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Running Away To: San Francisco as Childhood's Oldest Escapist Fantasy 

Tuesday, Nov 11 2014
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Step right up ladies, fellas, and freaks as we re-create a grand theatrical happening: We're inside the Golden Gate Theatre on an October night. The lights are low, the house is full. On stage are two characters: Pippin — the title character of this Broadway revival, in which Bob Fosse's dance numbers are cirque-ified by San Francisco's own Gypsy Snider — and Berthe, Pippin's grandmother. The scene belongs to her. She grabs a rope, and her 60-plus years fade away as she climbs toward the trapeze. With her seat secured she begins to sing. And bend. Her arms go one way, her legs another. And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.

We paint this picture because it is, quite possibly, the most San Francisco moment ever in musical theater. Few things scream perpetual adolescence louder than an aerialist grandmother, and no city embodies circus ideals like San Francisco. They are both, after all, known for freaks who ran away from home. And like any good circus, San Francisco is more than just a place to run to — people come here to actually do something, anything, even if it is, in the words of a local circus institution, "in the air, upside-down, or humanly impossible."

There's nothing like learning the impossible to maintain a youthful vigor. It's not just the physical aspects — stretching, training, the rush of being on stage. Circus arts keep us young on the inside too, like cotton candy for the soul.

We see this when a mother of two teenagers performs on the aerial straps at the Hubba Hubba Revue. Or at Pier 39, where men in their 50s play with toys all day as they make their living as juggling street performers, and in warehouses full of twenty- and fortysomethings who live, train, and gig together in communal bohemias. It's in the entrepreneurial spirit of troupes like Vau de Vire and Sweet Can, which built their reputations with nothing but grit, sweat, and lace. We even see it in the Bay Area's proliferation of circus schools. Most of these trace their roots to the old San Francisco School of Circus Arts, a shoestring operation started by the Pickle Family Circus 30 years ago. Their students got too big for baby clown shoes. They left the tent to build their own midways. What could be more adolescent than that?

So go ahead, friends and freaks. Run, walk, or cartwheel away to the nearest tumble track, climb the closest rope, or jump on the bounciest trampoline in town. Your soul could use some cotton candy.

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Devin Holt

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