Circus 1903 Will Recreate Acts from the Golden Age of Circus on Sept. 26-Oct. 1 at DPAC

Circus 1903 features mother and baby elephant puppets, created by Significant Object (photo by Martin Olmann)
Circus 1903 features mother and baby elephant puppets, created by Significant Object (photo by Martin Olmann)
<em>Circus 1903</em> features mother and baby elephant puppets, created by Significant Object (photo by Martin Olmann)
Circus 1903 features elephant puppets, created by Significant Object of London (photo by Martin Olmann)

To kick off its stellar 2017-18 SunTrust Broadway Series, the Durham Performing Arts Center invites Triangle theatergoers to step right up and enjoy the thrills and chills — under the Big Top — of eight performances of Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus on Sept. 26-Oct. 1. This captivating recreation of an old-timey, turn-of-the-century circus features a variety of high-flying, death-defying acts from the four corners of the globe. They include acrobats and aerialists, tightrope walkers and contortionists, jugglers and knife throwers, strong men and musicians, and more — all performing jaw-dropping feats designed to dazzle 21st century children of all ages.

Circus 1903 even features a pair of full-scale elephant puppets, created by Significant Object, the ingenious London-based puppeteers who brought the titular stallion, other cavalry mounts, and draft horses to full, glorious life in War Horse, when it galloped into DPAC on Oct. 2-7, 2012.

Circus 1903 is the circus reimagined, as it was at the dawn of the 20th century. “Going to the circus, and the lure of the circus, was at its peak in 1903,” claims Los Angeles-based international costume designer and wardrobe stylist Angela Aaron. “… It was an exciting time to go to the circus. You had the [circus] trains coming into town and the local people turning out to see them putting up the tent.”

Recreating circus performers’ costumes was quite a challenge, admits costume designer Angela Aaron. She consulted a lot of circus historians, combed the Internet for additional information, and ordered a 1903 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. “I went through that catalogue for general style lines,” she says. (Click here to take a three-minute behind-the-scenes tour of Circus 1903 with costume designer Angela Aaron.)

Aaron says that she was “looking for costumes that would (a) be generally appealing and (b) be something that modern-day performers could actually work in. They didn’t have Spandex back in the day,” she quips.

Angela Aaron created 81 authentic period costumes for the 26 cast members of <em>Circus 1903</em>
Angela Aaron created 81 authentic period costumes for the 26 cast members of Circus 1903

It was hard, says Aaron, “to get the costumes to look the way that we wanted them to look, and to function the way that the performers wanted them to function…. We had to do a lot of fabric testing. I learned a lot about the weight and quality of Spandex.” The fabrics were “sourced” from all over the world — from Asia, France, and Italy — says Aaron, and it was imperative that any fabric shrinkage happened before the costumes were cut and sewn.

She adds, “Our ringmaster, David Williamson, is basically worth the price of admission. He does comedy magic, and solicits audience participation from children. He’s 6’6″, and his top hat adds another six inches….

“The acts are wonderful, beautiful, and breathtaking, too,” says Angela Aaron. “There’s a lot of charm and love in Circus 1903. All of the people [onstage and backstage] genuinely love and respect each other, and it shows.”

She adds, “Circus 1903 is not a variety show…. You see people helping each other and picking up their props to set up for the next act. You do get to see a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes.

“It’s a show about the circus and circus life,” says Aaron. “That took some doing …” especially choreographing the transitions between the acts. But, she says, it’s fortuitous that director Neil Dorward has a strong dance background.”

“It’s an incredible coincidence,” says Angela Aaron, “that the year that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® closed is the year that we started to tour in the United States. The elephant puppets really give you a sense of what it would be like to be in the presence of elephants. That mother elephant takes six puppeteers to operate, and the baby elephant takes one.”

Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, played by well-known comedy magician David Williamson, emcees <em>Circus 1903</em> (photo by Colin Page)
Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, played by well-known comedy magician David Williamson, emcees Circus 1903 (photo by Colin Page)

Aaron notes that there is also another animal in the show in addition to the elephants. Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (played by David Williamson) has a pet raccoon (puppet) in his act named Rocky. “It’s a fun gag,” she says. “He uses three children and a pet raccoon onstage, and the results are uproarious.”

Born in Wichita, KS, in the 1970s, Angela Aaron moved to San Francisco, CA, as a teenager. She took the first step on her journey to becoming an international costume designer and wardrobe stylist when she moved to the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague for three years in the 1990s.

“I had the opportunity to work with a very talented photographer who was doing headshots for male and female models working for the top modeling agencies in Prague,” Aaron explains. She subsequently worked as fashion editor of Czech Esquire magazine before returning to the United States and moving to Los Angeles.

“I don’t have an education that’s related to fashion,” Angela Aaron admits. “… I’ve received an education [in costume design] by assisting others and working in the field.”

When Aaron was growing up, she says, “I was interested in psychology and how to save the world … [and] I had a background in retail,” during which she started learning about fashion and fabrics.

Angela Aaron parlayed her experience in men’s styling, acquired while working in the Czech Republic’s largest city, into a number of jobs with Southern California photographers, publications, and advertising agencies. She worked on print ads, commercials, and music videos. Then, in 2011, she started designing costumes for theatrical productions in cities in Australia, Japan, and Dubai. Her costumes eventually graced stages in London’s West End and, starting 2014, on Broadway in New York City.

“Several years ago,” Aaron recalls, “I was hired to do a style for the promotional show poster” for the producers of Circus 1903, who were then preparing to take their magic show, The Illusionists, to the Sydney Opera House. “I was hired to style the looks of seven magicians, who were, generally speaking, a class of performers in need of a style update,” says Aaron.

She served as costume designer for three Broadway shows — The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible (Dec. 4, 2014-Jan. 4, 2015), The Illusionists: Live on Broadway (Nov. 19, 2015-Jan. 3, 2016), and The Illusionists: Turn of the Century (Nov. 25, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017) — plus the tours of The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible, which played DPAC on Nov. 10-15, 2015, and The Illusionists: Live from Broadway, will play DPAC on May 11th and 12th, 2018.

Death-defying aerial acts keep <em>Circus 1903</em> audiences on the edge of their seats (photo by Mark Turner)
Death-defying aerial acts keep Circus 1903 audiences on the edge of their seats (photo by Mark Turner)

Then quicker than you can say “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Wichita native Angela Aaron joined the circus. In Australia. (When she was young, Aaron admits, “I wanted to be in the circus, but I didn’t want to do the work it takes to be in the circus. I wanted to be one of the glamorous girls that perform in the aerial acts.”)

Aaron says Circus 1903, which is performed in about 90 minutes, without an intermission, did a “soft opening” in Canberra in December 2016 before officially opening at the Sydney Opera House at Christmastime. Circus 1903 subsequently played the Hollywood Pantages theater in Los Angeles in February 2017 before making its New York City debut at Madison Square Garden on April 5-16. “I’m really proud of that,” says Aaron.

Angela Aaron says a lot of “blood, sweat, and tears” went into the creation of the costumes for Circus 1903. “For so many of us, it’s our baby,” she says. “It’s our crowning jewel. Everything was done with great care.”

She notes, “The costumes were made in several places. I had costumes made in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and even not far from [Durham] in Mocksville, North Carolina.”

Angela Aaron’s work on Circus 1903 has earned her a nomination for the Metropolitan Fashion Award for Costume Designer of the Year – Live Performance, which will be presented next month during Metropolitan Fashion Week. “This is my first nomination, so I’m very pleased,” she says. “The awards ceremony is to be held in Los Angeles on October 5th.”

Angela Aaron says DPAC patrons who come to see Circus 1903 will be experience a range of emotions. “You’ll laugh because there is great, family fun style comedy; you’ll be frightened because what these people are doing is real and truly dangerous; and you’ll be amazed at the presentation of the old-world circus acts,” she says.

Exhaustive research helped costume designer Angela Aaron recreate more than six dozen period costumes
Exhaustive research helped costume designer Angela Aaron recreate more than six dozen period costumes

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 20th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:; and Sept. 19th Raleigh, NC preview by Kathy Hanrahan for “What’s on Tap”:

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents CIRCUS 1903: THE GOLDEN AGE OF CIRCUS at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26-28, 8 p.m. Sept. 29, 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 30, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $30 and up, plus taxes and fees. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587,, or

SHOW: and


THE TOUR:,, and,






DPAC AGE RESTRICTION: “Please note that all guests require a ticket, regardless of age,” writes DPAC. “Children under the age of 5 are not allowed at this performance. Children must be able to sit quietly in their own seat without disturbing other guests. As a further courtesy to our guests, DPAC recommends one parent or chaperone for every one child in attendance.”

NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30th, performance.


Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus (2016 Canberra and 2017 Los Angeles, and New York old-time circus): (official website) and (Wikipedia).

Angela Aaron (Los Angeles-based international costume designer, wardrobe stylist, and founder and CEO of NiceSeats): (official website), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (YouTube channel).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).