Skip to main content

not clowning around

For one NKU student, college life really is a three-ring circus.

James Lively

By Kyle Root | Photo by Scott Beseler | Published Dec. 12, 2019


Circuses have been a modern entertainment staple for centuries. Even today, the boisterous, colorful extravaganza of a big-top show can reliably captivate viewers worldwide. 

But when we file into the oversized tent for an evening of outlandish feats, comic clowning and awesome animal tricks, do we stop to think about the people performing inside the three rings? Would it surprise you to learn, for example, that some of the performers you see are actually college students studying—no, not at clown college, at Northern Kentucky University.

“The circus, for me, is mainly weekend work. My weekends are fun and eventful, and my weeks are relaxed and focused on school,” says James Lively, a business management major who expects to graduate in spring 2020. “I love the ‘customer service’ aspect of it, just kind of brightening people’s days.” 

James works for the Cincinnati Circus Company, a multifaceted company that offers various acts, different types of performances, and assorted levels of entertainment for the whole family. The one thing they do not provide, however, are clowns.

“To my delight, there are no clowns, although I have been known to perform as a mime, which is a lot cooler,” he says. “I just don’t see the point in a circus needing clowns. If you want a family-friendly time, then why would you scare your kids by bringing in a few clowns to the party? Our circus has real, college-kid-next-door faces. The face a clown dawns is artificial and channels fear. It’s nothing like mine!”

James, a Florida native, moved to northern Kentucky when he was 12 and grew up with eight siblings. During his curious youth, he picked up hobbies such as painting, drawing, creating music with his friends and hiking. And when he was 15, he decided to become a juggler. If you have ever walked by the Fine Arts Building or around Steely Library, you may recognize James carrying a set of three juggling clubs, flipping them in the air as he walks along, almost as if it was second nature to him.

“My first taste of the circus was actually the first time I went to circus practice, with the company I’m with now, at 18. It was a very enjoyable experience."


Did James ever think he’d one day work for a circus? “The thought had never crossed my mind,” he says, “although I did take up juggling, so I think there was a lingering interest in the fantastic.

“My first taste of the circus was actually the first time I went to circus practice, with the company I’m with now, at 18. It was a very enjoyable experience. A friend of mine was invited to attend practice there and, because he needed a ride, took me along with him.”

James joined up and has been with the company for five years in total; he’s now in charge of some of the behind-the-scenes operations. “The way we operate, contracting gigs out to a lot of local events is very easy and convenient for its performers,” he says. “But when we do go to out-of-town trips, they are a lot of fun, and we do a fair amount of them. The only animals we keep are the cockroaches for our side show. Traveling is optional, and I usually sign up for out-of-town gigs.”

He explains that being an entertainer in the circus, you choose the gigs you want, though the work you receive does depend on your skill level.

“My first gig was a casino night in Indianapolis. We provide casino tables and dealers from anything from blackjack to roulette, but there is no gambling involved.” With over 100 gigs under his belt by this point, James has experienced both entry-level gigs and gigs with high skill levels. “My last gig was as a stilt entertainer at a church event. We were opening for a magician/evangelist. He wasn’t affiliated with the circus.”

For students considering contract or freelance work in a mobile company like the Cincinnati Circus Company, James says, “If you enjoy mastering new skills and brightening people’s day, the circus life might be the life for you. If you see something like a stray guitar or a skateboard, pick it up. You don’t need to be a clown to make someone else smile.”