Ringling Brothers’ Alana Feld Didn’t Have To Run Away To Join the Circus
After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is packing up its tents for good.
For a half-century, the iconic American entertanment company has been owned by the Feld family.
Here’s how Alana Feld described her life’s work in the three-ring world in a Forward interview last year.
Alana Feld runs her business like a circus. And that’s a good thing. As the third-generation owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Feld has reinvented the circus for the Facebook era; her changes, the most sweeping in a century, are meant to appeal to audiences more into selfies than sideshows. Ringling’s new Out of this World, which opened in Los Angeles in July, has finally retired the circus’s Asian elephants, which had long drawn protests from animal-rights advocates; in their place are a sci-fi storyline, 3-D animation, ice-skating and multilevel “rings.”
Behind the circus is the story of a Jewish dynasty. Irvin Feld bought Ringling Bros. for $8 million in 1967. His son, Kenneth Feld, expanded the business into Feld Entertainment, a multibillion-dollar entertainment behemoth with franchises like Monster Jam and Disney on Ice. Now, Kenneth Feld’s daughters Alana, Nicole and Juliette Feld, help run the enterprise. On any given day, 10 Feld productions are underway somewhere in the world, providing an annual audience of more than 30 million people in 66 countries, according to one report.
Alana Feld, 36, lives in Manhattan with her husband, private-equity executive Joshua Hackel — the grandson of Holocaust survivors — and their two daughters. The Forward caught up with her in New York City.
The Forward: How would you explain the circus to someone from outer space?
Alana Feld: Ha — our new show takes place in outer space! There are so many elements that make the circus: talented performers, costumes and music, animals that are part of show. There’s the theatricality of the lighting and the pyrotechnics. They all make the Ringling experience what it is.
Ringling is 146 years old. When you made the decision to reboot, how much looking back did you do?
I’m not looking at the past. I’m looking at what’s relevant and appealing to families of today. We’re about being on the cutting edge of entertainment for every generation. Ringling has been around as long as it has because it’s constantly changing.
It can be incredibly challenging to run a business with your family. How do you manage the personal versus professional?
Since we’re so close, there’s an informality in how we work together. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, okay, this is a business setting, especially when we’re meeting with associates outside the family.
Did your parents pressure you and your sisters to join the business?
Never. We came on board organically, once we thought we had something to contribute. The passion to work for the company was there. In fact, we’d worked for the company for a number of years. It just made sense to transition into producing Ringling on my own, and for my sister to focus on other areas of the company. The goal is always to do what’s best for the company.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
We grew up Reform Jews in Washington, D.C., and attended Washington Hebrew Congregation. My sisters and I all were bat mitzvahs there, and we went to Hebrew school there. Judaism was a big part of life, but not necessarily the biggest part. Religion for me means a nice commonality among friends and family more than the spirituality of it.
In an interview, your sister Nicole said that throughout history, “those persecuted in life — the Jews, the gypsies — have found the circus a haven.” Do you agree?
If you look at the folks in the circus, our performers, they’re such unique individuals. They are definitely a certain type of person. If everyone did what they do, it wouldn’t be an attraction. To be the type of person who really lives to entertain people is something really, really special. It truly makes them happier than anything in life.
It’s an interesting political moment to note how diverse the circus is. Where do you source out talent?
Our talent people travel the world. They check out circus schools, festivals, even other circuses. They’re also networked all over the world, including distant places where they can find obscure acts that have never performed in an arena. You find different skill sets in different places. Russia and Ukraine have been great for aerialists and acrobats. We have an incredible troupe of Chinese performers who do skate acrobatics. We’ve got performers from South America, and a high-wire act whose leader comes from Morocco. Some of our performers are even Jewish.
A lot’s been written about how Ringling’s retirement of its Asian elephants precipitated a huge change in your productions. How did you adapt?
There are three big points of change. First, the physical look of the show’s different. We’ve added ice to the performance area, and performers who thrill-skate. We used to have black rubber floors. Second, we added a storyline and a narrator. We wanted to help the audience focus more, cheer for the hero, boo the villain. Finally, we’ve added a lot of technology. We just launched the first Ringling app. And there’s now 3-D projection-mapping across the circus floor. We couldn’t do that with our old surfaces. You can with ice, and it’s incredible.
What does your father think of the new production?
I think he’s really, really pleased and excited. He’s a huge proponent of change. He’s a great source of guidance for me. I’ve sought his advice through the process. And he’s good — he waits until I ask before he gives his opinion.