Running away with the circus is a popular notion, but few can say they did it.
David Shipman was a musical theater kid through high school and college. But, “at the end of college, I decided to be a big boy and got a regular desk job. After five years of not doing anything I loved, I decided to give it a try.”
“It” was getting back on stage, although it took a different direction than he expected, when he auditioned to be the ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It might not be the obvious career path for a performer steeped in musical theater, but Shipman, who enjoyed the circus as a child, saw it as the opportunity to be part of tradition more than a century old.
“When I saw the opportunity to run away with the circus and help families create lasting memories, I thought, ‘What an incredible way to live a life,’” says Shipman, who took on the role when he was 25. “I have seen America’s backyard from the back of a circus train. Looking out and seeing the next generation coming to the circus, it feels like I am living part of the legacy.”
When I saw the opportunity to run away with the circus and help families create lasting memories, I thought, ‘What an incredible way to live a life.’
David Shipman, ringmaster
If those comments sound reflective, it is because at the ripe old age of 29, Shipman is hanging up his top hat to try his hand at the next adventure that life hands him. The current Ringling Bros. tour, which stops at Rupp Arena from Friday through Sunday, will be Shipman’s last. That means the circus will be searching for a new traffic cop, although Shipman cautions potential ringmasters not to try to fulfill stereotypes: over the top and bombastic.
“They want to see you, from the audition standpoint,” Shipman says. “Being ringmaster is an extension of yourself — an exciting, engaging extension of yourself.”
The job also put Shipman at the center of the Ringling Bros. world at a particularly interesting chapter in its history. In May, the circus presented its final performance with elephants, which had been a mainstay of the circus for decades. The move came after years of protest from animal rights groups that claimed that the animals were abused in the circus, and in 2011, the circus’ parent group, Feld Entertainment paid a $270,000 fine to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Feld didn’t admit wrongdoing but did agree to new training for all employees who handled animals, according to CNN.
After retirement, the elephants were sent to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Central Florida, where the animals are cared for and studied. Among the studies are cancer research, because elephants surprisingly, given their size and large number of cells, have very low cancer rates.
Being ringmaster is an extension of yourself — an exciting, engaging extension of yourself.
David Shipman, ringmaster
“It was interesting to be on the ground floor when that transition was going on,” Shipman says. “It was bittersweet. What’s so great about the transition is understanding what the circus was trying to do,” particularly with the conservation of Asian elephants and cancer research, he says.
With the departure of the elephants, the circus has changed, Shipman says, “but it is still a magnificent show.”
The circus has other animal acts, including horses and tigers. But a lot of the focus is on human acts, including the strongman, the tight rope, BMX bikers and the human cannonball.
Soon it will not include Shipman, who says he’s ready for a new adventure, although he’s not sure what is next for him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It will be difficult to top ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’”