Q&A with Shana Carroll: Trapeze, History, and the Beauty of a Foggy City

Shana Carroll, Co-founder of 7 Fingers Circus Company, takes us behind the scenes of creating a new production crafted as a historical and endearing appreciation for San Francisco
“Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story” is a new acrobatic experience coming to the historical Club Fugazi in North Beach, San Francisco on September 22, 2021. Photo Credit: Alexandre Galliez

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

San Francisco has in its history been a beacon of counter culture, art, social upheaval, and now even 21st century technology.

Among its many historical highs and lows lies a common thread. The location has seen life and loss but has always found a way to keep its soul alive, and keep moving with the times. Both the ancient hills and the futuristic skyscrapers are part of San Francisco’s allure and history, and now all that makes the city whole will be showcased on stage in one of the most iconic venues there.

Shana Carroll is co-founding artistic director of Montreal’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers), one of the most innovative contemporary circus arts companies. There, alongside her fellow co-founder Gypsy Snider, Carroll has directed and choreographed various shows out of Montreal since the 2000’s, as well as freelanced for Cirque du Soleil with highlight shows including directing Cirque’s first ever on ice spectacle, “Crystal”.

Originally Bay Area natives, Carroll and Snyder have now returned to Northern California to bring a much more personal show that hopes to inspire those unfamiliar with San Francisco and those that were born and bred here, together under one high-flying performance.

Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story” is described as, “the result of a lifelong love affair with the city that continues to reinvent, redefine, and inspire awe.” Recently I had the opportunity for an in-depth conversation with Shana Carroll, who shared with me her own journey from the Bay Area to Montreal in pursuit of her career, and how after three decades has come back home to take on this love letter to San Francisco.

Performances for “Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story” will begin with preview performances for sale starting September 22nd, within the transformed Club Fugazi, which housed the iconic “Beach Blanket Babylon” from 1974 until 2019, closing just months before the pandemic hit the shores of the US.

Hello Shana, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about the show and your experience. I was wondering if you could tell me about how you became involved in art yourself and how that led you to eventually running your own production company?

So I started doing trapeze when I was 18, I was really involved in theater growing up, so I was interested at that point sort of alternative forms to theater because I was just sort of branching out and kind of trying to learn more about some of the peripheral forms and then discovered the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco and really fell in love with it.

Also my father, who was a columnist at the time, was really involved with The Pickles. He started out just by writing a column about them and then writing their 10th anniversary book. He interviewed them and studied up and became close friends and then was on their board of directors. So it was also that little connection where he was kind of always encouraging me to come and check it out.

I didn’t think it was something I’d like because first of all, it wasn’t physical at all, it wasn’t really the sort of an extension of being a gymnast or an athlete to some extent. And that was not me, even the circuses that I had seen when I was growing up, very, very large three ring ones, it just wasn’t something that ever appealed to me even as a young child. I think precisely because it was such a huge spectacle and I couldn’t really connect to the humans in it or the stories in it or anything that would move me even as a child.

But then when I saw Pickles, it was sort of the opposite basically happened, where it was such an intimate show, and it was so close and the people were so real and I got to know them. Then I was 10 feet away from them when they were training in just normal clothes. So really, the beauty of the form really hit me. And you know when you’re at that age, it’s easier to kind of turn on a dime and say, okay, I’m going to devote my life to this new thing!

So, that is what I did at 18, I just said, “Okay, I’m going to be a trapeze artist now”, and trained very hard with [Pickles Family Circus]. You do anything they want in the show, you jump on one of the boards, the other person flies up and you carry a puppet, and then I would go in intermission and sell T-shirts at the concession stand – I was interning essentially with the show.

Then at the end of that year, I auditioned to be a trapeze artist because I had been training all year. And then I became their trapeze artist. I had thought that was like my one goal. I thought it would be this temporary thing, and I’d have this fun experience with the circus and then also kind of becoming the trapeze artist at Pickles was what I was aiming for. But then, of course, my love for trapeze and my ambition for trapeze kind of grew with my skill level.

So I wanted to increase my level and my Horizons. So I went to a circus school in Montreal, and that was in 1991, and I’m still in Montreal so it gives you an idea of how long I’ve been here. I was to the Circuit School Montreal, which was at that time considered really the best and have the best trapeze coach, which was particularly what I wanted to learn. And when I left to go to Montreal, I thought I’d come back to Pickles with whatever skill I’ve learned, but in fact, it just kind of started me off on a whole other trajectory.

I joined a circus school in France and then joined Cirque du Soleil in 1994 and was their trapeze artist for seven years. And then I also performed here and there with other circuses and dance companies and continued to teach, particularly Circus Center San Francisco when I was back in town and also here at the Circus school here in Montreal.

I always knew that I wanted to one day have my own company, direct, choreograph. It was a creative side of it was always something that I was really impassioned about, just partly because I came from theater, and so it was the storytelling within it that really interested me.

It wasn’t just about learning the next trick, literally, my next trick on the trapeze or something. It was always the artistry. So quickly I kind of had this love for that side of it. And really, while I was at school and while I was performing, just kind of was trying to study a bit how the choreographers work, how the directors work.

In 2001, I wanted to start my own company with my friends, and we started 7 Fingers, and at first I continued performing for about five years with 7 Fingers, doing trapeze, but then also doing more and more of the choreography and directing and then also simultaneously kind of doing freelancing for Cirque du Soleil, among others, also directing and choreographing for some of their other shows as well; while I was still kind of running 7 Fingers and maintaining touring shows, and that’s been almost 20 years now.

I stopped performing when I was oh, gosh, almost like 13-14 years ago, about 2009. It was partly because when I was pregnant and I had a kid and it was really kind of like the physical training, I kind of couldn’t really uphold it. But also, I was so much more interested in the directing and the choreography that at the end of performing, it was really kind of a chore. I really just wanted to be on the other side of things and work with people and be able to tell stories.

So could you tell me about the experience of getting “Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story” up and running and how it went from idea to stage?

The reason we’re calling it “a love story” is it was sort of our love story for the city and wanting to come home, and feeling that there was such a dialogue around how San Francisco changed, it wasn’t what it used to be and the people who’d stayed just felt like, “Oh, God, what’s happened to the city and the soul has gone?” And when we come home, we sort of say each time, “Well, actually, we kind of feel like it’s still there.”

And yes, it’s changed in some ways that are maybe not for the better. But then it’s a whole other complex little balancing act. The city is so much about these kinds of booms and these busts and rekindling itself and basically believing that flame of the soul of the city is just always burning, so for us the joy we had to come home at all just to be able to perform at home again and be at home again and bring our work home, that really definitely sealed it. But then also that translated into that joy for the city and love for the city and kind of wanting for people to see it again through those eyes and to be reminded of all this sort of beauty and history and the part that’s still salvageable.

Because that was the initial goal. We sat down in the most basic way with little index cards, just writing any stream of consciousness association about the city. You’re just writing on index cards and flipping it on to the coffee table until we had the sort of collage, you looked on the coffee table and you see, “Gay Marriage”, “LSD”, “Golden Gate Park”.

We just had this Picasso version of flashes of what the city was. So we had to sort of figure out how to funnel that into one concept and one overall feeling. And it also kind of corresponded with where we all are now, like post pandemic, not really post, but however we want to say it, but there was a certain grieving that that we all have to do and also a certain desire for rebirth. And there’s so much of that in the history of San Francisco as well.

Even when you look at the footage, I feel cliche now to talk about the 1906 earthquake because it’s just in every little tourist place, and yet when you look at the footage of an old movie taken post-earthquake, it really looks so apocalyptic. And sometimes it’s unbelievable to think the city really did rebuild after that.

So we’re really kind of trying to tap into this sort of like, unconquerable soul that it has and just sort of this sense of being able to rise again after each cataclysmic setback. I feel like that becomes a bit of a driving theme. And yet we do try to do a little bit of the variations on the theme aspects like you’re looking at a painting that’s made out of lots of pins. When you zoom out, you see one image, but you zoom in and you see lots of individual images. So we want to be able to have a little bit of that voyage through what does make San Francisco San Francisco.

Would you say that the narrative of the story of the show is vignettes, or can you expand some more about the story in general?

Yeah. It’s vignettes, and think that there’s one dramatic arc that happens. It’s about rebirth. So like I said, you really zoom out, you see a very simple arc about rebirth, but individually, it does feel a little bit like vignettes and lots of nods and homages to various eras, various works of art, deep poetry, neighborhoods. Our goal was that locals feel like it speaks to them, whether they’re the old timer San Franciscans, who get to remember what the beat poetry movement was like for them when they lived it or whether its newer San Franciscans and that’s why they came here, and that’s why they fell in love with it. But also for tourists who we want it to be accessible on that level as well.

So it’s not this esoteric thing only speaking to San Franciscans, which I think “Beach Blanket Babylon” really had in its favor. I think with “Beach Blanket” San Franciscans felt extremely proud, that it was really representative of their spirit. And tourists came and felt like, “Oh, my gosh. We’re getting this real taste of San Francisco!”

And, of course, our show will be completely different in its style, but we want that similar balance, you know, being able to have, like, be educational as like a boring word, but that someone who doesn’t know about the city comes in and really is able to digest it and its flavor. And someone who is a local can say, “Yes. okay. This gives me goosebumps because it reminds me of my own experience.”

What was the directing experience like for you? You’ve work over the years on both sides of the stage, production and performing. What was it like for you to adapt a location so close to you and your own history, placing the contents of this city by the bay into a performance?

It’s really complicated because sometimes the more complex the subject matter is obviously like the harder it is to capsulize it. The last show I directed, train travel was the main theme, and we could build lots of really deep story lines through it and metaphors. But it had this very simple framework that I could dive into. And this is like the opposite, like we’re taking something with so much history and so many stories associated with it and then my own personal stories associated with it. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate because you also need an objectivity.

If I was just a researcher and coming in and interviewing people about their experiences, then maybe I could thread that into a story, but I have my own. And so as a creator, you need to rely on your gut reaction to things. But when you have a personal connection with it, sometimes your gut reaction can be misleading because maybe you’re only having a gut reaction because it’s connected to some memory when you were eight years old, but other people might not feel that. So it’s a little bit tricky, I have to be honest, to be able to understand, when am I being an objective director? And when am I putting my own emotion in it?

And yet sometimes putting your emotion is good because I think there was a quote that some director once said, I’m paraphrasing, but something like, “the only way to be truly universal is to be completely personal.” So there is a way that you know that by putting your personal story in it and we’re getting the artist’s performance of their personal stories and even people on the team, having everyone write their own love letter to the city and trying to use those details, because ultimately, that is going to be what speaks to people.

But it’s a lot trickier when you’re not purely doing something autobiographical and not purely doing something as the outside researcher coming in to do this expose so it’s a funny little mind game you have to play as your directing.

Overall, maybe this is a better question once you wrapped up doing the first show to reflect, but after all this experience of creating this homage to San Francisco, has it all brought you a little closer to the city itself?

Yeah. I mean, already it has in a few ways. One I say that we wanted to have a local team, and so it’s interesting we’re from the area and we’ve been working in Montreal, in Europe and all of our collaborators, whether they’re set designers or technical directors, they’re mostly from Montreal or here.

So it’s a long time [that] we haven’t worked with fellow San Franciscans and just that in and of itself to have this team full of people from the Bay area it’s brought us closer in the very literal way, we’ve developed friendships in a community there, which we have been for a while, and also feeling that sense of like, “I see myself from these people. This is where I’m from. These are people like me.”

So that’s a very simple thing. But we felt that immediately, and then also trying to reestablish our connection with the circus community there, the artistic community there, which I’ve been really far from.

And then, of course, when you’re sitting there contemplating whatever your subject matter is, when you spend years contemplating it, as we did, you’re just trying to develop the show and just going to bed thinking about San Francisco. Inevitably, it takes a huge place in your brain, in the heart. So I think I definitely feel like a renewed connection with the city. And I’ve learned things.

I think that’s the other thing, you grow up in a place, so much is stuff that you kind of know as a kid so you don’t really study it the way you would if you move to a city when you’re an adult and you kind of learn things with an adult brain.

So it’s actually been interesting for me to kind of learn a lot of things about the city as we do the process. And now we’re hoping that it’s going to mean we’re going to also just be there more. And that will definitely kind of reestablish our own connection with the city and presence there, and that my own kid will be able to be there more often as well because we’ll be there for work and it won’t just be like I gotta carve out a few weeks to go visit my family – that we’ll actually have to have a reason to be there, which is great.

Final question, and thanks again Shana, what do you hope audiences take away, and what would you say audiences might expect to see when they go to Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story”?

Ultimately, what we want is to give people a renewed sense of hope for the future. It’s a tall order, that’s an ambitious kind of goal for us to have. But I think that there’s different forms of that anytime you want to create a work that you’re going to put out in the world, you’re hoping to empower and inspire and give a bit of hope and momentum for people who are going to go and see it. So I think that on a basic level, [the] circus particularly has the capacity to do that.

I think in its essence, it’s about kind of defining the limits of what you consider human possibility. And so it’s very empowering because you realize, “Okay, it’s this thing that I previously thought impossible. If I’m realizing it’s possible, then what does that mean for my own life and what I thought my limits were?” So I think there is something inherently empowering in the language of circus and inherently hopeful. It’s about interdependence in many ways, in circus, especially the kind of the genre circus that we create.

We do a lot of ensemble work where six people are involved or one is thrown through the air and two catch them when someone catches someone else, and then they throw themselves this way. It really is the most apt way to show our interdependence as humans. So I think it also gives us a lot of hope in that sense as well, because you see how much it’s the opposite of ego, how much people can be there for each other and be there when the other one is falling or flying.

So I think it gives hope in that way as well. And it can be very healing. And I think we’re in a moment right now we need a lot of healing. And then we’re hoping that on a more specific level about the city in reminding people of the beauty in the soul of the city, it will also give us renewed hope in that as well and just how to move forward with that interdependence and making our city and our future better. I feel cheesy when I say it out loud, but of course, that’s always your goal when you create a show, you want people to leave transformed and transformed for the better.

“Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story” will have its first preview performances starting on September 22nd. More info and tickets at www.clubfugazisf.com.

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