem with Fringe Arts on America’s Got Talent

Truth #1 – The first time I saw a Cirque du Soleil performance, I hated it. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. In retrospect, the issue was not with Cirque du Soleil at all. It was with the way it was presented to me. I was called into the living room of my grandparents’ house to join the program already in progress on their big screen TV. It was the middle of the afternoon and my family talked through it. The acrobats, contortionists, clowns, dancers, and storytellers became background noise to the small family dramas occurring in the room; and, for that reason, they felt small. This epic, mind-blowing spectacle had been reduced (despite the ludicrous size of the TV screen) to something distant, small, and inconsequential.

Truth #2 – I love (some) reality TV. I love the costumes and pageantry of Dancing with the Stars. I love the manufactured drama and crazy challenges of The Amazing Race. There’s very little I don’t love about RuPaul’s Drag Race. And – until a couple of weeks ago – I would have put America’s Got Talent pretty high on my list of summer guilty pleasures.

The thing I loved most about AGT was that it – theoretically – provides an avenue for “non-traditional” performers to showcase their craft on a national, televised stage. There are a multitude of shows for singers, several for dancers, quite a few for athletes of various stripes, a handful for comedians, and a few that cater to more specific performance arts like RuPaul’s Drag Race. But, nowhere else on television could a ventriloquist or an acrobat or a contortionist showcase what they do.

It was reported that “Season 1 winner, eleven year old singer Bianca Ryan “almost left without [auditioning] when she looked at the other contestants and saw a lady with a beard “probably about, like, two feet long,” juggling torches.”1 American Idol certainly wouldn’t have an anecdote like that on the books.

So, despite the controversies over fixed results, exploitation of performers, and misrepresented prizes (“Headlining a show on the Las Vegas Strip” has – in some years – meant that the America’s Got Talent tour made a single roadhouse stop at a casino during its journey), I still believed that exposing the viewing public to the Fringe and circus arts (which often overlap) was a good thing.

Now I’m less sure.

America’s Got Talent premiered in 2006 and has aired 11 and half seasons (we’re in the middle of season 12). In that time, the winners have included 6 singers, 2 ventriloquists, and 1 each of performance art/dance, animal act (dog), and magician.

Act Type Winner Runner-Up Third Place Total
Singer 6 6 2 14
Video Dance 1 1 2 4
Magic 1 1 2 4
Musicians 0 0 3 3
Comedian 0 3 0 3
Ventriloquist 2 0 0 2
Animal Act 1 0 0 1
Acrobats 0 0 1 1

It could be argued that America simply prefers the singers overwhelmingly to any other type of act. However, for those who don’t know, the show is structured so that auditions and “judges’ cuts” determine the three dozen or so (it varies by season) contestants who vie for the audience votes.

The show has just completed judges’ cuts portion for Season 12 and the 33-act quarterfinalist roster2 competing for public affection includes

  • 15 singers (or singing groups)3
  • 7 dance groups (ranging from dance crews to ballroom pairs to hip-hop soloists)
  • 3 magicians (one escape artist, one mentalist, and one close-up prestidigitator)
  • 2 dog tricks acts
  • 1 stand-up comedian
  • 1 ventriloquist
  • 1 acrobatic act
  • 1 roller-skating, daredevil brother/sister team
  • And, 2 acts I will categorize, charitably, as “other” because they are not good, but gimmicky nonsense taking spots from much more talented acts.

What this reveals is that the shows stacks the deck significantly in the favor of musical acts. Singers represent 45% of what the judges have deemed “worthy” of audience attention.4

And, about those judges – in the history of AGT the judges panel has included celebrities and personalities from the music, fashion, television, and comedy industries, but no regular judges from the worlds of circus or fringe.

Often, they react to the fringe acts with mixed feelings at best. European-style clowning and Commedia acts are met with bafflement (with the charming exception of Heidi Klum, whose enthusiasm for them is always delightful to watch). Burlesque is met with something akin to contempt (or, in the case of older or heavier performers, smirking patronization). Acrobats and contortionists fare better, but there’s a thin film of the sideshow gawp in judge’s response. Those acts are treated as naturally occurring “freaks” rather than the product of years of dedication, work, and practice.

To my eyes, this represents a disconnect between how physical acts are treated versus singing acts. A child with a preternaturally good singing voice is a wonder (one which will fade as the child develops to match the voice, like mine did). An adult with a preternaturally flexible body is a freak. Because the act doesn’t fit into a box the judges understand, they react as if it sprung fully formed into existence.

Maliciously and intentionally or not, the judges feed a bias to the audience from the very beginning, further tipping the scales in favor of the singing acts.

(Tangent: I don’t want to undercut the talent, dedication, and tenacity of any of these performers, regardless of discipline. They’re putting themselves out there, doing what they love, and sharing their passion with the world. It’s a wonderful thing, no matter how you slice it.)

“Once music ceases to be ephemeral – always disappearing – and becomes instead material… it leaves the condition of traditional music and enters the condition of painting. It becomes a painting, existing as material in space, not immaterial in time.” – Brian Eno

But, why would they do that? Simple. Producers can record and package singers for sale in a way that other acts can’t match. The work in the recording studio can reach millions of people (read, millions of wallets). Combine that with the face of a cherubic young girl, and the AGT producers might as well start printing their own money.

And, from a business perspective, it’s hard to argue with their logic. So, they sell a convoluted misdirection about headlining a show in Vegas, the openness of the audition process for all types of acts, the inclusiveness for performers of all ages, etc. etc. And, it’s all partially true, but at the core is a show looking to find the next talent that can be which shines in the marketplace.

Can It Be “Fixed”?

If the producers wanted to do so, I would argue that it can to a certain extent. A combination of adding a regular judge and guest judges who come from the burlesque, vaudeville, circus, cirque, and fringe scenes would make a difference. Also, pitting like against like in the judges’ cuts rounds could make a difference. Have 20 singers compete for 7 slots, then 20 stage acts (comedians, magicians, ventriloquists), then 20 dancers, then 20 circus and danger acts. There would be gray area, of course, but it would at least allow the viewing and voting audience a [more] level suite of competitors to vote from, and give more variety to the variety show.

Does It Need to Be “Fixed”?

So, back to Truth #1 – Cirque du Soleil had tried (and for some, I imagine, succeeded) in packaging their work for a wider audience through VHS souvenir tapes. And, my grandparents wanted to share their enjoyment of the show they had seen live with us from the comfort of their living room. Splendid from both Cirque’s and my grandparents’ perspectives. But, it didn’t work. Because it shrunk an experience into a deliverable.

Most people differentiate between seeing a movie in the theater or at home. It’s a product intended for viewing on a screen, but the experience of going to the theater is part and parcel of your enjoyment of it, and many of us make the choice whether a movie is “worth” seeing in the theater.

It’s a matter of translation. Plays work as movies better when they are fully “translated” into the form. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was a fully staged play that I saw through the lens of a screen, but the producers never let you forget that you were watching a play. The movie opened with shots of the audience filing in and the 15 minute intermission returned the movie audience to the theater’s auditorium, as if to say, “See, you’re here, in the theater, with us.” Which we most certainly were not.

Adaptations like Doubt and RENT, take the playscripts as jumping off points for the screenplay, and – while they are faithful to their source material – the films are horses of a different color from the plays on which they’re based, almost as much so as film adaptations of novels.

“So I think I’ll say the obvious thing: theater is ephemeral. When a production is done, it’s gone forever. You can take pictures of it. You can make a film of it. But it’s not the production. It’s not the same thing.” – Tony Kushner

The issue returns again to that very dramatic concept – ephemerality. Theatre is ephemeral. The script is the instruction manual to the thing, and not the thing itself (apologies to Wallace Stevens). But, often those ephemeral things are produced in Theaters, venerable brick-and-mortar institutions where one can expect to have a very specific type of experience.

Circus and fringe arts performances often appear from nowhere or in unexpected places (like parks and bars). Part of the mystique of the circus, in fact, is its itinerant nature. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and many other novels use the circus’s existence in liminal space – here today and gone tomorrow – as its source of power, of magic.

How can the circus arrive every Tuesday night on NBC at 8pm/7c?

When I finally saw a Cirque du Soleil show live (right around this time last year), it was everything I had hoped it would be. Breathtaking, overwhelming, emotional, and exciting. From seeing the striped tent from my car window to smelling the popcorn to ogling the souvenirs, the show began from the moment you entered their world.

And, that’s the thing – They didn’t come into my living room, I entered the world of Cirque and was transported. And, can a transportative experience like that really be packaged as a program, as a product?

So, here’s the crux of it. And, it’s a bunch of questions without an answer in sight –

  • Is it better NOT to have the circus and fringe arts appear in a distant, other-side-of-the-screen version of itself through a program like AGT?
  • Is it better not try to compare apples and oranges, if oranges keep coming up wanting in the format in which they’re presented (who wants orangesauce?)?
  • Will people stop believing in the value of the circus and fringe arts if a television program continually tells them that singing is a “better” talent?
  • Will young performers stop pursuing the circus arts if they’re devalued in this way?
  • And, if the answer to the first four questions is “yes,” then is there a place in modern, screen-based entertainment for circus and fringe artists to showcase their skills, dedication, and talent?

I don’t have any answers, but I’d love to have a debate about it. In person, of course. So, we can share the experience.

– Christina Scott Sayer

FOOTNOTES:
1. Staff. “Philly 11-Year-Old Wows Judges”. nbc10.com. Archived from the original on July 17, 2006. Retrieved August 21, 2006.
2. For the full breakdown of how we got here, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America%27s_Got_Talent_(season_12)
3. I include Puddles Pity Party here because he is a singer first and uses the clown persona to set him apart. He does not perform a “clown act” in the traditional sense.

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