They say that nothing brings people together like taking responsibility for one another's life and death. "It's an incredibly bonding experience to hold someone else's life in your hand," agrees Lorenzo Pisoni. It's no wonder, then, that despite the expanse of years since they worked, lived, and defied death together as children in the famed Pickle Family Circus, Broadway veteran Pisoni (Equus) — who is currently performing in a solo show in L.A. and working with producer Jon Hamm to create a documentary about that experience — and his sister Gypsy Snider (circus creator for Broadway's Pippin) are still the model of sibling affection.
"My brother and I are really close," explained Snider, "We try to bounce things off each other a lot. We do some writing together. We support each other…and I hope someday to do a project with him. So obviously my relationship with him is still very close."
As kids who were sideshow (and center-ring) entertainment at the age most children are learning to ride a tricycle, Snider and Pisoni never dreamed of running away to join the circus — it was already their bread and butter. And for as long as they can remember they've known its gritty highs and lows (both literal and metaphorical).
Pisoni remembers, "When I was a two-year-old I would go out on stage during the intermission with a complete stone face and mimic the entire show. I had a beat-up top hat and a cane that had been cut so that it was the right height for me. I would try to do some sort of acrobatics…basically just throw my body around, and then I would mimic the juggling by shaking two bowling pins side by side as fast as I could. Then I would take a little bow, put everything back in the suitcase, and walk off stage." As if that's not charming enough, as he got older Pisoni's parents started putting him in a gorilla costume and having him play a "baby monkey" during some of the clown acts.
Just as the little Pickles were no ordinary children, their family's circus was no run-of-the-mill, smelly three-ring extravaganza. The Pickles were instrumental in revolutionizing and renewing circus as an art form. Founded in 1974 in San Francisco by former members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, The Pickle Family Circus performed acrobatic, clown, and juggling acts that were, according to Snider, musically oriented and based on silent-film and situation-clown acts. Their gags were story-based and situational, and this new narrative form influenced such famous circus acts as Cirque du Soleil, which came into being in Montreal a decade later.
As Pisoni and Snider got older, their already exciting world grew even bigger. Snider describes one horizon-broadening event that would never have been available without her family's circus: "In 1980, we were hired to be actors in Robert Altman's film Popeye. Robert Altman cast the entire town of Sweet Haven with circus people and physical theater people, acrobats, jugglers. I was ten when we did that movie and I got really excited about acting."
She continues, "It was really pretty clear that Lorenzo and I were as interested in theater as we were in circus. At a very young age went to this incredible Shakespeare company up in the Berkshires that was directed by Cecil MacKinnon, one of the jugglers in my parents act. And so we got really into Shakespeare."
At eighteen, Snider left for a physical theater school in Switzerland and went on to perform internationally with troupes including Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Knie, and Teatro Zinzanni. In 2002 she formed her own troupe with six other ex-Cirque performers called Les 7 doigts. With Les 7 doigts, Snider co-directed Traces, which for its off-Broadway production she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. In Snider's first stint on Broadway, she joined Diane Paulus and the creative team for the 2012 Tony Award-winning production of Pippin, where she is director of circus creation.
Pisoni's path to a career in theater became slightly more traditional over time. After he struck out on his own, Pisoni worked as what he calls "a ring master for hire," with his skills in acrobatics and clowning making him a prime candidate. But in 1999 he retired from the ring and stepped into the footlights, first off-Broadway and then in the Broadway productions of Henry IV and Equus. In 2009, Pisoni began performing Humor Abuse, a solo show about his childhood in the circus. Humor Abuse is currently on stage again (possibly for the last time, according to Pisoni) at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum in L.A., and Pisoni is also working with producers including Jon Hamm on a documentary about the experience.
The influence that Pisoni and Snider's unique childhoods had on their eventual careers as well as their overall outlooks could hardly be overstated, but one important aspect that has served them well in their individual pursuits seems to be a tirelessness in striving for what's bigger and better. Snider has spent her career finding ways to use circus "as an incredible tool to express an idea and emotion that it can become part of the storytelling," moving from infusing circus with theater to putting the circus on stage and back. Pisoni's journey has been focused on finding perfection in his craft. "I knew I wanted to keep performing, and I had sort of fallen out of love with circus. You know, some people really can do a trick so you don't ever see the preparation. But I didn't think I was succeeding in hiding the preparation. The character would dissolve for even just a moment, and I just didn't like that. So the acting… it was fun and challenging and it felt like the right thing to do."
Snider attributes this quest to a nomadic soul she inherited from her parents, who aptly named her Gypsy: "You show up in a town and you've got to make it work... You have to have that desperation, because it's your life. It's your bread, butter, life, love, family."
While the pull Pisoni feels is recognizable even to those of us who didn't spend our childhoods on a high wire: "I'm sure part of [my drive] comes from me just wanting to impress my older sister. You don't want to underestimate the power of the big sister. It's a potent thing."
In this video preview of Humor Abuse at Center Theatre Group, Lorenzo Pisoni reminisces about his childhood in the circus:
- Lorenzo Pisoni
- Center Theatre Group
- Mark Taper Forum
- Jon Hamm
- Gypsy Snider
- Pickle Family Circus
- Humor Abuse
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