The 7 Fingers circus show that opens American Conservatory Theater’s season is all about travel, and train travel in particular. It’s also a homecoming for 7 Fingers co-founder and co-artistic director Shana Carroll, who created, directed and choreographed the show.
Carroll is from Berkeley, the daughter of former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. “Passengers” (or “Passagers” in French) is the first of the Montreal-based circus collective’s touring shows to come to San Francisco since its early show “Traces” played the Palace of Fine Arts in 2006.
Cal Performances has brought several of the troupe’s shows to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in the intervening years. “Passengers” was originally scheduled to play Zellerbach in February 2021 but was cancelled due to COVID.
The 7 Fingers’ non-touring cabaret show “Dear San Francisco,” co-conceived and directed by Carroll and co-founder Gypsy Snider, is currently playing in an open run at Club Fugazi (the former home of “Beach Blanket Babylon”), where it opened last fall.
The company often has several shows touring simultaneously, and “Passengers” was inspired by that experience of a life on the road.
“I’ve spent a great deal of my life traveling, and particularly pretty much all of my twenties on trains because I was in Europe,” Carroll says. “I had some of my most poignant memories and life-changing events related to train travel. It’s hard to get around the fact that when you talk about a departure, a transit and an arrival, it becomes sort of a metaphor for a lifetime.”
That resonance only deepened while she was shaping the piece in 2018.
“When I was about to start rehearsal, a very dear friend of mine passed away suddenly at the age of 32, and I couldn’t help but kind of grieve through the show and heal through the show,” Carroll says. “There was something really appropriate in making it about the preciousness of life. I decided to make it an homage to this friend. There’s a piece of music that he wrote that I used as the main musical theme of the show.”
The 7 Fingers’ new show “Passengers” was inspired by train travel and the power of friendship. (Alexandre Galliez/The 7 Fingers)
Carroll got her start in circus at 18 with the Bay Area’s Pickle Family Circus.
“I was in high school theater and wanted to continue in theater,” Carroll says. “My father got involved with the Pickles, and I got a day job there because I thought it would be a good place to learn about arts administration. I never liked circuses growing up, because it was a big spectacle and I didn’t really get that it was real people doing these things.
“Then inside the little training studio I saw a trapeze artist very close up, and I suddenly saw her humanity and how much I felt like I almost resembled her. We were the same age. I had this really emotional experience watching her hang by one foot or catch herself last minute by her knees. It made me fall in love with circus, and instantly I knew that I wanted to be trapeze artist.”
After starting trapeze with the Pickles, Carroll went to circus school in Montreal and Paris and spent seven years performing with Cirque du Soleil. She started the 7 Fingers (“Les 7 doigts de la main” in French) in Montreal in 2002 with six fellow circus performers, including fellow Pickles veteran Snider.
“It was a very specific goal about humanizing circus, essentially,” Carroll recalls, “in reaction to having been in large companies like Cirque du Soleil where it was very aesthetic and sort of superhuman.”
It’s the personal resonance that makes this visit so meaningful.
“When I created ‘Passengers,’ I’d often keep in mind the moment we’d come to the Bay Area and my friends and family would see it,” Carroll says. “The friend that it’s dedicated to, Raphael Cruz, he’s also from the Bay Area. So I’m really, really overjoyed that we’re finally coming and that we’re doing a long run at ACT. It brings back memories of when I had a job in the city and every day I’d have lunch at David’s across the street and dream one day of performing at ACT. I was telling my friends it’s bigger for me than Broadway. It really is that hometown dream.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By the 7 Fingers, presented by American Conservatory Theater
When: Sept. 15-Oct. 9
Where: ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$110; 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org.
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