After 177 years of performing, the Zoppé Family Circus knows it will take more than a pandemic to keep them out of the spotlight. The Italian circus annually performs in Tucson at the Mercado District, and will continue that tradition this month, albeit with new precautions. Their new “drive-in” circus, in town from Friday, Jan. 15, through the end of the month, includes a variety of acts that can be enjoyed from your car.
According to Giovanni Zoppé, the frontman for the circus, the idea of their drive-in show has existed for roughly five years. However, it took COVID for those plans to come to fruition.
“I’m always trying to find different ways to create art, to reach an audience,” Giovanni said. “But I couldn’t make it work, and I was concerned about reaching the audience and touching their emotions—happiness, sadness, joy—like a circus should.”
The Zoppé circus performed their final show before the pandemic in January 2020 here in Tucson. Facing months of cancelled and postponed events, Giovanni began considering a drive-in circus once more, but again found the idea was “nearly impossible.” After six months of preparation off the stage, Zoppé circus partnered with CBF Productions in Ventura, California for a three-show run where they slowly improved on the drive-in model. The shows feature many circus hallmarks, as well as large LED screens so the audience can see the performers from a distance.
“Those first shows, we had an audience, but we weren’t able to reach them emotionally, which was sad for me,” Giovanni said. “So we started coming out before the show to meet the audience as they’re driving in. And about halfway through that third show, I felt the overwhelming energy from the audience: horns blowing, people screaming, kids sticking their heads out of the car roofs. It was complete joy, and I yelled down to all the artists and performers ‘We did it!’”
According to Giovanni, that was the moment he realized a drive-in circus was truly feasible. However, there were still kinks to work out as they toured to Redwood City, California, and then over to Tempe last month. Although the circus was enjoying sold-out shows, they were still tweaking their model by reorienting their set-up and moving the display screens.
The show now allows cars to park in a semi-circle around the stage, with a large 30-foot LED screen hanging above the performers. This way, those in the front row can see the performers on stage, and those farther back can see the performers on screen, similar to a concert.
“Now we’re coming to Tucson, and I think the show is going to be the way we need to do it,” Giovanni said. “We’re using a lot of the elements we usually do: our main pole, our cupola to hang the rigging. But it still has that feel of a circus, of the Zoppé family.”
The Zoppé family maintains the drive-in circus will be COVID-safe because the audience isn’t gathered beneath a tent, and can listen to the show through their car stereos. The circus family will also be welcoming the cars for a half hour before each show, including “an old-fashioned circus parade through the cars.”
“Tucson is going to be the first time this show is exactly how we want to do it, and I can’t think of a better town for it,” Giovanni said. “We’re the only circus in the world doing this type of performance. I have family all over the world that are in circuses, and they’re just staying still. I know there are some circuses here in America that are performing back under their tents, but they’re putting people close to each other and I completely disagree with that.”
State and local safety guidelines will be followed, and event staff will be wearing personal protective equipment as required. If a circus-goer needs to leave their vehicle, masking and safe social distancing will be enforced. Failure to follow social distancing, or the requests of staff members, could result in ejection.
This show’s performers include high-flying gymnastics and feats of strength by Aguile’s Russian Bar act, the trapeze artist Disa Carneol, circus horses, a “human cannonball,” the “wheel of death,” and Giovanni performing as Nino the Clown. Between performances, the LED screen will also play a documentary about the resilience of theirs and other circuses.
“The reaction has been phenomenal. People are so thankful that we’re giving them the opportunity to get out of their house and still stay safe,” Giovanni said. “My family got through other pandemics, we got through two World Wars, famine, leprosy. The Zoppé Circus has been through everything, and this pandemic is not going to stop us.”
The Zoppé Family drive-in circus takes place next to the Mercado San Agustin at 131 S. Linda Ave., with multiple shows most days from Friday, Jan. 15, through Sunday, Jan. 31. Tickets begin at $49 per car. For more information, visit zoppe.net.