If These Velvet Walls Could Talk

Mar 6, 2014

Across from the Seattle Center on Mercer Street, there’s a white, pre-fabricated, nondescript building with a couple of flags outside. The exterior is really camouflage for a 100-year-old velvet tent imported from Belgium.

Welcome to Teatro Zinzanni. For 14 years, the Zinzanni artists have put on nightly performances that are a wacky combination of dinner theater and circus, complete with internationally known acrobats and clowns, singers and dancers.

Teatro Zinzanni is the brainchild of longtime theater artist Norm Langill. He got his start in show business in 1972, as the producer of the One Reel Vaudeville Show. Langill and his troupe traveled the Pacific Northwest putting on shows in parks and at various small agricultural fairs.

"We became the only other cultural attraction besides country music," says Langill with a laugh.

Langill took the name One Reel with him when he was tapped to produce a Labor Day weekend arts festival for the city of Seattle. That festival morphed into the annual Bumbershoot Festival. Langill headed up One Reel for years, producing Bumbershoot and other cultural events for the city.

Then, in 1992, Langill and a group of actors were invited to perform as part of cultural festival at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. That's where Langill first saw the Belgian tent. "I walked inside and I was immediately three feet off the ground," with joy, he recalls.

Langill knew immediately the tent's elegant wooden booths and mirrored walls would be the perfect place for some kind of intimate theater experience. He was eager to create a performance that would involve the audience as more than spectators. The tent was the perfect venue for his idea. "We think of it as the set, and the audience is now being invited to be on the set, with us onstage," he says.

Over 14 years and more than 6,000 performances, audiences have seen shows created by Broadway dance legend Tommy Tune, heard Seattle rocker Anne Wilson as the evening's main chanteuse, and watched a parade of Europe's best known circus performers.

Langill directs many of the shows, which run for several months each. Teatro Zinzanni's latest offering, "On The Air," was inspired by radio's golden era in the 1950s.

Langill hopes Teatro will be around for at least another 10 years. "There are so many great circus artists here, burlesque acts, comedians," he notes. "There's so much left to develop."

And for Langill, Teatro Zinzanni is a daily reminder of what he likes best about his work: The chance to entertain a different audience every night. "It's just a way to remember that the best experience you can have is live!"