GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas (AP) - Exequiel Lopez hoisted himself up in the air and spun around, first horizontally, then upside down, supporting himself with one arm. Ideally he’d be several feet in the air above a circus-tent crowd in some North Texas town, but on this hot Wednesday afternoon he settled for a shade tree in a vacant Grand Prairie parking lot, his aerial straps tied around a formidable branch.
Lopez, originally from Argentina, is one of more than 40 members of the Cirque MonteCarlo circus troupe camped out in the deserted parking lot. The novel coronavirus outbreak and the government-mandated shutdowns that followed cut the circus tour season short just as it was beginning, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Speaking in Spanish, Lopez said he must continue to perform and practice, even if it’s in a tree, just to stay busy.
“That’s why we practice, you know. We want to keep it going, somehow, even if it’s just for us,” said Franchesca Cavallini, 23, whose expertise is hula hooping. “It definitely hurts.”
Cirque MonteCarlo’s situation is one example of how life has screeched to a halt as the coronavirus spreads, leaving many questioning where their next paycheck will come from. Now, the circus performers are looking for a place to go and wondering when they’ll get back to work.
A typical circus camp would be filled with excitement as the crew prepares the tent and performers ready their costumes.
This camp is quiet.
A few people mingle in a cafeteria trailer while a handful practice in the shade, but mostly folks stick to their trailers. To reduce the risk of exposing the troupe to the virus, only one or two people leave the camp for food or other supplies, so most of the troupe has not been outside the campsite in weeks.
At night the group gathers for board games, puzzles, bingo or movies, Cavallini said. Sometimes they play soccer or volleyball. For a group of extroverts, games and practicing are no substitute for a live crowd.
“It really gets to you really fast,” Cavallini said. “We all love performing, we love putting on a show, we love getting ready for the show. So it’s hard to just kind of not do anything and to just stay there.
This abrupt end to the circus season has been tricky for the troupe. Typically, a circus would return to winter quarters, where its equipment is stored, while performers return to family.
But Cirque MonteCarlo, in its first season, doesn’t have a permanent base, and about 20 of the performers are in the United States on specific work visas. They came from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Ecuador and other places to perform for American crowds, said Cindi Cavalli, Franchesca’s aunt. The older Cavallini is the company’s office manager.
Those performers are in the United States on a P-1 Visa, she said. Entertainers and athletes are eligible for the temporary visas that allow them to perform or train in the United States. Though Cavallini Entertainment applied for a Small Business Administration loan, it can’t apply for the federal paycheck protection program, and performers with visas aren’t eligible for unemployment.
So far, many performers have been reluctant to return home. Flying internationally amid the outbreak is discouraged and risky. Parts of Europe are among the hardest hit regions, and many South American countries have travel bans.
Also, if they were to head home, they may not be able to get back if the circus season were allowed to resume.
“It’s in the back of everybody’s head,” Franchesca Cavallini said. “We really want the situation to kind of just end, you know, so we can get started again.”
Cirque MonteCarlo is camped on the Tarrant County side of Grand Prairie, where Judge Glen Whitley has banned gatherings of any kind outside of a household. His order didn’t specifically address traveling shows or RV parks. Whitley said he was unaware of the circus but suggested it stay put.
Cavallini Entertainment has an office in DeSoto, but nowhere to park and store a dozen tractor trailers and 14 RV campers and bunks.
The Cavallini family has performed for at least five generations, but this year owner Julio Cavallini started a new company, Cindi Cavallini said. Julio is Cindi’s brother-in-law.
Until recently, the troupe had rented space from another circus while they gathered equipment and crew. The show should be on the road through November, leaving them time to secure a permanent winter quarters. But the coronavirus changed that, Cavallini said.
The owner of an outdoor recreation venue in Grand Prairie has allowed the circus to stay on the edge of the parking lot, for a small fee, but Cavallini said the agreement is week by week.
As the group sits in the parking lot, they’re “burning through money,” she said. The circus is paid only when it puts on a show. While the company has cash reserves for emergencies, it’s running out fast, she said. The generator costs roughly $140 a day to run and a single grocery store trip to feed the crew for a few days can be upwards of $400.
They could soon be out of money.
Cavallini said her greatest fear is the company will not be able to provide for its troupe. Though she established a GoFundMe page, they have been reluctant to contact food banks or ask people for money, she said.
“The thing that’s so horrible is, at this point to ask people for money when they’re struggling is, you know, a hard thing to do,” Cindi Cavallini said. “Obviously, everybody else has their own problems right now. I mean, so many people have been laid off, so many people have been furloughed.”
Traveling circus performers are not the only entertainers struggling to find work during the outbreak. Musicians, artists and other athletes have found themselves looking for second income.
In mid-March, Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group laid off all its performers after postponing several Las Vegas shows, Reuters reported.
The Recording Academy and its foundation, MusiCares, established a COVID-19 fund to help those in the music industry struggling during the pandemic. Similarly, Hear Fort Worth and Film Fort Worth, along with the United Way of Tarrant County, expanded a creative industry relief fund to help support musicians, artists and filmmakers who have lost work. The group hopes to raise $20,000 and provide grants of at least $200 to applicants.
While most professional athletes have contracts that guarantee pay, boxers are only compensated when they fight, Forbes noted. Few fighters make millions of dollars, and most must pay their own expenses.
Despite the uncertainty looming, Franchesca Cavallini said she’s holding onto hope.
“I think it’ll all work out,” she said.
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