Interview: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS' Shana Carroll is Bringing Circus to Broadway

Learn about how Water for Elephants blends circus and theatre, the process of bringing circus to Broadway, and much more.

By: Apr. 11, 2024
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Interview: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS' Shana Carroll is Bringing Circus to Broadway
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Shana Carroll is the Co-Choreographer and Circus Designer for Water for Elephants on Broadaway.

Carroll is Co-Founding Artistic Director of the Montreal based circus company The 7 Fingers, and has written, directed and choreographed 12 of their shows. Carroll received a Drama Desk Nomination for Choreography and Best Theatrical Experience for The 7 Fingers' Traces.

Carroll directed Cirque du Soleil’s first-ever ice show Crystal, and was the circus choreographer and designer for their shows Iris in Los Angeles and Paramour on Broadway. She also co-designed the first segment of the Sochi Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony, plus much more.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Shana Carroll about the process of bringing circus to Broadway.

Check out the interview below!

You are the co-choreographer and circus designer of Water for Elephants. Circus designer is not a job title that most people know about, can you tell me what a circus designer does?

First and foremost, I would say that before I start any project, I like to ask myself, ‘Why is circus necessary to tell the story?’ Because you don't want to use it gratuitously. And especially I feel with circus tricks there could be a temptation to just have a sort of spectacle. So, thematically, that's sort of the first thing I try to figure out. What's particular to circus language that can serve the show, and finding those links. And then really looking through it on a technical level of, 'Okay, let's see, there's a scene where they're putting up a tent, so what can we do with ropes? What's the intent?' Understanding what that could be and how that could be shaped, and how that informs the music, and how that informs the staging and the choreography.

I think what's different than just the normal side of choreography is that there's a really, really wide palette with circus, between the existing apparatus of all the aerials, and jugglings, and floor acrobatics, and tight wires and all of that. But on top of it, what I love is there's the invented ones. There's things that we're creating on the spot and figuring out, ‘How can we build a rope that would keep a form and we could jump through it?’ So there's a highly technical side of the circus design which is even related to the equipment and the apparatus.

And then there's the highly conceptual side. Even just to go back to the point of why circus was necessary for this show. One thing I love is feeling that if there's a moment of great emotional stakes, that we can mirror that with physical stakes, to make this fully visceral. On the one hand, you're feeling the physical stakes at a very visceral level. At the same moment, you're feeling the emotional stakes on a more cerebral level. So, finding out how to how to marry those two things to make a more complete experience for the audience to be experiencing that emotional beat.

In this case, because it is a memory play, we're in the world of the subconscious to a certain extent. I myself spent my life in circus, and I know that as someone who spent her life in circus, my imagination functions through circus. I will often have dreams or memories or something where circus language is what's being used to exemplify something. And so, I love the idea that this character who also spent a chunk of his life in circus, and is remembering this really pivotal moment in his life, that his imagination also would function through circus, his memory would function through circus. The conflation of the acrobatic vocabulary with the actual events in his life seemed really fitting.

Water for Elephants

When coming up with the circus design and choreography, do you first look at story elements? Do you look at the cast? Or do you have it all up in your head and you think, ‘I’m going to plan this, let’s see what these cast members and acrobats can do?’

In the case of Water for Elephants, I definitely built the material prior to casting it, because I started workshopping it in 2019. So, I was already creating skeletons of the pieces that I was going to use in the show through the pandemic years. I would workshop things in Our Studios in Montreal and have Zooms with Jess [Jessica Stone]. So, I more or less knew the content before casting it. In this case I cast it knowing the elements in mind, ‘Okay, I know I need a pole climber, I know I need a male aerialist.'

And then once I had the cast, even though I built most of the material, there was still material left to be built, and then some new ideas that came through the process where I really wanted to use their skills and ideas on a certain move that we could do. There was a little bit of new input once I had my cast. Some of them are people I have been working with for up to 15 years in some cases. When I cast them I immediately knew, ‘This is how I’m going to use them,’ and ‘This I know is their essence,’ and ‘This is their vocabulary,’ and understanding how that was going to feed the show and how that was going to influence the show, and how to make a character out of them. So the casting was really actually itself shaping the story in many ways.

But there are other shows I've done in Cirque du Soleil where sometimes, because we want that act, then it’s sort of like a jukebox musical, you have to figure out, ‘These are the elements I have, now let me write something around it and figure out how to put them in their best context.’

How do circus design and dance choreography play together? Do you think about both of those at the same time, big picture? Do you tackle one and then see how the other blends into it?

It depends. There’s the choreographic side of the circus. When I’m working on an aerial act, it’s crafting the sequences and what sequences have the right emotional and story messaage through them, so choosing the acrobatic content through what that says physically. And then there’s literal movement of what goes on it. So, any time when it’s actually doing circus in the moment, in a way the choreography is going hand and hand.

For instance, there's a scene where there's a horse who is foundering, is very injured, and it’s almost like the horse itself is dreaming of one last gallop on a field and is free of pain. We made this an aerial piece, and what is really interesting is that part of finding out how it could work. ‘Is it a hoop? Is it a tissue? Does he swing back and forth?’ Some of it was very technical, but also understanding that as soon as it became too acrobatic it took us away from the emotional. So, workshopping the choreography in the air was literally a part of the process of knowing if this was the right act for this moment.

A lot of it is subtraction. We did a lot of workshops on a number that we call ‘Road’ because it's the one where we're putting up the circus tent. Having worked on circuses, sometimes the moment of putting up the tent, it's like a show in and of itself. And I've often wanted to do an act about putting up a circus tent. I knew right away there was so much we could do with it. I remember witnessing in circuses a technician free climbing a rope with a cigarette in his mouth, and hooking a thing, and climbing down. So, I wanted to capture that, because in the moment Jacob is arriving at the circus and he’s having the same experience that I myself had when I first joined a circus.

There’s so much material, and so much we can do with ropes, and wires, and poles, and sledgehammers, and juggling wrenches. And I workshopped it, and it was really trimming until maybe there was one move with a sledgehammer being thrown out of an hour’s worth of material. And that’s really fun too because then you get to play with it until you find the right little amount.

Water for Elephants

Did you have to teach any non-acrobats new tricks?

Yeah! That was a lot of fun. Izzy McCalla, who is Marlena, does a trapeze routine. She’s incredibly talented. In the end she learned so quickly that I could have done a much bigger and longer trapeze routine with her, but in the moment of the show, in the story, we wanted it to be this beautiful and poetic sensitive moment between her and Jacob who is dreaming her image there. She was great and learned very quickly. The whole cast was very talented. We chose skills for them that were doable in the timeframe we had. They could have possibly learned much more, but we knew we didn’t have years to train them, and then there’s the longevity of the show, and understudies, so we were realistic with what we could teach them. But, I think it was a lot of fun for the actors.

I feel like the two worlds have a lot to learn from each other, between theatre and circus. Circus is so collaborative, and you’re really putting your life in someone’s hands, and it’s literally hands on. And I think when the actors had to go into moments when they were training trapeze, or standing on people’s hands, it created this really interesting bonding experience for the cast and mutual appreciation for each other’s work. And then for the acrobats, likewise, learning how to be more of an actor and how to be more of a singer, and understanding the intricacies of Broadway, they gained appreciation for that artform as well. So that was really interesting.

Water for Elephants

Do you have a favorite moment in the show?

I’m so not objective because there are circus moments where I’m more at the edge of my seat because I know acrobatically it’s more risky, or more fragile, and I’m in a certain state of adrenaline for it. There are moments in the show I could purely enjoy without the adrenaline, and then that’s sometimes more fun. So, it’s hard for me to have an objective audience response. But I do think it’s the one where they’re putting up the circus tent, because it really does capture the community of circus, and why I fell in love with circus in the first place.

What are you most excited for audiences to see with this show?

1988 was when I started doing circus, that’s quite a long time ago [laughs], but before that I was in theatre as a teenager. So, I can’t say it was that serious, but I can say my first passion was theatre, and then I really just veered off to do circus. But then, because I started in theatre, it was my lifelong dream of figuring out how to find the fusion between the two, and then wanting my circus shows to be more theatrical, and seeing theatre pieces and thinking, ‘Circus language could really be used in a way that’s so complimentary.’ So, I feel what I’m most excited for is opening people’s eyes to the potential of circus in a storytelling manner, and the way that both forms elevate each other.

The goal was integrating the aspects of conventional dance, and seamlessly telling this story. I’m hoping that people are feeling, ‘We’re being moved on this other level than we’re used to in our gut and in our blood, and in our pulse,’ and all sorts of things that circus can do. Realizing the physical stakes and that you get kind of cracked open by circus language in a way that we don’t always get with the beautiful make believe of theatre. It is a beautiful make believe, but it is a make believe, whereas circus is like, they’re really doing those things right in front of you. There’s a way you get cracked open because you care about the actual humans in that moment and not just the characters, and how much that can enhance storytelling. So, that’s what I’m most excited for people to see.

Water for Elephants

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy 

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