“Cirque du Soleil is like the grandfather, and we are the rebellious teenagers.” An interview with Pippin circus creator Gypsy Snider

Pippin's gravity-defying stunts were created by Gypsy Snider. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Pippin’s gravity-defying stunts were created by Gypsy Snider. Photo: Joan Marcus.
From now until showtime next Tuesday, we’ll be sharing interviews, video clips and other exclusive content about the Tony Award-winning musical PIPPIN, which makes its Bass Hall debut July 21-26. Today, we’re sharing an interview with PIPPIN “circus creator” Gypsy Snider, conducted by John Moore from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

by John Moore
Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Diane Paulus, Stephen Schwartz and Gypsy Snider on opening night of Pippin in New York. Photo:  Broadway.com
Diane Paulus, Stephen Schwartz and Gypsy Snider on opening night of Pippin in New York. Photo: Broadway.com
In Pippin the Musical, a family of circus performers defies death to tell their story with every flip, tumble and mid-air spin.

The same is true of those actors performing in the show, which makes its Bass Hall debut July 21-26.

And the same has been true of Pippin Circus Creator Gypsy Snider since she began her career as a circus performer at the tender age of 4.

With all respect to Stephen Schwartz, composer of Wicked and Pippin, Snider was defying gravity long before Elphaba was a green twinkle in his orchestral eye.

Snider’s parents are the founders of San Francisco’s pioneering Pickle Family Circus, an acclaimed alternative circus often cited as a primary influence on the creation of Cirque du Soleil. Snider is the co-founder of Montreal’s 7 Fingers (Les 7 doigts de la main), a pioneering form of live entertainment responsible for the respected show Traces. That innovative show used astonishing displays of athletic skill to tell the real-life stories of seven street teens.

Snider embraces circus as its own narrative storytelling form. Her brand of physical theatre requires strength, agility and grace.

Her upbringing was like no other. She grew up around the likes of circus legends Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle. She appeared among an entire town of street performers in Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye. By 18, she was attending a physical-theater school in Switzerland.

She co-founded 7 Fingers in 2002 and, for her first foray into Broadway, she was called upon by Pippin director Diane Paulus to help re-tell Schwartz’s iconic story of a young prince’s quest for meaning in life set within the world of circus. Pippin won the 2013 Tony Award for best musical revival.

Modern audiences who have a familiarity with circus generally think of Cirque du Soleil. But while Snider toured with Cirque and has a deep love for it, she says Pippin should not be mistaken for it. If anything, she said, it should evoke the old days of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“This is old-school circus,” she said.

We’re talking juggling knives and swallowing fire.

“I would say that Cirque du Soleil is like the grandfather, and we are the rebellious teenagers,” she said.

A “circus performer” rolls along the stage in Pippin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Pippin culminates with a boy becoming a man, having to choose between a life of adventure or family. Snider has never had to pick between the two – her small children are also embracing the circus life. But Snider’s life turned upside down in 2008, when she were diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer.

“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” she said. Much surgery, chemotherapy and radiation followed.

“Suddenly, my work felt trivial and my family became more important than ever before,” Snider said in a previous interview with Broadway Buzz. “I began to question how taxing show business can be and wondered if I should just move to the country and raise my two daughters in a stress-free environment, instead of in the glory of this wonderful but all consuming lifestyle. It was during this difficult time that Diane Paulus reached out to me about the possibility of collaborating on a new production of Pippin.”

And when she did, her charge to Snider was simple:

“Come make this thrilling.”

Here are more excerpts from our recent conversation with Snider.

John Moore: How do you think Bob Fosse would have liked the idea of setting Pippin in a circus?

Gypsy Snider: I feel like Bob Fosse would have wanted us to do this, and that he would have done it himself if this were available to him at the time. Maybe not to this extent, but … it was there. It was already there in the words.

John Moore: With this reimagined version of Pippin – both setting it in the circus and, more tellingly, in consideration of the life choice Pippin faces in the end – it seems to me as if maybe Diane Paulus is saying that Pippin is you.

Gypsy Snider: I think so. Diane and I are both the same age, and we both have two daughters. We have discussed on a very personal level the seduction of the business and this balance you try to achieve, being professional women who have families. It’s really like we are the Catherines — but we are also being seduced like the Pippins. It was interesting for both of us how we connected on an emotional level to this musical. Pippin has this choice to make, and one of them it to embrace this simple home life with an older woman and her child living out in the country where there is no magic and there is no makeup — which is something Fosse presented in a very boring, very pejorative manner. And yet here I am talking to you right now while I am out here in the country with my children — and I love it. But I also love my work. I feed on it so much, and I am proud to show my children how passionate I am about my work.

John Moore: For 40 years, both audiences and writers alike have argued whether the ending to Pippin is a tragedy … or a compromise … or a perfect, happy ending. I imagine, given your life story, that you are split right down the middle.

Gypsy Snider: I am split down the middle. For me, circus is like eating and sleeping and family. It’s my brother; it’s my mother; it’s my father. Just talking about it makes me so emotional. There were maybe a few moments in my life when I felt like walking away from it, or perhaps trying something totally different. Circus is a very physically demanding life. It’s a very itinerant life. And when my kids started going to school, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ But circus is my family, too. Sometimes I like to think of it as the mafia because it’s a very closed, tight-knit circle. But the reason is because there is so much danger and risk and sacrifice involved. True circus people know each other, and there is a whole sort of respect and value system to it that is so honorable and so genuine and so truthful. To true circus people, there is no nonsense. There is no competition. There is no, ‘I am better than you are.’ There is no, ‘I am going to be a star, but you are not going to be a star.’ Each individual circus performer is absolutely unique, and that uniqueness is valued.

PIPPIN runs July 21-26 at Bass Performance Hall. To purchase tickets, click here.

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One thought on ““Cirque du Soleil is like the grandfather, and we are the rebellious teenagers.” An interview with Pippin circus creator Gypsy Snider

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