When the final curtain fell on Beach Blanket Babylon on New Year's Eve 2019, a shudder of collective grief rippled across the city. After 45 years skewering politics and pop culture with humor and camp, the end of the long running musical revue cut right to the core, another loss in a series of losses in a city where change is the only constant.
For nearly two years now, only the ghosts of Beach Blanket Babylon have taken the stage at the show's former North Beach home, Club Fugazi. That changes this fall with the opening of Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story, a production steeped in circus arts, acrobatics and a deep affection for the seven-square-mile metropolis by the bay.
"We want to unearth that soul that many think has been trampled and remind people of the beauty of the city and why we all fell in love with it," says Shana Carroll, one of the show's two artistic directors.
(from left) Melvin Diggs, David Dower (executive director, Club Fugazi Experiences), Gypsy Snider, and Devin Henderson at rehearsal for 'Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story,' at Club Fugazi this August.(Guru Khalsa)
Carroll and co-artistic director Gypsy Snider share a great affection for San Francisco, where both became members of the city's first major troupe, the Pickle Family Circus, in the 1970s and '80s. Snider, whose parents were two of the Pickle Family's founding members, was barely more than a toddler when she began touring at their side. By four, she was a full-blown Pickles performer.
She was still a teenager when another young woman, 18-year old Carroll, discovered the Pickles on the suggestion of her father, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who'd become enamored with the troupe after writing an article about their work. "There was something really infectious about the Pickles," she explains. "As soon as I got involved, I fell in love with them and with trapeze."
Carroll spent the next two years with the Pickles before moving to Montreal to hone her skills at the city's National Circus School, the first step in a gravity-defying career that kept her soaring through the air for the next decade-and-a-half.
Snider, too, continued to perform into adulthood—both did stints with Cirque du Soleil, among other things—and by 2002, they were ready to establish their own circus arts company. Along with their husbands and three other colleagues, Carroll and Snider founded Montreal's The 7 Fingers Collective. There, they focused on creating something intimate and original.
"Our first show was really extreme in a way. Our costumes were basically undergarments, we wanted to be stripped down and raw and make a statement," remembers Snider. "The premise was that we were in a loft and doing tricks on the bathtub and the couch. We used our own voices, which is not something a lot of circuses do, humanizing the person behind the tricks."
The 7 Fingers repertoire grew from there, and so did Carroll's and Snider's careers both within and outside the company. In addition to directing several 7 Fingers productions, Snider choreographed the Broadway musical Pippin, while Carroll choreographed multiple Cirque du Soleil performances, including that at the 2012 Academy Awards. All the while, they quietly dreamed of returning to SF to helm a sister company to their Montreal juggernaut.
Although that opportunity never materialized, Carroll and Snider continued to keep an eye out for ways to bring themselves, and their talents, back to the Bay Area. So when Club Fugazi lost its signature show, it felt like fate had intervened. Together, they penned a love letter to the city of their youth in the language of the circus.
Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story tells the city's history in a series of tableaus featuring tricks like hoop diving, hand balancing, and hand-to-trap, a form invented by Carroll in which a woman flies between porters on a trapeze and on the ground. There are scenes of earthquake and fire, and scenes of boom and bust. In one act dedicated to the Beat movement, the performers simultaneously accomplish acrobatic feats and recite beat poetry with heart-racing urgency.
"There's something very limitless about circus arts, there's something very rebellious about circus as an art form," Snider explains. "It has existed in many respects outside of the realm of the rules that society might put on other art forms."
And while the show never directly references the pandemic, "there's something in the narrative that we're telling that feels very true to what we are experiencing now," says Carroll. "We're a city that's used to getting back up and brushing off the dust."
Dear San Francisco isn't trying to replace Beach Blanket Babylon but they are working to once again fill Club Fugazi with a production that delights both locals and visitors.
"We are incredibly grateful to exist and create for a room that is so bubbling with life, story, and experience," says Snider. "This love letter to the city has become so much more powerful than I ever imagined it would."
// Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story previews September 22nd through October 10th and makes its world premiere on October 12th; tickets are now on sale at clubfugazisf.com.
Club Fugazi, in San Francisco's North Beach, is set to reopen with the world premiere of 'Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story,' in October 2021.(Guru Khalsa)