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UniverSoul Circus Celebrates 25 Years

by Mike Wharton • in
  • Features
  • October 2018
• Created: October 13, 2018

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The proscenium frame for entrances brightens with Absen LED panels.

Touring Production Celebrates Inclusiveness, Hip-Hop Vibe Along with Circus Talent

This is an against-all-odds kind of story — a story about a young kid who made it happen. It is also the story about the efforts of the producers and designers to bring a show of extraordinary quality and family entertainment value at a ticket price level that is affordable to the general public, consistently.

Since 1994, Cedric Walker, founder and CEO of UniverSoul Circus, has led an impressive one-ring circus dubbed “the coolest show on earth” while also sharing a message of inclusion. As he notes on the circus website, universoulcircus.com, “We get to share our culture with everyone, and each member of the audience leaves with a message: that everyone belongs.” Celebrating the talents of people of color from the U.S. and around the world, the circus, based in Atlanta, features performers from two dozen countries around the world.

In 25 years of performances, UniverSoul Circus has staged more than 14,000 shows, to a total audience of 25 million. This year, the one-ring circus has been drawing audiences in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Jacksonville and Tampa FL, Buffalo NY, Greensboro NC, Birmingham AL, Richmond VA, Jackson MS and Hampton Roads VA.

Show highlights include engagement and interaction with the audience, transporting show-goers to a magical place. The shows can be inspirational as well as entertaining, with special events including free shows (and VIP treatment) for homeless kids and appeals on Facebook to help families with kids in need find bone marrow donors who might be a match.

Supporting the world Walker and his creative team have developed are the corps of men and women technicians who set-up and stage this extravaganza, the village that surrounds it, and transport this production around the world from January to November, with a rigorous show schedule of 10 shows a week, every week.

The shows walk a tightrope between a full array of show technology and the need to keep ticket prices affordable.

‡‡         The Big Top

As the name indicates, the UniverSoul Circus performances take place within an exquisite Canobbio Italian circus tent (canobbio.com) that is basically floating and suspended on giant steel cable. The load bearing section of the tent consists of the four king poles and the structure which connect it and the cupola (the small dome on a drum on top of a larger dome, adorning a roof or ceiling.)

When the show moves, it is akin to transporting and setting up an entire city. It is fully realized and self contained with power, water, bathrooms, fences, a box office, and concessions. A large number of performers and crew are housed onsite. The current setup includes two productions on the road, simply called A and B. A third production was executed for the infamous Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland this year, too.

Perhaps most inspiring is the fact this troupe of technicians and performers do all this themselves. They are totally self- contained.

The exquisite Canobbio Italian circus tent is basically floating and suspended on giant steel cables.

‡‡         Beginnings

When UniverSoul Circus got its start in the parking lot outside the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1994, the three creators were founder-entrepreneur Cedric Walker, ringmaster-host Cal Dupree and production designer Tom Marzullo. Marzullo, at the time working with Creative Management Services, took a rented circus tent and their convention style tradeshow gear to make the tent look like a venue.

“It was very successful, and very expensive,” recalls Marzullo, “but Cedric wanted to press on, so the following year we added a Detroit run of shows.”

Thanks to Walker’s marketing ability, UniverSoul continued to succeed, and in its second year the show gained a good deal of notoriety, attracting major sponsors like General Mills and Ford. The unique appeal to a specific audience propelled that success. Unlike the other traveling circuses back then, such as the Shrine, Big Apple Circus and Ringling Brothers — UniverSoul used popular music as the sound track bed instead of a traditional circus-like music.

“The guy really knows how to sell a show,” says Marzullo, of Walker. Along with its unique urban-style appeal, UniverSoul has long set itself apart by blending traditional circus performances with impressive visuals using lasers and automated lighting — all while staying within a tight budget.

“It’s a really hard thing to do, to move this show from city to city and keep the production at a certain standard when the top ticket is less than the average concert ticket, and you only have 2,000 seats to sell,” Marzullo adds.

Marzullo credits Robert Roth, Christie Lites’ account exec for UniverSoul, as the one “who first introduced me to Cedric.” The three of them collaborate to ensure that the production is able to keep walking on the tightrope between dazzling visual impact and budget constraints year after year.

The crew on the road ultimately has the responsibility and challenge of keeping UniverSoul’s show intact. Leading that team is lighting director and production manager Geoffrey Matthews, a.k.a. “The Kid,” who certainly paid his dues in the trenches getting there, but who also defers all credit to his mentors, who have shepherded him through the years.

GLP X4 Bar 20s highlight the high-wire acts and outline the outer circle truss.

‡‡         “The Kid”

“Geoffrey Mathews started out as a van driver, literally at the bottom of the production, and through his own perseverance and initiative has turned himself into competent programmer and production manager,” says Marzullo. “He lives and breathes the whole thing. He literally took short naps in his car on site for two and half weeks programming and pulling this year’s show together and deserves a lot of credit for actually making it all work.”

When Mathews started with UniverSoul in 2003, he was just 19. A short while later, he met Marzullo for the first time. “We were producing a UniverSoul DVD in Atlanta, and this young man spoke up for the followspot operators about a pay discrepancy, and he made his point.”

Mathews recalls thinking, “Tom kind of noticed, and he wound up supporting us and helped find a compromise.”

Westsun was the lighting vendor at the time, and the techs on the crew took notice of Mathews, too. “They kind of took me under their wing and taught me to be dimmer tech first, then moving lights.”

During UniverSoul’s downtime, Mathews began getting tour work from Westsun, and for some of those gigs, Marzullo had asked for Mathews specifically. Then, in 2010, for Justin Bieber’s debut tour, Mathews did a stint as a Christie Lites tech for Marzullo and got some board time doing the occasional opening act.

“At the end of that, Tom asked me to go back to UniverSoul and be their lighting crew chief, because they were going through a whole redesign phase,” Mathews says, whereupon Mathews met Brian Spett, programmer and LD for the show.

Walker, Marzullo and Roth, who had all seen how Mathews had progressed, sent him to a training seminar at A.C.T. Lighting. Mathews returned and continued under Spett as a programmer and operator of the show. Often, acts and performers roll in for a few shows then move on. Rather than have Marzullo and Spett come back out to program these “new” acts, Geoffrey and talent director Deneise Howard would make the necessary changes.

“I’m very grateful to Cedric, Tom and Robert for their faith in me,” says Mathews, “Tom made this transition into a programmer/operator in my life really easy, as has Brian.”

Spett has been the video and lighting programmer and operator for UniverSoul since 2011. “It’s an interesting project from a lighting perspective, just because of the required blend of theater, a traditional circus, and hip-hop concert,” he says. “My first year out there, I stayed out as operator and gained a real appreciation of what the crew goes through. The crew and the gear are in show mode 40 hours a week, as opposed to a typical tour, which is maybe six or seven. Really, the spirit out there is incredible.

“The people out there put the tent up no matter what the weather conditions,” Spett adds. “Working under these extreme conditions that rival the muddy site of any large festival, they literally take a field and turn it into an entertainment village. Geoffrey has really grown into his own as a programmer and operator and making sure everything happens out there,” Spett continues. “Until you go out and do it, you don’t realize how difficult some of the environmental factors make things.”

By 2016, Marzullo says, “I knew Geoffrey was ready to take on the next step.” Mathews became production manager as well at that point.

“I never in my wildest dreams even thought I would be involved in lighting, let alone be in the position I am today,” beams Mathews. “Once I got into it, I came to love and appreciate the beauty of lighting.”

As with the performers, the UniverSoul circus crew members come from around the world. Many arrive via a connection the circus has with a South Africa-based organization, the South African Roadie Association (SARA) — including some “who have never toured like this before,” Mathews notes. “They have a school there and training, but like you know, there’s no substitute for the road.

“I had seen those military-like guys running crews and knew I didn’t like being talked at like that, so I always made the effort to treat people right, which was difficult with the language barriers we run across, traveling the world,” Matthews continues. “I never berate people. I try to teach and pay it forward, just like Tom and Brian and all the guys in my past who took the time to teach me. Just because I know more or have done this longer does not mean I am better than them. Because, at the end of the day, I’m just here to try to make them a better man and a better human being, to help him provide for his family, just like the guys did for me.”

Once the show has a few weeks under its belt and the crew gets into their groove, Mathews spends as much free time as possible teaching them about different aspects of the production. “A lot of time, we’ll stay at a city two or three weeks and have some downtime,” says Mathews. “We’ll open up moving lights, or I’ll get them on the board so they can learn about timing, understand structure and rhythm, and how to put a song together.”

He also trains them on the Catalyst and video aspects of the show. “Really, anything they want to learn about, I’m there. I tell these guys, and it’s a fact… when they leave this tour, they will know enough to qualify for any tour.” The crew clearly appreciates Mathews, as he has been invited to the school in South Africa next year to give a lecture on his journey.

Marzullo goes on to point out several more key members in the UniverSoul organization. He describes Danny Rodriguez, director of operations, as “a ‘can do’ guy. His circus knowledge and herculean efforts to move this show around the world are phenomenal. In fact, in many major cities when a fire marshal is unsure of another show’s stunt safety, they frequently call Danny for his opinion.”

Along with Spett, Esteban De La Torre and Kabelo Mashobane are the “mainstay” programmers for the production, Marzullo notes. “These guys do major work. The programming side of this show is made of the three of them, with input from Tom, Robert, Cedric and Deneise.” Marzullo also credits film director John Watkins for his contributions to the creative team.

Programmer De La Torre, a grandMA trainer, credits Mathews and his role in the production. “Geoffrey really understands all the different aspects of the show, especially the safety considerations needed in lighting aerialists. Perhaps more importantly, he, Tom and Deneise know what Cedric and the audience like.”

Marzullo also appreciates the contributions made by all his team players. “My philosophy of building a show is simple,” he says. “I go out and find people smarter than me, then focus their individual talents to bring the show to life, which is enriched by the team’s collective imagination.”

The Follow-Me system allows for new spotlight angles within the tent.

‡‡         Lighting

Along with Westsun, an early lighting vendor, Walker and his UniverSoul crew have turned to PRG and R.A. Roth for lighting gear, and for the last several years, Christie Lites has provided fixtures for the production, which is always striving to incorporate the latest in visual technologies. UniverSoul was among the first, for example, to use a prototype of Auto-Pilot. “This is a show fully realized under the mantra of ‘technology is really our friend,’” says Marzullo.

“The technology has caught up to a point now where what was financially unrealistic a recently as five years ago is now well within our grasp in execution,” adds Roth. “Cedric always has, and remains so today, supportive of a technologically advanced presentation.”

The fixtures on the current tour are all first-run, not third- or fourth-tier gear, using the same products that are out on some of the biggest shows currently touring.

Front lighting has always been a challenge, with challenges including the angle of the roof, the 270+ degree audience seating and the lack of rigging points beyond the cupola (the four main poles). Marzullo’s solution and persistence, combined with old school experience and Roth’s knowledge of new technology, fixed the problem.

The new design has three concentric rings, which scallop out in larger diameters. The outermost rings have 12-foot pipes angled to mimic the slope of the tent towards the audience at 30 degrees, with a “T” at the end.

Some valuable real-world observational knowledge came from a conversation Roth had with Butch Allen, who used Martin MAC Axioms on an Eric Church tour as a power wash at 70-foot trim heights.

A hybrid wash hard edge, the Axiom is impressively bright. (The 400W source belies the efficiency of the fixture.) Coupled with the Follow-Me system, they made excellent spotlights. In standard mode, they solved the front and key light dilemma. The use of the Axioms throughout the rig also simplified the production’s show programming, and when used in conjunction with the Follow-Me system, Spett notes that the lighting crew is able to achieve “spotlight angles that were never possible in the tent before.”

Installing Follow-Me to perform in a 360-degree tent environment proved to be challenging, however, to that company’s software team. The Christie Lites install tech, Jacob Alexander, “went through a lot of sleepless nights and did an amazing job delivering a finished product, and a veritable bible on how to assemble Follow-Me from the software and the disparate parts to completion,” says Roth. Christie’s installation crew chief, Ian Tucker, and project manager, Bobby Braccia, also played a large role.

Fixtures from German Light Products also have an important presence in the show. GLP’s versatile batten fixture, impression X4 Bar 20’s, outline the bottom chords of the truss, providing beams, wash and multi-colors. Black lights and strobes also play a key role — for Marzullo, no show is complete without them. “The [GLP] JDC1 is not just a big bright strobe light,” he says. “It’s a great multipurpose wash fixture for getting levels and texture.”

Three goal post arches in the vomitory entrances provide additional front light, with truss toners used to “jazz up” the audience by giving them their first interactive feeling with the shows that Walker and Deneise Howard so carefully craft and cultivate.

The bi-parting doors ofAbsen tiles serve as both an entrance and backdrop for the performers.

‡‡         Video

Dale Kivimaki, owner of Freestyle Productions (freestyleproductions.com) in Minneapolis, MN has worked with Marzullo on many projects since 1992. When UniverSoul added video seven years ago, Freestyle became the vendor. They provide all the LED tiles making up the hard proscenium-like surround and bi-parting doors for the performers entrance.

“As is the procedure with the lighting and sound vendors, we send a technical team out each year during the first few weeks of runs,” says Kivimaki. “During that time, we train and assist the traveling crew out there on how to set up the gear, because the aerialists and performers that sometimes help set the show up are not what you might call regular stagehands.”

Among the challenges facing the video production — dusty outdoor settings. Not all LED tiles perform well in that kind of environment. Absen 7.8mm LED tiles, with their IP65 rating, resolved those issues. To protect the Catalyst media servers from the dust as well as heat, Darrel Weslander, video lead installer, came up with an ingenious cooling enclosure.

Rigging of video has been expanded to incorporate the PA which adds to the proscenium experience. Here again, Marzullo’s insistence and Roth’s ingenuity combined with the advanced technology made this possible, because the audio gear has become more compact, more sophisticated, and the weight has dropped dramatically. The computer modeling programs available can shade the airwaves to satisfy the 270-degree requirements.

Eighth Day Sound is the audio vendor, and their design team worked closely with Roth, Dale Gauldin, Tom Cusimano, Davy Saintsing and Robert Sondergaard to build a structure that works in an environment that includes grass, gravel, and uneven asphalt lots.

“Robert has been a strong supporter and contributor for everything I’ve done,” says Marzullo. “If it hadn’t been for his belief and ingenuity, some of the things we accomplished this year would not have happened. Believe me, more than a few people have told me I’m crazy!”

Martin MAC Axioms paint the tent and draw the crowd in

‡‡         Audio

James “Chad” Fuller has been the designer of the circus audio for the last eight years. “We choose Eighth Day Sound (8thdaysound.com) as vendor this 2018 season due to the phenomenal service that Eighth Day always provides, around the clock, around the globe.”

Eight d&b audiotechnik J-Infra subwoofers are used for low frequency support along with 16 V-Series speakers. Eight Y-Series loudspeakers handle ancillary fill, with control coming via a Midas 32-channel digital console and Cat5 network.

In the early days, Marzullo and engineer Jeff Sisk created the audio tracks. Kyle Bradley joined the creative team a few years later, and he has looked after the shows’ audio and sound FX ever since. Kyle is another UniverSoul success story — he started out on the cleanup crew and advanced his way through the production crew to become a valued member of the creative team. Ricardo “Taco” Gomez, the mixing engineer. has been with the UniverSoul Circus for over a decade.

The top ring of the truss structure fits inside the peak of the big top. Photo by K. Bradley

‡‡         The Legacy

“It really has taken a full 25 years to get this where I am comfortable with what we have,” says Marzullo, who is 65 but does not have plans to retire anytime soon. “It’s really important to me that the next generation of people focus on what made this such a great life for me.”

“We’ve certainly had plenty of experience at not getting it quite right,” jokes Roth.

In closing, Marzullo notes his intention to “continue to pass the baton to people who have the old-school work ethic as well as the technical knowledge. I know what I want to see, and I know enough to ask for certain things, but without those guys, without the company support, I’m just a guy asking for red instead of blue.”

UniverSoul Circus

Crew
Producer and CEO: Cedric Walker
Production Designer: Tom Marzullo
LD/Programmer: Geoffrey Mathews
Programmers: Esteban De La Torre, Kabelo Mashobane, Brian Spett
Lighting Co: Christie Lites
Christie Lites Rep: Robert Roth
Christie Lites Crew: Jacob Alexander Ian Tucker, Bobby Braccia, Brandon Leadham, Dave Alpert, Greg Kocurek
Director of Operations:
Danny Rodriguez
Director of Talent & Production:
Deneise Howard
Video Co: Freestyle Productions/
Dale Kivimaki
Video Lead Installer:
Darrel Weslander
Audio Co: Eighth Day Sound
Sound Design: James “Chad” Fuller

Touring Crew A:
Production Manager/Lighting Programmer: Geoffrey Mathews
Lighting Crew Chief: Seiso Sibusiso Sithole
Spotlight Operators: Sikumbuzo Sibanda, Rodney Thabo Mothibi, Mofenyi Mofamadi, Sylvarmo Sauls
Video Tech: Jaquan Thomas
Rigger: Mpumelelo Dakile
Audio Tech: Rusmwan Gomez

Touring Crew B:
Production Managers: Simon Petrus
Lighting Programmer: Kabela Mashobane
Lighting Crew Chief: Sibusiso Mathebula
Spotlight Operators: Rodney Thabo Mothibi, Anthony Dumisani
Khambule
Video Tech: Tumelo Marcus Mavayela
Playback Engineer: Kyle Bradley
Rigger: Blondie Henderiek Sello
Audio Techs: Tebogo Maphiri,
Romeo Benedict Mbulelo

Gear
Lighting:
1 grandMA2 Full console
1 grandMA onPC (backup)
1 Three-channel Follow-Me system
38 Martin MAC Axioms
42 GLP impression X4 Bar 20’s
8 GLP JDC1 Strobes
16 Elation Emotion fixtures
12 Elation ZW19 LED Washes
6 Elation Sixpar 200’s
4 Lycian M2 long throw spots
12 4’ CL “F” type pre-rig truss sections
15 4’ Type “B” truss sections
6 14” Type “B” truss sections

Video:
180 Absen 7.8mm LED tiles
16 Absen dual rigging bars
4 Absen single rigging bars
4 DBStar LED video wall processors
2 Catalyst Pro v5 media servers
2 Infinite DVI over Cat 6 transmitters
2 Infinite DVI over Cat 6 receivers

 

For more information, visit www.universoulcircus.com.

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