Confluence (n.) The joining together of two rivers, where one flows into another forming a larger mainstream. Confluence Magazine is the place where our smaller stream of documentary work meets and mixes with the river of stories being made and shared with the world.
Peering into the tent from offstage, Papino, the clown-in-charge, monitors whether Nino, the bumbling, mischievous clown character inhabited by Giovanni Zoppé, has made it safely up the rope ladder to his trapeze act. When not clowning, the team are brothers-in-law: Papino is Jay Walther, who came to the circus as a sound engineer, then married Giovanni’s sister Tosca 22 years ago and was enveloped into circus family life.
Giovanni Zoppé as Nino and his son, Julien, beside him as Ninito echo the timelessness of the Zoppé clown tradition. Giovanni grew up shadowing his own father, the late Alberto Zoppé, learning circus performance at his side. Modern life has intervened in Julien’s training—his parents’ divorce often leaves him at home with his mom while his father is on the road. But Julien’s been part of the circus since he was born, and he joins the troupe during school breaks. Giovanni dreams that someday Julien will take over the circus, as he did from his father.
The Zoppé family is joined on the road by occasional workers—people, often students, who travel with the circus for a season or two, helping with all the non-performance but necessary business that bolsters income from ticket sales. In a hot summer tent filled with hundreds of people, lemonade and water sales are critical for audience and Zoppés alike.
Circus kids grow up with the tent as their playground, almost incidentally absorbing lessons from the performers around them. When she was little, Giovanni’s daughter, Chiara, noodled around with the rope her aunt Tosca used to climb up to her aerial performance space high above the sawdust and grass of the tent enclosure. Now Chiara is 17 and an expert aerialist herself.
A wooden steamer trunk does triple duty for Giovanni Zoppé: It’s a reminder of his father, who brought the trunk over from Italy when he emigrated after World War II. When Giovanni enters the tent as Nino, the trunk carries clown props: balloons, juggling clubs, a broken trombone Nino pretends he can play. And it bears sentiments from his own past—taped inside is a photo of baby Julien with his mother, Amy (an aerial performer herself and now Giovanni’s second ex-wife), and a devoted fan who comes to the show every year when the circus passes through his California town.
As the troupe take their final bows, Giovanni, in character as Nino dressed as an equestrian ballerina, presents young Julien for applause. Rhythms of life for circus families are out of the norm—even the littlest kids stay up late and are encouraged to take risks—but their extended family is there to support them all day every day.
International flags lining the encampment emphasize the diversity of the circus. The Zoppés come from the Italian tradition, but the wider troupe has experience from circuses around the globe. Zoppé performers Carlo Gentile and his wife went to China to learn foot juggling. Now they live on the road in an Airstream trailer and are balancing family life—their four children perform with them as La Famiglia Gentile.
Even a quiet prep moment between husband Jay and wife Tosca can turn into a performance, as Papino mugs for the camera while lacing his wife into her costume. Tosca’s been performing her bareback equestrian act since she was tiny; she’s the sixth generation of equestrian artists in her family. During her act, Jay stands in the center of the ring, keeping the horses moving and holding any props Tosca might need, such as fire or hoops.
A sisterly pre-show conversation about getting ready for the evening barely pauses dad’s foot juggling practice. Though family is the core of the Zoppé Circus, it’s not limited to just the immediate Zoppé family—the performing troupe is generally about 20 performers strong. Often the additional members are small family groups with different acts—musicians, foot jugglers, and more—who join in for a season or two.
Tiny house living, circus style, closely blends work, play, and family time. Giovanni and toddler Julien retreat to the trailer in between the afternoon shows to rest, eat, and have a few moments together. Though this moment happened during Julien’s parents’ divorce, Giovanni made sure Amy got some face time on a call with their son before heading out again to perform.
Julien’s grandmother Sandra Zoppé tidies him up before a show. Coming from a vaudevillian family and raised as a singer, Sandra was poised to be the perfect partner for Alberto when she volunteered for his comedy horse act in 1964. They married and performed together for years, with Sandra masterminding the narrative and theatrical aspects of the show and raising their children, and now grandchildren, in the circus performance tradition.
Prepped and ready to clown, Julien waits backstage surrounded by workaday implements that create the magical fantasy world inside the tent. When he was around 8 years old, Julien took on more of a leadership role, advising younger kids and showing circusgoers around. Though circus kids help behind the scenes as well as onstage—they may perform a couple fairly brief acts in each show—their parents make sure they don’t work too hard and have time to play.
A backstage kiss for good luck transforms Julien and Giovanni into Ninito and Nino as they enter the ring to kick off the show. On their backs, matching steamer trunks—Julien’s small and empty, Giovanni’s full of implements for the show, all carefully packed into his father’s trunk from Italy, tying together generations of Zoppé circus performers.