One of the oldest media is the public performance, communicating physically and orally a range of ideas and emotions to a live physically present audience. We haven’t heard much about such performance media in the pages of the instant publication or the work of the Society of Media Psychology and Technology. So to redress somewhat the relative lack of coverage, we investigated a national entity making a tour of America called the UniverSoulCircus, and saw it when it appeared in Philadelphia, November 2017. On their website they boast “We are every family, every culture, every generation, we are UniverSoul!” This is a form of circus taking place in an era when circuses are struggling to survive, with such venerable giants as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey having recently closed shop. We were interested simply in briefly reporting on the UniverSoulCircus, possibly one of the last of its kind, seeking insights about this class of media.
This performance medium was SRO in a massive tent in a Philadelphia park. The show was characterized by relentless movement; appeals to a modern audience through music and cultural elements; high variety within and between acts; high decibels with few moments of quiet; and with constant audience engagement via exhortation from performers or show masters to scream, shout, or stand up; with a primarily family and young audience that was on its own initiative inserting its collective lungs and clapping hands into the thunderous performances. In a 2 ½ hour production, the acts, all occurring on the same circular stage, often over-flowing into the tightly-packed audience, ranged from gala dance sequences, to remarkable acrobatics, to slap-stick Three-Stooges-style comedy, to death-defying motorcyclists in high aerial jumps, to child volunteers on stage hilariously imitating expert performers, to some amazing animal acts of speed, precision, and often rapidly changing group formations involving elephants, camels, zebras, and horses. We deeply abhorred the use of those beautiful animals, especially in a room experiencing extremely high-decibel music and noise, and prevented two-thumbs up for this event; but we were impressed by the astounding psychology underlying their training. Small oral or gestural signals were all it took, it seemed, to move enormous elephants every which way, from walking on hind legs, to climbing up on a table, to sitting on a bench, to running at considerable speed in patterns on the stage. During several short breaks in the program, people could pay to join others in riding elephants around the stage, sometimes with 8 people, mostly kids, on the back of a single elephant.
This performance media event incorporated several psychological features of Type-T behavior, a term coined by Farley (2001) to reflect thrill-seeking, risk-taking behavior often characterized by such attributes as intensity, novelty, variety, complexity, creativity, and more. These features seemed central in the performance media under discussion, and combined with what one might label emotional contagion, produced a crowd impact that few media could match. In each segment, stunts seemed to become increasingly “death-defying,” and with every stunt the reaction from the audience seemed to breed an even greater energy and reaction for the next stunt. This old-fashioned exemplar of performance media, massively effective in our view in audience engagement and joy in the digital era, might be systematically studied across other venues (e.g., live music concerts) to examine the generalizability of the informal impressions of total audience engagement and satisfaction noted herein. A rigorous follow-up across several venues might yield valuable insights into a form of media that has survived human history up to this era of the 21st century screen, tapping into a timeless joyful psychology of a medium we must understand better and not abandon.
Farley, F. (2001). A genetic model of creativity and the Type T personality complex with educational implications. In M. Lynch & C.R Harris (Eds.), Fostering Creativity in Children, K-8: Theory and Practice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.