Performing in the Bay Area: Community on Center Stage

Close-knit, strong, long-standing and welcoming: the feeling of community is one of the key principles of the artistic world in San Francisco. Tristan Cunningham, a versatile performing artist of the Bay Area who currently burns the boards in The 29th Annual Christmas Revels in the Scottish Rite Theater, offers her own perspective of this experience. At the crossroads of theater and circus, the curtain rises on this place of all possible where the spirit of community prevails.

Tristan Cunningham, 2011 | VCrown ©
Tristan Cunningham, 2011 | VCrown ©

According to the Oxford Dictionary, community is a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. According to Tristan Cunningham, it is also an unfailing support between the artists in the Bay Area. Focus on her career within two artistic families.

Circus and theater: two in one!

Tristan Cunningham is the story of a conquest: that of show-business and that of personal accomplishment. She is 10 when she starts with Circus Smirkus, in Vermont. For eight years, the budding clown tours around all summers long. When she turns 18, it becomes clear for her and everyone else that she is an actress. She graduates from S.U.N.Y. Purchase Theater Arts and Film conservatory with a B.F.A, and then moves to New York. She struggles to pay rent and does not work a lot as an artist. Like most of the actors, she works in a restaurant and keeps hoping her day will come. Until one of her friends from Circus Smirkus suggests she sends a video to the directors of a show in California. The alchemy occurs; Tristan Cunningham gets a foothold in the Bay Area. That is the starting point of her career in San Francisco, and the beginning of some beautiful friendships.

Tristan Cunningham is a clown and a comedienne, an actress and a teacher, an acrobat and a circus performer. She is part of both circus and theater worlds. In the Bay Area, she was reunited with friends that she grew up with in the Circus Smirkus thanks to the San Francisco Circus Center, the largest circus school in America. “It’s a huge place for the circus community, which is actually small, even if circus is a big thing. That’s really a wonderful place for me to connect with!” as she herself says. One of the reasons why she feels so great there is that there is a long-standing tradition of circus in San Francisco. The famous Pickle Family Circus, one of the largest circuses in America, was created there in the 1970s. In a book about them, Joel Schechter explains that from the beginning, one of the aims of the Pickle Family Circus was to demonstrate that cooperative work could lead to the betterment for the community. This is still true nowadays. The more people are united and work together, the more it seems to work for everybody in the community. That is the message of the Pickle Family Circus.

Hybridity is favored in the Bay Area. Theater and circus are interdependent. The directors in the Bay are very open and ready to do some experimental work, so Tristan Cunningham had had several times the chance to do a lot of circus and acrobatics within the plays. For instance, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed at the California Shakespeare Theater on September, she transformed her character into an acrobat: Hermia flied about in the air and the set became her arena. In the same way, her talent sometimes allows her to get gigs in movies or commercials. She brings her circus skills and theater skills together and it works: she has been working pretty consistently ever since she got in the Bay. Moreover, as a member of the Actor’s Equity, she has been able to strengthen her artistic network in the Bay Area, both in theater and circus worlds. This interdependence is a main asset for actors like her, who belong to two spheres. Thus this young performing artist would like to embody the connection between the circus community and the theater community.

An unstinting solidarity

The Bay Area is first a warm and friendly atmosphere. For Tristan Cunningham, it was like a breath of fresh after New York. Everything seems more accessible. With good reasons: the artistic world is smaller than that of Big Apple –there are less people in the audition rooms- and the feeling of community in San Francisco is stronger than ever before. There is always competition in the performing world, but there is definitely a strong community in the Bay. The eldest take care of the new entrants. Tristan Cunningham remembers the very physical Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Margo Hall, one of the most famous actresses in San Francisco, spent her time checking on other people, asking if everybody was safe. “There is this feeling in the Bay of really caring for the younger actors”, says Tristan Cunningham, underlining the fact the competition is friendly and sidelined. In The Arts Diversity Index, Clayton Lord explains: “The art we make [in the Bay Area] is local. It is place-based, which means it is community-based, whether we want it to be or not. Each organization’s definition of its “community” can be—should be—vastly different, but ultimately it must be defined, and we must ensure that our field overall is serving the population in aggregate, even if we each are not”.

The key to being always busy, professionally, is undeniably the motivation. The greatest piece of advice that she has been told came from one of her teachers who said “even if you’re not sure you want to do the play, go to the audition”. So she did it, and developed a thick skin: “Auditioning is for sure a muscle. It’s hard and sometimes it doesn’t go well…” she says. It seems to be a real strength. You have to put yourself in hard situations and challenge yourself in order to get used to it. The more people see you, the more they know you, the more they want to see you. After a certain period, people even start to call you for auditions. That is what happened to Tristan Cunningham and to many other actors in the Bay. Today, in the best case, she does not even have to audition: the director directly wants her in the play -which explains the audition rooms that empty. It happened only a couple of times -it is pretty rare-, but when it happens, it is an honor and a reward: “it is nice to feel that people know your work and trust you” she says, smiling. You really feel that you belong to a group. And if you do not get the part, that is not a big deal, because maybe one of your friends will get it. That is also the spirit of community in the Bay Area.

Tristan Cunningham and Dan Clegg, 2014 | Kevin Berne ©
Tristan Cunningham and Dan Clegg, 2014 | Kevin Berne ©

A family with inspiring role models

If stagestruck Tristan Cunningham speaks so much about the community feeling, it is because she felt incredibly accompanied when she arrived in California. As time goes by, she got more and more familiar with the people of the artistic world. “It seemed like it was the right place for me to be”, she says, blessed and grateful. Today, she speaks of them as if they were a family.

One of the persons that took her under her wing is Joan Mankin, the lead clown in the Pickle Family Circus who also became a theater actress, having one foot performing in the circus world and another in the theater world. She was the director of the show that Tristan Cunningham went to the Bay for, and she auditioned her for her next upcoming show. Tristan Cunningham regards her as a model, just like Jeff Raz from the well-known Cirque du Soleil, or the famous Bay Area clown Bill Irwin, one of founders of the Pickle Family Circus. The latter doubles up the arts: in the 1970s, he contributed to the renaissance of American circus, and he became a famous TV actor in the 1990s. Today, children remember him as Mr. Noodle in Elmo’s World.

There are numerous role models for young artists in the Bay and one of Tristan Cunningham’s is definitely Velina Brown. As a well-known actress and director in the Bay, she became a great mentor for the young clown. She is an African-American woman, a versatile artist, a confident skilled worker, just like Tristan Cunningham, who remembers exactly what Velina Brown told her: “Always remember that the directors are lucky to get to see you in audition; it’s your performance and they’re lucky to get to witness that”. These words marked Tristan Cunningham’s career. And if you ask her what advice she would give to a budding actor in San Francisco that is exactly what she would say: “There is no need to be cocky, but you have to remember that you are worthy… Go for everything and realize how lucky people are to get to see you”.

And it seems to work. Currently, Tristan Cunningham shoots a new film (Love Twice, by Rob Nilsson that she knows from A Bridge to a Border, a movie released on October 2014). But the project she is the most enthusiastic about is the play Tree, in the San Francisco Playhouse, that she will perform in January. She will share the stage with the well-known TV actor Carl Lumbly that we know from Alias. A new opportunity for Tristan Cunningham to expand her network and take full advantage of the Bay Area’s community. A real working family.


The 29th Annual Christmas Revels: An American Journey, Scottish Rite Theater, until December 21st.

Tree, San Francisco Playhouse, January 20th-March 7th.

For further information:

Clayton Lord, The Arts Diversity Index, Measurement of and impacts on diversity in the Bay Area Theatre, commissioned by Theatre Bay Area.

Joel Schechter, The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy, Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.

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