An original cast member of Teatro ZinZanni, Nathalie Tarlet has found her way back to the tent in a new role as co- director of Under the Gypsy Moon. In this blog interview with Jeffrey Hirsch, Nathalie along with co-director Elise “Mo” Durocher shares a bit of their circus journey and how they found their “inner-clowns.”
Raised in Brittany, France, Nathalie grew up in a family of farmers. When she was eight years old, her uncle offered to buy her a bicycle for her birthday. Believing the gift was too expensive, she decided upon a unicycle instead. “It was half-priced, and it still allowed me to ride into the villages to buy bread for my mother,” she said. “I would practice for hours and hours on the small country roads outside our village with only the crows as my audience.” Within a year, Nathalie was performing in small shows in the villages surrounding her family’s farm. Traveling troupes often came through the village, and she quickly was inspired and influenced by the world of the circus. “After the shows I would ask them if they needed anyone on a unicycle to work for them…I wanted to live with them. I would have loved to leave my parents to go live with the people in the circus. I was very, very shy, but I always pushed myself because I wanted to be on the stage.”
When she was sixteen, Nathalie quit school and moved to Paris where she took several years of acting classes. “I was very lucky to be taking classes, but I was never taught how to be a clown. I was just thrown into the ring so to speak. Being a clown is not something one can learn, it comes from inside,” (hence the term “inner-clown”). She describes clowns as the funny falling-down people, but also as a “drop of emotion” because you “drop everything, all emotions to find your true clown. Clowns are always conflicted. They’re political comics who make you laugh and cry. The clown says something funny, no one thinks it’s funny, so the clown cries, and then the audience will laugh. There’s always a conflicting aspect to it.”
On the other hand, Elise “Mo” Durocher grew up in the theatre, surrounded by actors. At the age of seven, she was already a veteran in commercials and TV shows airing all over Montreal, Canada, her hometown. While Nathalie longed to be on the stage, Mo found her passion to be more behind the scenes. “I don’t think I could manage my stress being on screen anymore.” After graduating, she became the stage manager for a TV station in Montreal where she continued for nine years. While she was on tour with comedians, and one-man shows, she became really passionate about the circus. “With the circus I could travel and I loved traveling all around the world! I went to thirty different countries in seven years.” However, years on the road took their toll and Mo wanted something a bit more stable in her life. It was then that she heard about Teatro ZinZanni, “I could finally stay in one place, and still have a lot of fun.”
Eventually Teatro ZinZanni became home to two very talented women. While Mo acted as the stage manager for Teatro ZinZanni since 2002, Nathalie was developing her character and still attempting to overcome her shy nature. Having acted for decades, one would think the stage fright tends to decline, but Nathalie disagrees. “It’s almost worse now because I’m performing for people I know, and there are contracts involved! You start to carry around this burden that because you’re a clown you have to be funny all the time, and that’s a big responsibility. But I’m so passionate about this work, and I just force myself to go on stage.”
Throughout their careers, both Mo and Nathalie have worked with great performers. Nathalie recalls a time where she had the great fortune to train with circus royalty, Annie Fratellini. “In France there are a lot of women clowns who come from the theatre. It’s accepted. But over here, it’s not so much like that yet. So it was a big present when I found out that I was the only girl she ever worked with to become a clown. Many clowns came from her school, but only men. I was the only woman.” And a big present it was. Fratellini helped Nathalie to develop her “inner-clown,” called Juliette Frapada. “She’s a red-clown, she’s naïve yet she would love to save the world. She’s full of life, and feels like nothing can hold her back. She loves people. Human generosity is very important to her.”
From the tradition of clowning and court jesters, to Shakespearean times, clowns have historically been men. All the same, in today’s society where women are granted the same opportunities as men, it is still rare to find women clowns. “The clown role today is very difficult,” explains Mo. “The clown is the one at the top of the show that has to make all the other performers feel at ease. The juggler and the acrobat may be very nervous, and it’s the clown’s job to excite and warm the audience so they readily receive the other performers.” Continues Nathalie, “It’s really hard for women to be recognized, and respected in this business. They may not always be received as well as men. I performed a street show last year as a clown and a guy came to see what I was doing, like he was skeptical of me as a woman performer… but after the show he came up to me with praise. As a woman, I’m not the “traditional clown.” “And I’m not a very traditional stage manager,” says Mo. “My background is not in opera or ballet. My background is more rock n’ roll and variety shows.”
It was this struggle against traditional views and proving something different to modern society that spurred the collaboration in Under the Gypsy Moon. “The Gypsy Show came about because we wanted to do some sort of tribute to the gypsy way of life. We didn’t want to make it into a caricature or make fun of them, but to make a tribute. We are all gypsies regardless of where we are in the world so we thought it was very relatable,” explains Nathalie. Mo goes on, “There’s a lot of heart in this show, a lot of emotions that came out while we were creating this, and we’re really proud of [it]. It’s really fun and really entertaining! It was also so important to make this show from the heart because people can see right through the fakeness. You’re in a round tent. You have people acting all around you, if what you’re producing isn’t coming from the heart, the audience just won’t believe you. You have to be true and honest; that’s the beauty of this place.”
As co-directors for Teatro ZinZanni, Nathalie and Mo developed Under the Gypsy Moon originally in San Francisco and now currently playing in Seattle through June 21. “After we put a show together, we as artistic directors leave after opening week. So it really starts to grow by itself. The performers take over, and it all evolves really well. Everybody takes care of everybody. Even the band evolves over a run. You’ll come back at the end to see it, and everything will be different,” says Mo.
And what would a director be if not an ever-helping hand and source of guidance and creativity. They explain how they do warm-up workshops with the actors, occasional improv sessions, and use their existing personalities to build their characters. They ask them to be free and to harness their own personal strength. “The first few days there is always a lot of observation, and then we’ll make suggestions. It all depends on the actor too. In a lot of circuses you hire a performer because they have an amazing act, not because they have acting skills. So those character skills are really what we work with them the most on,” says Nathalie. “What’s amazing about Teatro ZinZanni is that the performer doesn’t just do their act and leave, they’re part of the show, so we really try to develop that.”
While Mo Durocher is production oriented and loves finding new ways of putting things together, Nathalie Tarlet is the balancing artistic force that enables this team to create something extraordinarily unique and special. Maybe it was their non-traditional views that brought them together, or maybe it was their love of creating something magical, something that would transport viewers to another realm of their imagination…whatever the compelling impose, with four shows under their belts, it’s safe to say the crows on the country roads in small villages somewhere in France won’t be the only ones singing their praises.
~ Interview by Seattle-based writer Jeffrey Hirsch; edited by TZ Marketing Associate Jennifer Watkins