Preview: Circus historian LaVahn Hoh discusses the thrill and darkness of life under the big top


UVA’s Department of Drama sends in the clowns during a four day celebration of the American circus. (Photo by Michael Bailey)

LaVahn Hoh admits he has sawdust in his veins. “That’s what circus folk say,” he confesses with an impish smile that belies his age, “when you’re infatuated with the big top—with the sheer spectacle and intricate logistics of the ringmasters, clown acts, lion-tamers, and dare devils all sharing space in today’s circus.”

A world-famous historian of the circus, and internationally acclaimed author, Hoh teaches in the Drama Department at UVA, and brings his name and expertise to the upcoming production of Elephant’s Graveyard. But the sawdust in his veins has been there for nearly his whole life, and you can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he recalls his first encounter with the circus.

When he was 4 years old, Hoh’s mother took him to the circus. He was amazed at what he saw happening simultaneously in the three rings—animals performing at the crack of a whip and clowns rushing into a burning building, trapeze artists and strong men, and all the time, a ringmaster barking out directions for the audience to watch this or that. It was a “magical moment,” he admits, and from that point on, he was hooked. By the time he was 7, he cajoled his parents into taking him to Baraboo, Wisconsin, the winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, so he could satisfy his obsession.

There was, as it turns out, no satisfying his obsession, and while there was no graduate school for circus history, Hoh continued to teach himself about the circus throughout his early career. He read widely and voraciously, and like all autodidacts, he possesses an enviable ability to rattle off names and dates of significant events in circus history, going as far back as 2300 B.C.E.

Hoh has taught at Clown College, where students learn the art of being a successful clown. “Never approach a child,” Hoh advises them. “Always let the child discover you. Otherwise, you become the creepy clown.” Yet, Hoh was not content merely to teach there, and his historical expertise was not lost on UVA. Richard Warner, the director of Elephant’s Graveyard, and Hoh’s colleague in the Drama Department, admits that Hoh is one of the “purest scholars I know,” but it is Hoh’s abilities as a raconteur that make him a favorite of his students.

It started at UVA in 1980, when Hoh was invited to give one lecture on the circus in a class. The next time the class was taught, it was two lectures. The third time the class was offered, the professor told Hoh as pleasantly as he could to “get his own damned class.” And he did. Hoh teaches a course in the history of the circus: its Egyptian origins, and its colorful, meandering trail from English equestrian schools to the newly minted United States.

For Hoh, the course gets what he refers to as the “iPad generation” up close and personal with a new art form. Today, he said with a snap of his fingers, it is “click it and there it is,” but in the 1920s and ’30s, the circus was the Internet. Today’s iPad generation responds to the circus, Hoh said, because they’ve been living in a world that the circus has played a major part in creating.

This is not to say that the circus was always cotton candy and razzle-dazzle. Sometimes, as Hoh recalls, things went wrong. In 1944, a Ringling tent burned to the ground, killing 169 people, and, more recently, in 1997, Wayne Franzen, a tiger-tamer, was attacked and killed by his tiger, leading Hoh to say that when you talk to circus folk, they insist on calling it a tiger “trainer,” not a “tamer.” “No one can actually tame a wild beast no matter how gifted they are, or how much time they spend with their animal.”

Elephant’s Graveyard
Culbreth Theatre
March 21-24

Elephant’s Graveyard takes up one such event, when Mary, an elephant performing in Tennessee as part of the Sparks Brothers Circus in 1916, killed a local man who had been hired to march with her in a parade. For the crime, Mary was hanged by a crane, the only known lynching of an elephant. The play, though, is more than a lurid exposé; it details the encounters between townspeople and performers, and explores the notions of spectacle in the circus, as well as in the theater itself.

Hoh designed the set for the production, and he compares its style and technique to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It is a collection of voices telling the story, but without ever representing the elephant on stage (sorry, no Warhorse puppeteers here). Still, like Hoh’s class, the play’s real strength is its storytelling, promising to bring a new generation of audience members face to face with an art form as American as George Washington. Will it make you want to run away and join the circus? Hoh smiles. “If I had done that, my mother would have killed me.” Even so, Hoh quickly adds, you might find a little more sawdust in your veins when the night is through.