When Hofstra students moved back into their dorms and started classes this January, one sophomore wasn’t among them – Matthew Lish decided to jump on the circus train instead. His alter ego is Phineas, the clown act that he has been working on since he was 3 years old. Taking the semester off to perform in 12 shows a week with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s “Circus Xtreme,” Lish has been crisscrossing the country performing for arenas of up to 18,000 people.
“It’s really, really exciting,” Lish said. “Basically what we do is take the circus to extreme levels. We mix modern acts like BMX and parkour with the classic acts like the human cannonball and the high wire.” He and 11 other clowns, along with the rest of the circus performers, go a distance equivalent to 5 miles over the course of the show. “It’s been physically exhausting,” Lish said. “We’re working a lot, we’re sweating a lot.”
He has been building up to being able to perform in front of crowds like this almost his entire life. It runs in the family – when Lish’s father was in college he began performing as a clown and passed his knowledge and skills down to Lish as a toddler. “Together, he and I have been learning more and more throughout the years and doing more shows,” Lish said. “My younger sister got involved and we took every performance opportunity we possibly could to hone our skills and put material out in front of an audience.”
When the opportunity for Lish to audition for the “greatest show on Earth” came about, he had to take it. The Queens native and mechanical engineering major had been working at a circus festival in Massachusetts during the summer of 2015 when he first tried out and he was offered a spot in the show. But he was about to start his freshman year at Hofstra, and the timing wasn’t right. This year, it was.
“Over the summer the opportunity arose again to join [Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey] and I wrote to the deans of the Honors College and explained to them what was going on, and they said ‘Yes, you have to take this opportunity,’” Lish said. “They were extremely generous in letting me do that. And now I’m here, performing seven to 12 times a week for hundreds of thousands of people, just living out my dream.”
The fact that it’s the 133-year old circus’s final round of performances make it even more special. Ringling announced in January that both “Circus Xtreme” and the other version of the show, “Out of this World,” would hold their final performances this May, due to declining ticket sales and high operating costs.
“When we first heard, of course we were upset. We were sad about it,” Lish said. “But now we know that every show we do is someone’s last show. So we’re giving even more effort, we’re giving even more energy to provide the greatest show on earth for these next few months.”
That energy has to be maintained throughout three shows a day. When Lish wakes up on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey train, which is where the performers live while they travel, they get bused to whatever arena they are performing in. Then he’ll spend 30 to 40 minutes putting on his makeup and costume before the preshow, where audience members can go onto the circus floor and meet the clowns, trapeze artists and aerialists. “We’re all out there signing autographs and taking pictures, we give out clown noses and marshmallows,” Lish said. “There’s aerialists doing stuff in the sky and the clowns are juggling. It’s a really good time.” This all happens an hour before show time. Then the audience takes their seats and watches the circus performers do what they do best. For them, it’s over after two hours. For Ringling, the process repeats two more times throughout the day, and then again the next.
Despite the physically draining performance part of the show and the long days, Lish has never had more fun. “There’s nothing more rewarding than walking out and hearing the roar of the crowd. I mean, the applause hits you like a wall,” he said. “When you have a crowd of 18,000 people and all that noise hitting you at one time, it’s a wonderful feeling and extremely rewarding.”