Life Under the Big Top: This Calvin Alum Calls the Circus "Home"
by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85
Matt Sahr's life is a circus.
He spends 48 weeks of the year on the road. He rarely stays anywhere for more than a week. He works 50-60 hours a week. He works every major holiday except Christmas. He carries a cellular phone at all times for emergencies.
Would you expect anything different from the performance director of "The Greatest Show on Earth?"
The 1993 Calvin alum spends his days (and nights) trouble shooting and overseeing the daily happenings of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus..
"It's hard to explain exactly what my job is," said Sahr. "During a show my job is checking with each act before it goes on to see if everything is okay. Sometimes if there is a loose wire or lighting that is really going to cause a problem, I need to be sure it gets fixed. I watch all of their acts to be sure they are hitting all of their tricks."
Circus life is quite a switch from Sahr's original aspiration to be a minister.
"I never went through that college indecision of not knowing what to do until the end," he said. "It was my last semester at Calvin--after all my pre-sem requirements were done--that I decided it wasn't for me."
While at Calvin, Sahr had been involved in theater. He wrote and directed "The Seventh Dream of Alive" and was involved in some other productions as well.
"After I graduated I was a typesetter and was doing some theater," he said. "I decided that I liked theater and should get some more education in that field."
While at the University of Akron, near his home in Hudson, Ohio, Sahr met someone who worked for the circus. "He told me that if I was ever interested in working for the circus to let him know. I said immediately, 'I'm letting you know.'"
After earning his master's degree in theater History, Sahr interviewed with the circus and was onboard the train in December, 1997.
Sahr's first day of work was a bit overwhelming, he said.
"They were working on the parade when all of the performers circle into the ring," he said. "The parade came out the door- eight floats, 100 people, 10 horses, eight elephants, two llamas- and I was told, 'Your're in charge of this.'"
For the last two years his life has been one new experience after another.
"To make it all work, you need to build relationships," said Sahr. "If I see someone not hitting their tricks, I will talk to them after the show. It's not easy to go up to someone when I can't even jump straight up and down on a trampoline and say. 'Shouldn't you be doing a double there?' Usually it's because of an injury or an illness and I need to know about that. I need to know about every injury, sickness or whatever and that involves trying to maintain a relationship with every performer."
With more than 100 performers-most of whom do not speak much English- that is not an easy task.
"It was a big culture shock for me. I got an immediate education in other cultures without ever leaving the country," said Sahr. "Most of the acts are family acts from a different country with a very different culture. Right now some of our acts are from Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Spain, and Gabon, Africa. There are times when they've needed my help and there are times when I've needed their help. I know it's a cliché, but the circus is a family- a dysfunctional one- but still a family. You need to have people you can rely on and people you can live with day in and day out."
Living with people day in and day out certainly is an issue when in addition to eight shows a week, the troupe spends the rest of the time living and traveling from city to city in their 55-car train.
Sahr's "home" is an 8 foot-by-20 foot car, which includes a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom..
Every week is a new city except for some large venues like Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Dallas. There the show runs for two weeks.
A typical schedule includes travel on Monday, set-up on Tuesday (which takes about 12 hours), shows run Wednesday-Sunday, with multiple shows on the weekend days.
"The Travel is wonderful," said Sahr. "When you travel by train like we do, you're home at the same time. You can watch movies, read, sleep or just look out the window. When you're going by rail lines, you go through wilderness, backyards, a lot of places that you don't see by interstate."
Since each show is scheduled for a two-year run, no city is repeated during the full two years.
"Every week you're going to some new place in the country," said Sahr.
While traveling, the circus staff can eat at the cafeteria, historically called the "pie car," because all they used to serve was shepherd's pie, explained Sahr. The trailer kitchen also serves meals to employees on the day of a show.
While in a city, Sahr spends about half of his time at the train yard and the other half inside the performance facility. A blue and white school bus transport performers between their train homes and the show site every hour.
"In some places we do get out to do some sightseeing or to a movie," said Sahr. "In some ways it's alot like living in the dorms at Calvin. After a show, a group of people will get together to go see a midnight movie or get something to eat."
Other getaways depend on the week, he said.
Overseeing doctor appointments, follow-ups and treatment in different cities each week is another part of Sahr's job.
"I can't remember the last week we didn't have a sprained ankle or something," said Sahr. "There always is some kind of injury that needs attention."
Other than injuries, Sahr also monitors other situations. "It seems like you're always dealing with a crisis. There is always at least one person that thinks everything is a crisis. Some times it's a lot like being a high school principal or a babysitter. Performers have their own way of thinking and in some ways can be like children, but in other ways they are more dedicated than anyone you've ever seen. They take great pride in their acts."
Each show is an educational experience for Sahr, he said. "I feel like it has forced me to be productive in non-ideal environments," he said. "I have to think on my feet. If somebody falls, that's not a part of the show and we have to get them out of there somehow. If the lights go out because of the power we're using, it's usually not a problem because we have generators. But if it happens with the tiger trainer in the cage with 12 tigers, that's a problem."
During a recent show in Grand Rapids, Sahr was faced with the unlikely event of a very heavy compressor being delivered right in the path of the tiger carts. "When I found out we couldn't drive the tiger carts up until the compressor was moved, we had to go with something else. The clowns are very used to me yelling, "stre-e-e-e-etch," which means take up more time until we can figure out what to do."
On a good night, Sahr doesn't have a job, he said. "The idea is to do the same show that we did on opening night two years ago. That sounds pretty simple," he said. "But, for instance, if the elephants aren't interested in doing that, we have to make adjustments."
Likewise, Sahr has had to make adjustments in his personal life to pursue his circus career. Giving up common pleasures such as holidays with family, outside relationships and even simple things like owning a car, has been challenging.
"Going from wanting to be a minister to this is quite a change and not what I would have expected a few years ago," he said. "I chose Calvin because I thought it was rare to find a Christian college that was not a Bible college, and also offered a really good education. That was important to me and still is. With the circus there's not a lot of social outlet for religion, but what I have found is an incredible opportunity to practice patience, honesty, kindness, integrity. I don't know of a way to get through this job without expressing those virtues. You can make a big difference in someone's life here by being kind or a good listener or being patient. That's also something I never expected from this job."
~From the Winter 1999 edition of the Spark.