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Capt. Ringmaster

For Tyron McFarlan, being a ringmaster is sort of a dream come true. Except, technically speaking, he never had the dream.

"I actually went to the circus once in my life, and that was as an adult," McFarlan said. "I never had any dreams of running away to join the circus."

He had been an Army captain and a successful musical theater performer before getting the chance to audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Looking back, he said, it seems his previous careers were leading him to a ringmaster's role with the Greatest Show on Earth.

"First of all, I love to perform, whether it's singing or acting," he said. "I just love that reaction from the audience. But what I'm finding also is that a lot of the disciplines I learned in the military I can use as a ringmaster."

As in almost any show, McFarlan had to learn his script and a slew of original songs. But the nature of the circus means he's likely to have to make self-assured snap decisions.

Sure, it's a bit different from being surprised by an enemy ambush, McFarlan said. But his military-honed ability to react quickly and think on his feet comes in handy when an elephant heeds the call of nature in the middle of an act.

Strictly from a performer's standpoint, being a ringmaster is different from anything he's ever experienced. He has to stay true to the grand tradition of a ringmaster, but he has to temper it with his own style.

"I'm not stepping into a role," he said. "I'm stepping into a title . . . but I have to do it with my own personality."

McFarlan is just one of the new elements of this year's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the 135th annual edition.

"This year's show is the most interactive ever," Ringling Bros. spokeswoman Melinda Rosser said. "Clowns and performers will actually go up into the audience during the show so you can ask all the questions you've always wanted to ask about the circus."

Featured new acts include Taba Maluenda, a tiger trainer who incorporates acrobatics into his act, including back flips over a Bengal; two new acrobatic troupes, the Windy City Acrobats from Chicago and the Inner-Mongolian acrobats from China; and Brian and Tina Miser, a husband-and-wife team who are shot out of a double-barreled cannon.

Along with ringmaster McFarlan, they are just starting on a two-year adventure that begins with this week's performances at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. They'll travel together as circus performers always have, as an extended family on a train.

For McFarlan, it's already been the experience of lifetime.

"I had no preconceived notions of what to expect," he said. "But I tell you, it's been a wonderful trip."