I left my clown nose in San Francisco

May 14, 2012

If you’ve spent any time in the Bay Area, there’s a good chance you’ve met some circus performers: clowns, jugglers, fire dancers, aerialists, hula hoopers, tightrope walkers – maybe you saw them in a theatrical performance, leading workshops at your child’s school, or practicing their skills in a park on a sunny afternoon.

Turns out, it’s not just Quebec City, the home of Cirque du Soleil, that’s overflowing with circus arts. San Francisco is one of the top destinations in North America for performers to train, collaborate, and experiment. A lot of this began in the 1970s when the Pickle Family Circus and other innovative troupes started up. A training center created by Pickle Family members is still one of the most comprehensive circus arts schools in the country.

I remember the moment very clearly: two of my housemates came home one night, giddy and breathless, and said: “We are joining the circus.” Little did I know, those few words would launch my part-time career as a circus groupie.

Over the next five years, I followed the troupe my friends had joined, the Dreamtime Circus, to India, Peru, and around the Bay Area, taking photos, painting sets and faces, and watching them juggle swords, dance with fire, and dazzle audiences.

But the more time I spent with the Dreamtime Circus in San Francisco, the less this “circus subculture” I’d dropped in on felt like a subculture. Suddenly, the circus was everywhere. It seemed like everyone in the Bay Area had some kind of circus skill.

It turns out, I wasn’t that far off. Polina Smith is a clown who goes by the name of Dr. Schmidt. She grew up in Boston and lived in New York before moving to the Bay Area. She says that “the circus scene here is unlike any other.”

Natasha Kaluza is a hula hooper, a clown, and also teaches circus skills to children and adults. “I didn’t think I wanted to do circus or be a clown,” she says. “And then once I got here I got swept up and it snowballed and it’s been my living ever since.”

Paoli Lacy was involved in circus in San Francisco primarily with Make-A-Circus, but also with Everybody’s Family Circus in the 1970s and 80s. “I think I could go out at least once a week all year round looking at clown and circus shows” in the Bay Area, she says. “There’s almost always something curious to pay attention to and find out about, about clowning and circus, around here.”

I used to have the same images some people still have of the circus: a candy-striped Big Top tent, a scary-looking clown in Ronald McDonald shoes, and some guy in a top hat cracking a whip at a lion. But in the early 1970s, circus performers were starting to question that age-old tradition. And they were doing it in San Francisco.

“There were early signs that young people wanted to do circus in a non-Ringling Brothers aesthetic,” says Judy Finelli, former artistic director of the Pickle Family Circus. “And so the new circus revolution took hold in the Bay Area.”

Finelli co-founded the San Francisco School of Circus Arts – now known as the Circus Center – with Pickle performer Wendy Parkman.

“I had no particular appreciation or no reason to have any appreciation for the circus until I saw the Pickle Family Circus,” says Parkman of her early days in San Francisco. “It was just the most joyful, ebullient expression... just being in the audience made me feel so happy.”

The Pickle Family Circus, Parkman says, was not a far-off, magical thing that you marveled at from your seat in the Big Top, fifty rows up.

Instead, it was all about community. “There has always been a tradition of teaching and sharing and bringing people in,” she says. “The Pickle Family Circus, when they were traveling, they always did a workshop for family, neighbors, friends, and people who were going to come to the show.”

As Pickle Family Circus co-founder Larry Pisoni said in a 1981 broadcast on KXPR in Sacramento: “It’s the connection to the community that makes what we do possible. A very important aspect to our project is that we perform for and are sponsored by small community service organizations – daycare centers, clinics, senior centers.”

“They weren’t doing it to become super famous circus stars,” explains Wendy Parkman. “They were doing it because they were doing something that they loved and it was simultaneously a good way to give back to communities, even communities they didn’t live in, because they raised money for service organizations every time they performed.”

And that, Judy Finelli says, successfully “broke down the separation between the general public and circus artists” that had existed for so long.

That was a pretty big change. It used to be that either you were born into the circus world or you weren’t. “Circus performers did not teach regular people how to do it,” says Finelli. “You had to be born into a circus family or maybe apprentice with one. But certainly it was not something you went to school to learn.” 

Until 1984, that is, when Finelli and Parkman decided to do something about it. They started a series of classes that eventually grew into a circus school. “We thought, well, there ought to be a school, because how is what I see going to improve?” recalls Finelli.

And the idea, Parkman says, “was that these are all really accessible and fun things to do and everybody should be able to participate in how fun this is. You don’t have to be a hardcore athlete on a soccer team to have a good physical experience. You don’t have to be a competitive gymnast to have a good physical experience.” In the circus, “There’s room for all kinds of tendencies and passions and proclivities.”

Pickle Family alumni still perform around the world. One of its first clowns, Bill Irwin, made it in Hollywood. Gypsy Snider and Shana Carroll co-founded the successful Montreal-based circus troupe 7 Fingers. And while the Pickle Family Circus no longer performs as a collective, Circus Center students still show off regularly for friends, family, and the community – and they can still totally impress an audience.

“When I think of the circus, it makes me believe that anything’s possible,” says Polina Smith, who graduated from the Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory in 2009. “The way that people can contort their bodies, climb ropes, and swing from trapezes – it’s really just magical.”

And that magic, Circus Center co-founder Judy Finelli says, is like “poetry using your body. You can’t really explain what a poem is and yet everyone knows what it is. Circus is a little bit like that. You know a great circus act when you’ve just seen one, and what it does to you works on a very visceral, internal level, much like a poem does.”

It’s hard for me to explain exactly what made me start following the circus around.  Of course there’s this awe and admiration, but there’s also something like... an invitation. A circus performance always makes me wonder, “Could I do that?” Maybe I can.