Kristen Michelle Wilson is the new ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Presents Circus Xtreme, becoming the first-ever female ringmaster in the circus’s 146-year history.
A dynamic performer with exceptional vocal skills, Wilson, 35, beat out hundreds of candidates in a nationwide audition process for this role.
Female performers have always been some of Ringling Bros.’ biggest stars, but Wilson of Orlando breaks the red top ceiling as the first female ringmaster when, on Jan. 12, she joins the show.
Wilson will replace David Shipman, who is retiring from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and she will take over at about the midpoint of the tour. Wilson’s premiere performance will be in Orlando, followed by stops in Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla., and then Atlanta from Feb. 15-March 5. (The circus will be at Philips Arena from Feb. 15-20, and Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena from Feb. 23-March 5. See box for more details.)
Wilson, lead singer of the Florida-based rock/funk band Sonic Gypsies and who also works in dinner theater shows, will be the 39th ringmaster in Ringling Bros. history. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Wilson by phone.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first female ringmaster in 146 years?
A: It is a true honor. It is almost like being a president. I am just thrilled. I first heard about the audition, which was back in the month of August, (when) a friend of mine on Facebook who was actually a former employer of mine who hired me (and a former ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus) shared on Facebook that there was a big worldwide search for a ringmaster. The posting he shared said “we are on worldwide search and we are open to both men and women.” It did strike me as OK, interesting, they are spelling out they are looking for the best person regardless of gender.
Q: What was the auditioning process like?
A: They had five audition cities in New York, in Vegas and Los Angeles, Dallas and finally the last city in Orlando, where I auditioned. … I found out a week later that I was one of the finalists and then we did several days of telephone interviews and then they had me drive down to Feld Entertainment studios, which is located about two hours south of Orlando. They had just me for a whole day of auditioning and they had me singing, for costume fittings and a lot of interview questions. At the end of the day, they offered me a contract.
Q: How has your background prepared you for this role?
A: Growing up in Tallahassee, I saw a number of plays and operas and concerts, and I knew very early on that being a performer was something I aspired to do, and just as soon as I could, I started performing in after-school programs. I was in theater performances, took dance classes, gymnastics. I took piano lessons and it was everything I could do to get my hands on this elusive lifestyle of being a professional performer and entertainer. When I was about 10 years old, I was cast in my first set of national commercials and I told my mom I would love to move to Orlando to pursue performance, and she said, “I want you to be a well-rounded person and want you to have a normal childhood so if you want to grow up and as an adult move to Orlando and pursue professional performing, you can, but not until you are a grown-up.” So sure enough, I busied myself doing as many community productions as I could. And I did everything I could to learn every aspect of production and entertainment. About six years ago, in my late 20s, I said this is the time. I feel ready and I am a prepared. I moved to Orlando and have been performing six days a week for the last six years.
Q: What kind of ringmaster will you be?
A: I think that the job of ringmaster is to show the audience the amazing things that we have in our show. And this show Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus Xtreme is really a spectacular mixture of adventure and exotic animals and incredible acts. And I really hope that I bring a youthful energy plus a rock star quality. I am very interactive with audiences. I love running around and interacting with audiences and performers alike. So I think that to a certain extent, you are going to have a rock star/pop star at the nucleus for this show. I am also a very big people person. I truly love people of all ages. I was a summer counselor for many years during my college years, so I love interacting with kids.
Q: Tell me about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Presents Circus Xtreme.
A: Circus Xtreme is a whirlwind adventure. We take audiences on this journey around the world, and we find incredible acts all over the place. We have a lot of these traditionally anticipated acts like the human cannonball and high-wire acts that always get audiences really excited and families talking, but then we also have an extreme element to the show, so we have a number of freestyle running (tumblers) who run off of walls. We have BMX riders, many of whom participated in the X Games. So it really is a spectacular event where you’ve got a lot of these incredible traditional elements you know and love blended together with this modern, cutting-edge acrobatics and technology to really create a one-of-a-kind show.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Presents Circus Xtreme
Feb. 15-20. $15-$65. Philips Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.
Feb. 23-March 5. $15-$65. Infinite Energy Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, www.InfiniteEnergyCenter.com.