Recently Teatro ZinZanni’s aerialists Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether-Adams sat down with Jenny Watkins, marketing associate, to talk about their career in the circus, their new little bundle of joy, Seamus, and their love of candy bars.
Jenny Watkins (JW): How did both of you get started in the circus arts, and what inspired you to pursue this career?
Erika (E): We’d like to note that we’re eating candy bars during this interview, Kit-Kats and, Butterfingers to be exact. I have an ear for candy wrappers.
Andrew (A): Well, I grew up in Rochester, New York, and I started juggling when I was twelve. A friend taught me to juggle three balls, and that’s what got this whole circus thing started. I got really into it, so my parents found this one-week circus camp in Vermont for me to go to the summer after 7th grade called Circus Smirkus [learn about Teatro ZinZanni’s camps and education program]. The camp also had this touring group that you could audition for, so the next summer, I auditioned for the touring group and I ended up doing that for the next seven summers. The touring group trained for two or three weeks in Greensboro, Vermont, a small town north of Montpelier, and we traveled around the New England states for six weeks every summer. The coaches were from the Moscow Circus School, so it was a fortunate opportunity to be involved with them, and receive all that training. This is where I started learning aerial acrobatics like the straps and the Chinese Pole. I conditioned and practiced by myself all throughout high school and college and then would get some training from the Russians during the summer. I ended up going to Bates College in Maine where I was a Theatre major, and then when I graduated I moved to Chicago where some of the clown coaches from Circus Smirkus were putting together a company called the Midnight Circus.
E: Unlike Andrew, I grew up in Chicago and I was a dancer from a really young age. I did a lot of ballet and went to the Performing Arts High School in Chicago, so from about the age of 12 on, I was dancing most of the day all of the time. Then I went to NYU and lived in New York for five years where I was a Dance major. After school I danced for some companies in New York, but eventually I moved back to Chicago to dance for a modern company where we ended up having summers off. One of the lighting technicians that worked for the Chicago company also did tech work for this place called the Midnight Circus, so he asked what I was doing over the summer and suggested I audition for it. I’d never done any sort of circus stuff at all, but he said I should try out anyway and that they’d teach me everything I needed to know. So I decided to try out, but the day of the audition it was pouring down rain so hard I almost didn’t go. I had to take two buses and it was so wet outside… and I remember thinking, if I only had to take one bus this wouldn’t be such a hassle. Yet I went and auditioned. I think because it was really raining not a lot of people showed up, which was good for me. But they were looking for someone to do the Spanish Web, which I’d never done. I couldn’t climb at all because I had no upper body strength, but once they put me up there, I just kind of got it. A few days later they called me and said they wanted me to come back! They also said there was this guy coming who did a solo straps act and that they wanted us to work together, and that was Andrew.
A: I was doing a solo straps act at the time, but they said they had this dancer girl that they wanted to pair me up with to see if we could do a duo straps act. The solo act I was doing at the time didn’t have very good transition, and they thought the act would be stronger with two of us. And luckily, it just worked out…
E: I had no idea what a straps act even was, so I learned a lot. After we developed the act, we did the show in the summer and into the fall of 1999, but then I went back to the dance company in the fall. I did one more season with the dance company in Chicago, but Andrew and I were still training at night, so when the dance company folded, it was just this natural transition that him and I continue. It was either start auditioning for other dance companies, or keep going with Andrew and this act, so that’s what we did. We ended up working for the company that paired us together for six years, and then we freelanced for a while.
A: Agencies will place you at these corporate and private events to entertain and animate at receptions and parties. We would stroll around and animate and do ground balance work, but we weren’t on the straps.
E: It paid the bills, but artistically it kind of sucked the life out of us. So at the same time, we were also working with a lot of modern dance companies. It was great working with choreographers who had nothing to do with circus arts because they brought a different angle to our act that no one else had. It was great having a fresh perspective, and I believe that’s when our act really made a jump to the next level.
JW: How did you hear about Teatro ZinZanni and decide to audition?
E: We first auditioned in Portland because our agency set us up with a woman down there who reviews audition tapes for Teatro ZinZanni’s Artistic Director. I guess they liked what they saw… we also auditioned several times in Seattle before we were hired. That was in 2005, and we started that very summer in San Francisco with Hearts on Fire. Beaumount & Caswell is our sixth show with Teatro ZinZanni.
JW: What’s been your favorite Teatro ZinZanni character?
A: I love being the water boy. I love being awkward and nerdy. It’s exactly how I feel in real life, so it’s a perfect part for me.
E: I’ve been all over the board. I’ve been a cocktail girl, a cat, an Egyptian servant, a little beat poet. I don’t know, I think each show has certain things that become special to you, so it’s more of a combination for me. For this current show, my favorite part is the story. I really enjoy the relationship between the characters.
JW: Andrew, you have a theatre background, but you, Erika, are mainly trained in dance, so what’s it like for you to go out into the audience and animate?
E: At first I was terrified of animation, and still each show takes a while to get into the character and feel comfortable. It’s great having the costumes though, because you can take the costume and work with it, and become that character… so it becomes a little less scary, kind of like you have a mask on. In this show I’m a cocktail server, an ACTUAL cocktail server. At the beginning of the show I’ll go to the bar and take drinks to people’s tables, it makes it easier to talk to them and get into character, and it’s fun because they don’t know that you’re playing a part! They just think I work there. The last show I did in San Francisco, we just finished this big dance number before the salad came out, and I finished with this flamboyant pose and was up on a ladder in the huge costume, and as I was coming down this woman goes “excuse me, can we get some more bread?”… Just another thing about this place that I love.
JW: You just had a baby in July. What was it like to train and get back into shape for the October 15th opening of this show?
E: Seamus came at the perfect time, literally. We did two contracts in San Francisco last year, back to back. I was pregnant the last three months of our contract there. So all through the first trimester I could do our act as normal, but we were scheduled to start here in Seattle in October, so for six months I couldn’t train. Seamus was due July 21, and he was born July 22, so from that date we had exactly two and a half months to get back in shape. So a couple weeks after he was born, we got back in the straps and started training. It was rough…
A: We were expecting tears everyday.
E: We weren’t even sure we could do it, not just that we wouldn’t be ready in time. When we started training again, I couldn’t remember the most basic parts of the routine and everything felt really far away for me. It was eight months since we’d physically run through the whole act. We would talk through it, and not be able to remember what came next, but once we actually got up there, it’s like our bodies remembered and it just started coming back. I don’t feel the same… I feel just strong enough, normally before the baby I felt like I had extra strength and I could do the act no problem, now I feel like I have just enough strength, but that’ll come back. I’m getting stronger each day. Doing the act was easy, but it’s more challenging now because I don’t have that reserve. So much of what we do requires lower abdominal strength, and since I was pregnant, all of that kind of went away. When we first started back, my arms, shoulders, back and legs all felt the same, like I could make those strong again, but my abdomen area, there was nothing, so it was like starting from scratch.
A: We lined up two gigs before Beaumount & Caswell just so we could have a few practice runs before our contract started. I was paranoid about being ready. We were training a few hours a day six days a week. We’d be up in the straps for a few hours a day and then additionally take a lot of walks and runs and try to build up the cardio. We were really trying to be active all day, and that served us well because we felt ready then. Eight weeks after Seamus was born was when we had our first gig and performed for an audience.
JW: How is it being on the road with him since you’re based in Chicago?
E: Well, my mom was here in Seattle for two weeks to help out during the changeover, but he’s really just a sweet, mellow, easygoing baby. We take him everywhere. Just last night we took him with us to see Joey Arias at The Triple Door! We feel really lucky. We’re enjoying the mellow days while they last!
A: We also have a girl that we met at SANCA come to the tent and watch him at night during the show. It’s nice to have him there because Erika can feed him during breaks. We also bring him out into the tent sometimes to be silly.
E: He has a baby outfit that says “Food Critic,” so one night we took him out into the audience and told everyone if they had any complaints about the food, that they should talk to Seamus!
JW: What are your plans after “Beaumount & Caswell” closes in January?
A: We’re going to San Francisco after this show wraps. We’ll drive down there and leave our car, fly back to Chicago to change our clothes, and get all new clothes for Seamus since he’ll be one size up by then. We’ll be in San Francisco until May, and after that we’ll just see where the road takes us!