Backstage with Vau de Vire Society

She was dressed in their colors; red, black and white.   Her hair and make-up were done in a darkly playful porcelain-doll/clown-chic style.  She had an amazing ass.  What is it about fishnets that make any butt, however flawless, look better? And then you add short shorts, and boom!  Perfection.

The reason I noticed her butt immediately was because the stilts she wore placed it about a foot above my eye level while I was waiting in line for the porter potties backstage behind the Big Tent at Symbiosis Gathering, a music and art festival in the Nevada desert.  Even with all the sexy people and sequins, no one ever said the circus was glamorous, but at least the porter potties here always had toilet paper and hardly ever had pee on the seats.

Just as it was my turn next to jump in, she asked if she could cut in front of me.  “Of course!”  I always let the performers cut in front of me.  “I don’t know if I can do this!” she squealed as she crouched down and backed through the open plastic door.  She tried a few cramped squatting positions in the small blue container, but her butt was still four feet above the seat.  “Sorry!” She said to me, “I might pee on the seat a bit.”  I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to reply.  Just as she was about to start pulling down her shorts, she saw the camera one of the volunteers had whipped out, and promptly pulled her head into the plastic portal, and shut the door.  I would have been rolling on the floor in hysterics, but I was wearing my new corset and the ground was disgusting.

Just another day backstage at the circus.  How did I end up here?  One random sunrise I was drinking Bloody Mary’s atop a warehouse in San Francisco’s SOMA district , and made a very wonderful friend; Ms. Traci Grace was the Backstage Manager Extraordinaire for Vau de Vire Society.  Vau de Vire was a San Francisco based self-described “avante-caberet community” and I was in awe every time I got a chance to watch them perform.  So when she said might need workers for Symbiosis where Vau de Vire would have their own stage and she might need help, I jumped at the possibility.  “What would you like to do?” she asked me.  What a loaded question.  I pondered all the possibilities, and realized I knew exactly what I wanted.  “I want to wear bootie shorts, carry a clipboard, and tell people what to do.”  I responded. So she made me her assistant.

Traci Grace looked like a dark Amazonian warrior with her strong face and fierce eyes.  Her daytime outfit of choice was a white men’s jumper with the sleeves cut off, and a giant STAFF badge pinned across the back.  Somehow she made this look couture.  But anything worn with confidence could look couture on her six-foot-something body with virtually no fat.  She towered almost a foot above me, and sometimes as I scampered behind her I wished I had stilts so I could match her long strides.  Every second it seemed someone was paging her, calling her on her walkie-talkie, or asking her questions; yet somehow she never lost her cool.  What impressed me the most about her, was that every time a new performer or volunteer checked in with her, whatever she was doing, she always took the time to stop, really look them in the eye, welcome them, and thank them graciously for their time.  Then a second later she would be back in motion.

The only other thing that made Traci Grace pause was her best friend, CowboyGirl Victoria.  Whenever Victoria’s act was up, she would halt whatever she was doing, and gesture me over to the wings to watch her (and to make sure everyone else backstage was out of shooting range from Victoria’s rifle).  Victoria was the only other woman backstage that stilt-less matched Traci Grace’s height.  She was lighter, had long hair that would make her look romantic if every other part of her didn’t scream “I’m a badass.”  Her costume was a skimpy, fringed, and perfectly accentuated her ripped tattoo-covered body.  She shared the stage with a CowboyGirl Chrissy, who would twist his flexible body into impossible pretzel shapes, creating shelves for the cans and bottles that Victoria would shoot off his rippling muscles.  She (thankfully) never missed.

As soon as she was wrapping up her act, and the audience had erupted in applause, Traci Grace would swoop back into action, check in with the rest of the backstage crew, and send me on errands that would range from urgent (visiting the festival production office) to the mundane (fetching her drinks). I loved checking in with Mad Dog, the Site Manager.  I have no idea where his name came from, but it suited him perfectly.  He always seemed to have on a cowboy hat, a mischievous grin, and an open beer in hand.  His catch phrase was “I can’t believe they gave me the keys! What were they thinking?”  As soon as he gave an order, everyone around who had just been laughing with him would jump into motion immediately.

We would also be in and out of the audience area, stage, kitchen, backstage areas, and the Vau de Vire production trailer, where my friend Rachel was stationed, volunteering as Production Assistant.  Rachel’s job was basically acting as a circus secretary, manning computers, walkie-talkies, and cell phones.  As soon as the sun began to set the backstage ladies would begin to glam themselves up, and the trailer became a make-up strewn mess until the crew looked as good as the performers.  I did Traci Grace’s make-up as she tried to shove as much food in her mouth as she could in the rare calm between the nonstop action that was the norm.

Not that my job was all motion, I was able to find lulls where I could grab cigarette breaks under the pretense of guarding the equipment trailer, and talk nonsense with whoever else was back there.  We had a golf cart (in festival lingo: “the gator) at our disposal, which was a blast to ride on the back of, especially when Mad Dog was driving, careening down the festival roads, my tutu blowing in the wind behind me, narrowly missing the slow moving hippies in the streets.  I loved being across the festival and seeing the giant white tent that was Vau de Vire’s home from a distance, silhouetted across the gorgeous landscape, its pointed top peaks reaching up towards the high heavens.

Inside from the house, in front of the stage, the audience members were always fluxuating, so there were constantly new people to impress; new faces to awe.  Many times the performers would appear in the audience, bringing the show off the stage.  Backstage was a never ending parade of pageantry and chaos. At any given moment there would be contortionists stretching, clowns applying their make-up, Victoria with her gun, the fire spinners gassing their equipment, and/or Pamela, the hair and makeup head, walking around laughing with a giant headdress on while sewing sequins onto a push-up bra.  And who knows what other mischief was afoot.  There was no shortage of psychedelics at Symbiosis, that was for sure.  But if I learned one thing from working with Vau de Vire, it is that even dead sober you can be made to see things that aren’t really there, and to believe in magic.

Illusion is a wonderful tool when skillfully wielded with playfulness.  It was such a trip to see the people I befriended backstage transform so completely into insane and obscene characters as soon as they stepped into the spotlight.  And even though the performers were front and center, and were the ones who received the applause, I knew that it was people like Traci Grace, Mad Dog, Rachel, and Pamela who really held the show together.

Seeing the show from behind the scenes gave me such an enhanced level of respect for what was occurring onstage.  It made me really appreciate the details and to question things I never would have thought to question.  I mean, I had a hard enough time peeing in a tutu, garter belt and fishnets in one of those porter potties, I had never thought to ponder how in the world one would attempt it in stilts.  But now I know the answer to that question and to a plethora of others about how in the world things work in the circus: with bootie shorts and a sense of humor.

This is the original of a piece that was published in Burn After Reading Magazine‘s 1st printed addition for Burning Man 2012.

All photo credit is due to Shade Hobbs.