Genie Cartier is our latest guest blogger. Anyone who knows her can’t imagine anyone being less than lovely to her, even if she does push the captions of her blog photos to the limit.
Circus is a tricky, two-faced form. Most people have childhood memories of peanuts and sparkly leotards at Ringling Brothers, and associate it with overstimulation and scary clowns. A smaller group of people have seen one or two Cirque du Soleil shows and may have enjoyed them, but still find the form a bit overwhelming and difficult to judge. An even smaller group of people probably took gymnastics as a kid and therefore have some understanding of how difficult it is to reach a level of fitness that allows you to accomplish the type of feats in Cirque du Soleil, but may or may not go to see circus shows regularly. And an even smaller group has actually seen a circus besides the aforementioned two and both understands and appreciates the nuances of a truly amazing performance. Even avid theater-goers are often bored by the lack of narrative in most circus shows, despite the obvious athletic talent on display. I have come to be a part of a relatively recent and little known form called “circus theater:” the narrative quality of a theater show combined with the athleticism and skill of circus. The following is a true account of the humble beginnings of a circus theater show called Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! Actually, the show is still in a state of humility, but I couldn’t figure out a way to convey that in the snappy tone I was going for.
To collapse a very long story into as short a paragraph as possible,
I started training at the San Francisco Circus Center when I was 6 years old, and have been performing in circus shows and cabarets ever since. I initially trained basic acrobatics, and eventually developed a love for aerial rope (and a resentment for the much more popular and recognizable apparatus known as aerial tissue). I loved circus, both performing and viewing, but often struggled with my training. My body was not ideal for acrobatics, and I had to work much harder than many of the other kids to be able to do the same things. If only I had inherited my father’s long lean body instead of my mother’s curvy sway-back. As difficult as this slow, agonizing realization was, it led me to another important realization: that circus, unlike gymnastics, is an extremely flexible form. It has two main elements: the athletic and the artistic. What I lacked in athleticism, I could make up for in creativity.
I first met Audrey in the summer of 2010, working at the same Circus Center summer camp that had introduced me to circus when I was a young girl. We quickly became friends. She had attended the Clown Conservatory, and after teaching summer camp, was working at the front desk. I passed by one day, and asked what music I should use for my aerial rope act. “How about live accordion?” she said. We put together an act where she played a waltz on her accordion, and I did my routine on the rope. At one part in the middle of the act, while I was hanging upside-down by one foot, she stopped playing and pretended to notice something on my face, handed me a compact so I could fix it, then continued playing. At some point during rehearsal, she said something like “you know, I bet we have enough skills between the two of us to make our own half-hour show.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a hugely important moment. You mean to tell me that I don’t have to give up my life to train 8 hours a day and get a contract performing with Cirque du Soleil in some gaudy unitard to their choreography and their music? I can just make my own show? It really had never occurred to me.
So we set out to make our own show. It was a totally ideal artistic environment—because it was just the two of us, nobody was telling us what to do except each other. We had complete creative freedom, besides the fact that we had no money, which actually forced us to be more creative. We made up our own little world, which we hoped, was a world the audience wanted to be in. At first we just came up with individual acts, and tested them out in local cabaret shows (and no, we did not get paid for any of them.) I would say to her one day “what if we had our own secret handshake that took ten minutes to do?” and we would get to work coming up with crazier and crazier things that could be included in the handshake. Or she would say “what if you were asleep and I made breakfast on your feet?” and we would spend hours figuring out ways for her to manipulate my body like a doll. I had created an acrobatics routine balancing and doing tricks on a folding chair, so we incorporated that into the show. Audrey had just bought a loop station, and really wanted to use it, so we made up an act around that. At some point, we just sat down and made a list with two columns documenting all of our skills. I had various things I had picked up after years in the circus, and Audrey, in addition to her clown training, could play about 10 instruments. We tried to include all of these things in the show. The problem was, how could we turn all of this into not just a talent show, but a real show with characters and a story? Most circus shows don’t really have either, because they have a high level of athletic talent and a huge cast, so who cares what the plot is, that dude’s hanging from one foot and flipping a tiny girl around!
We realized that the only way to put all of the elements we had come up with together was for the show to be a long dream sequence. Suddenly, in dream logic, the show made sense.
The first time we performed Genie and Audrey’s Dream Show! we were huge cowards. We had gotten our boyfriends, both musicians, to play the live soundtrack and sound effects, because we didn’t want the whole show to depend on the two of us. We were terrified that no one would show up if we charged even $10, so we only charged $7, and offered discounts. We made the show at 7:30pm, so people could still go see another show that evening afterwards if they wanted to. We were worried that nobody would get it. That nobody would laugh at the jokes that we thought were hilarious, and that the weird mix of circus and theater would leave the audience confused. We were wrong about all of that. We got about 30 people to come each night, they laughed in mostly the right places, and everyone hung around after the 30 minute performance schmoozing. Many people commented that we could easily have charged more, and that it would be funnier if we did our own sound effects and music. The only disaster was that on the first night, the loop station didn’t work, and we had to skip that part. It turned out that in the haze of nervousness Audrey had forgotten to turn it on. Only one person actually noticed, and it was because he himself often used a loop station on stage.
Our next step was applying for fringe festivals.
We applied to San Diego, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. We somehow got into all of them. We did an indiegogo fundraiser so we didn’t have to pay for all the travel and costs ourselves, and made over our goal amount. The only disaster was the kickoff party for the indiegogo page, held in a brotastic Soma bar, where a fight broke out and Audrey ended up in tears, in two completely unrelated incidents. I’ll let your imagination fill in those blanks.
We re-vamped the show, now a solid 50 minutes, without the aid of musicians. Audrey supplied all of the music for the show, using the loop station when she needed her hands to juggle or dance or do acrobatics. The most meaningful addition to the show for me was an act that Audrey had been doing for years in which a little white cat puppet named Snowball plays the accordion. The addition of this act coincided with the death of my beloved family cat, Legolas. I have always felt like Snowball somehow embodies Legolas’ spirit, and many people have told me that watching the Snowball sequence is emotional for them in some way. I even forget that Snowball is Audrey’s hand inside a puppet when we perform that act. Snowball is my beloved childhood cat who has come back to sing me a song about dreams.
Audrey’s sister let us borrow her car to drive down to San Diego for the festival, which saved us an enormous amount of money on renting a car, especially since we were both under 25 at the time. The problem was that her car was a Wolkswagon Bug, and it had to hold Audrey and I, Audrey’s sister, and my sister who was coming along to be our stage manager. And all of our equipment and luggage. When we finally all piled in, it was literally a clown car. The ride down was very cramped and awkward.
San Diego Fringe was a consistent mixture of intense anxiety and total elation. We had no idea how to advertise our show, especially considering the unfamiliar mixed genre. Audrey and I are both naturally shy and awkward at parties and hated having to try to explain what our show was to people who had heard rehearsed tag lines for 30 other shows the same night. Luckily, not only was there a reassuring solidarity between all the performers, but the fringe had organized a seminar on marketing to clue us in. At the poorly-attended seminar, we made friends with the director of the SD Fringe, as well as the director of the Orlando Fringe, who was there advising, since SD Fringe was in its first year. We took their advice to heart, and managed to generate fairly substantial audiences for our show, mostly by flyering outside of other shows and making my sister walk around downtown San Diego with a big sparkly sign while Audrey and I meekly handed out postcards to passersby. This was the torturous part.
But there were ecstatic moments. I have always been an applause-junky, but when people compliment me on my athletic ability, I secretly roll my eyes because flexibility and strength are simply a function of training. Anyone can do it if they train enough. Hearing an audience clap and cheer for something truly original that you created is entirely different. At the end of the festival, we were awarded the “Fringe Crush” award, which is a bit like a “Miss Congeniality” award. Audrey and I were excited that we could now put “award-winning” on all our postcards.
The luck we had in San Diego ran out by the time we got to Santa Cruz Fringe, which was a week later. We were still exhausted from San Diego. SC Fringe did not have the same kind of community feeling, and it was much harder to advertise. People scoffed in our faces when we tried to hand them flyers, or complained that they had to pay a whole $10 to see it.
They put us in a huge 300-seat auditorium that we would never be able to fill, even half-way. We didn’t know anyone in Santa Cruz, so we had no audience besides those we could hustle into the seats, and, thank god, my and Audrey’s families who drove respectively from San Francisco and Boise to see the show. One night my sister and I went out to a bar and a guy flirted with me, so I convinced him to come see the show. My boyfriend wasn’t too happy about that. But hey, it was another $10 for us! It was especially humiliating that the other two shows in our venue were wildly popular. Audrey and I would come out of the theater after a show that 6 people had attended, only to have to elbow through a crowd of a hundred people lining up for the next show. On top of all of this, I was allergic to the theater. During one of the shows I had to wipe snot on the paper from which I read a poem as I turned around so no one would see it dripping from my nose. The epitome of our experience was a 12:30pm matinee attended by 4 people (two of which were Audrey’s boyfriend and his friend), during which the director of the festival came in half an hour late. We had another show that evening, and neither of us even wanted to do it. It was only after a sentimental pep talk from my sister that we lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps and did the best show of our Santa Cruz run.
There were two positives about Santa Cruz. The first one was that the theater had a fog machine, and we got to use it. The second one was this video, made by the Santa Cruz Muse after our last show, of which Audrey and I are glowingly proud (really could have used it after the first show, but who am I to complain): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbEabSnZF-c
Oh wait! There was another good thing that happened! The night after the 4-person-matinee-audience, my sister and I ran into one of the people who had been in the audience that day. She recognized me and told us she loved the show. Her friend asked her what the show was like, and she turned to him and said: “It was wonderful! It’s about these two girls who want to make a circus show, but realize that there’s no orchestra or back-up dancers, so they go to sleep and dream about doing a circus show. And one of them is really flexible and one is really musical, and they do these funny little routines and then sometimes it turns into kind of a nightmare, but it always end up ok.” Or something like that. The point is that she got it! We had reached one person! Plus, we had done a show for 4 people and survived. So it wasn’t the end of the world! Alright, math majors, I guess there were four positives.
After the Santa Cruz fiasco, we had about two months before San Francisco Fringe to tighten up the show. We really wanted it to be as good as it could be when we performed it again in our home base. We worked with Audrey’s roommate, Nikolas Strubbe—a local actor/director—who gave us extremely helpful directorial notes on how to better shape the show. We performed at the Fringe’s preview night and the audience seemed like they were with us. In San Diego, and especially Santa Cruz, I had felt like there was always a certain degree of confusion because of our unconventional take on clowning and circus. Among San Francisco’s many virtues is its ability to appreciate quirkiness and thinking outside the box.
Then, an old circus friend of mine who happened to work at SF Weekly, saw our press release, and wrote a tiny little 1/8th of a page article about our show. I was on the bus, and Audrey texted me saying that we were in the paper. I got off the bus the second I saw a newsstand and grabbed a copy of SF Weekly, scanning the pages. The first time I flipped through, I missed the tiny article. Disappointed, I looked through it again, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw our picture. I started to cry behind my sunglasses on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. I walked down Haight Street holding up the paper, proudly smiling and crying at the same time telling random street kids “I’m in the paper!” As it turned out, this tiny article afforded us a minute level of celebrity; in other words a few people that weren’t related to me and that I had never met before told me they had seen me in SF Weekly. But I’m convinced that it helped us enormously.
Backstage, our first night performing in SF Fringe, we asked our tech person—a cheery, sweet woman named Teresa—if there were people in the audience. She shrugged and said “yeah. It’s a full house.” Audrey and I looked at each other with a mixture of nerves and excitement. All these people came to see our show without us badgering them until they gave in? The best show we did was on a Tuesday night, with many of our friends in attendance.
From the very start of the pre-show, where Audrey and I go around blowing bubbles and getting people to pop them, everyone was laughing. People exploded into applause when Snowball played the accordion. At the end, the audience cheered for so long that Audrey and I started to feel awkward and tried to quiet them down. “Santa Cruz can suck it!” I said after the show as we were peeling our sweaty costumes off our wet skin.
To me, the most wonderful thing that happened at the San Francisco Fringe was that we gained the respect of the Fringe staff. I know that these people see a lot of shows, and the feedback we got from them was so positive that sometimes I thought they were putting me on. But at the end of the festival, they gave us the “Techie’s Choice Award,” so I chose to believe it was all real.
Somehow our weird little show with neither a straightforward narrative nor a high level of athleticism has survived, and is still going strong. Audrey and I are continuing to apply to Fringe Festivals. Audrey has been trying to figure out a way for us to bring the show to her hometown of Boise, Idaho. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to perform the show for children at my old high school, so that all my teachers will think I’m successful now despite my bad SAT scores. We’ve learned a lot about producing our own show. Mainly that it sucks and if we had the money to pay someone to promote for us so we could just do the creative stuff, we would. But it can also be extremely satisfying, when all of your hard work leads to cheering audiences.
This is probably where I should make a grand conclusion about the power of believing in yourself and use a terrible pun about dreams. (Get it? Because it’s Genie and Audrey’s DREAM Show!) I’m not going to because I hate reading articles that end like that, so I’m just going to let you make your own conclusions about whether based on our experience it’s worth it to produce your own show (it’s not, money-wise, at least in the beginning— we’ve barely broken even), whether you should give circus another chance (you should) and whether I’m doing anyone a service by telling you this whole story or just being a wild egomaniac who wants to brag about getting an eighth of a page article written about her show in SF Weekly. But please please please come and see my next show and pay the modest price for it—the information is on the back of this expensive postcard!
Genie Cartier is a local circus performer and creator. Find out more about her and Audrey at http://www.genieaudrey.com.