The Pickles Take over the Circus

By Schiffman, Jean | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Pickles Take over the Circus


Schiffman, Jean, American Theatre


Can you imagine it? You're out on a bus-and-truck tour and you get a phone call from the president of your board. "We're declaring bankruptcy," he says. "Pull up your stakes and come home."

This was the scenario that confronted the 21 members of San Francisco's 18-year-old Pickle Family Circus last year when they were on the road in the Midwest. They weren't altogether surprised. It was no secret to anyone in the Bay Area theatre community that the popular troupe--which redefined the concept of circus for a generation of Americans and spawned such talents as Larry Pisoni, Geoff Hoyle and Bill Irwin--was in bad financial straits, for all the usual reasons (recession, artistic flux, etc.). But a $390,000 deficit had finally proved too hot to handle for a million-dollar organization.

However, what the Pickles did have was a group of artists who liked--loved--working together, including two energetic regular performers, Jeff Raz and Diane Wasnak (who also had management experience); a topnotch artistic director, dancer/choreographer Tandy Beal, who had run her own nonprofit dance company for 20 years; a master trainer, Lu Yi; a devoted company manager, Brian Grove; a prominent San Francisco arts consultant, Barbara Kibbe, who actually called them to ask if she could take them on as a pro bono client; and a business, foundation and theatre community eager to help out.

Little engines that could

When they got the fateful call last January, the troupe was already booked at the Kennedy Center for April and the performers agreed that it was D.C. or bust. So, cut loose, they responded by trimming tour costs in every possible way: They sold concessions to pay their own salaries, slept three to a hotel room, sent the road manager and eventually even the bus back home. Their booking agent became a major player in the drama, personally helping them every step of the way.

When the artists came back to San Francisco last summer like little engines that could, Kibbe greeted them with good news: She'd paved the way for a New Pickle Circus by asking foundations for money so that the artists could buy the name, marketing materials and assets of the defunct company. Within two weeks she'd raised $32,000.

The New Pickle Circus restructured to allow for the flexibility sorely lacking in the old circus, which was a big, expensive affair suitable only for large venues in big cities. Kibbe and the artists created three components: a low-rent duet, consisting of clown/acrobats Raz and Wasnak; a 14-member mid-sized company, appropriate for small towns on the road; and for its home season, the full 21-member extravaganza.

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