October 11, 2017

Moisture Festival Performer Spotlight: Duo Madrona

By Steve Wacker

For me, one of the best things about Moisture Festival coming around every spring is the laughter. There’s nothing quite like busting a gut at the many antics of so many gifted varieté performers, wiping away tears of laughter while trying to catch one’s breath, and seeing everyone around you in the same condition.

But there’s also the thrill of seeing aerial artistry performed with impeccable skill, and appreciating the physical gifts of such performers. Duo Madrona, the fixed trapeze duo of Ben Wendel and Rachel Nehmer, is one such awe-inspiring act. Duo Madrona has been a Moisture Festival favorite for more than 10 years, ever since their Festival debut in 2006. I recently spoke with Ben about how he and Rachel became trapeze artists and why the Festival is one of their favorite venues.
Although Rachel became interested in the performing arts as a teenager, her aspirations were oriented toward a career in musical theater. But the French Woods Performing Arts Camp she attended in upstate New York also had a circus program, where she learned about the flying trapeze, juggling, unicycles, and the like. As Ben said, “Rachel went to this camp to be a Broadway performer, but immediately became involved in the circus program. And she never looked back.”
First, however, there was college, where Rachel and Ben met as biology students. They were lab partners, and they planned to pursue careers in neurobiology. But Rachel received a trapeze as a gift from a former teacher – a gift from the sky, as Ben put it – and she said “I’m going to get back into this.”

“We were best friends, and Rachel asked me if I wanted to learn trapeze things. I took to it like a fish to water. She was doing solo work, and she was teaching me solo work, but we had a lot of chemistry, and we started to learn partnering. We were pretty much self-taught, learning things on the fly. And we just kept improving.”
After college they moved to Seattle, where their pursuit of trapeze artistry turned into something more than just a pastime. They became involved with the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and soon realized that perhaps their true calling was a life in the circus. Rachel started performing with Cathy Sutherland (see my previous blog post about Cathy) and the Aerialistas. Ben and Rachel decided to retire from science and almost before they knew it were debuting at the Festival. “And then all of a sudden we were at Moisture Festival! I barely remember how we got from point A to point B,” Ben told me.

“Those early Festival performances in the 2005-06 timeframe were major opportunities for us, defining who we were as performers and helping us create our material. Each iteration at the Festival was kind of a step for us,” says Ben. “One thing that was helpful was hanging out and performing with people like Hacki Ginda and Tom Noddy – amazing performers. Although we were still scientists at that time, we immediately felt very comfortable with the world of varieté. We were performing night after night with fantastic support and amazing audiences. As performers, you must perform in front of real, live, applauding audiences to become better.”
Tom Noddy also told Ben and Rachel about performing opportunities in Germany, which was news to them. They learned how to put together a tour and get their career on a roll. Since then, in addition to the US, they’ve performed in Germany as well as Austria, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Ben and I also spoke about the special magic of Moisture Festival, about people uniting for a common cause – mirth and enjoyment – and what it’s like to create and feel that human buzz. But he noted that there’s also the reality of being an acrobat and dealing with injuries.
“I remember we were so fired up for our Festival debut – we ramped up what we were doing and acquired new skills. It was also our debut for our peers outside of the Festival community. I was warming up a day or two before, and I sprained my ankle so bad that we had to cancel our first show because I couldn’t walk. After 3 or 4 days I was able to limp, and we did the rest of our performances while I was heavily taped up. We learned something important during our first Festival performances: Circus is synonymous with grit.”

In addition to their appearances with Moisture Festival and their performances in Europe, Duo Madrona appears regularly with Teatro Zinzanni, which has recently moved from Seattle to Redmond. In fact, most of their performing career has been with Zinzanni.
I asked Ben about the challenges of physical performance. “I never think about can’t – it’s more about how do I get better? How do I maintain? I’ve never been a ‘I can’t do this’ type of person. Rachel and I are intent and focused on NOW – our art only exists when we do it. We’re very cognizant of our age and our body skills, but the real challenge is to keep your passion, your curiosity, your compulsion to perform.”

Duo Madrona recently completed a stretch of 51 shows in 17 days, which is difficult for me to comprehend (let’s just say I’m a few years older than Ben and Rachel ;>). Ben advised that they weren’t trying to maintain that kind of pace, but he was also thoughtful about it. “As we get older we get smarter about maintaining our bodies. There’s the importance of sleep and diet. Also, we can rely on our stage presence and ability as performers more than our ability as athletes, although there is an athletic component to it.”

Duo Madrona also teaches, but not on a regular basis because they do so much touring. In addition, Rachel is currently the aerial lead for the professional program at SANCA. “We also do lessons – private coaching – and workshops. There are a lot of studios and schools in Seattle, and we’ve sort of built community all around. We both enjoy teaching.”

I enjoyed hearing about Duo Madrona’s somewhat serendipitous switch from neurobiology to the circus, but my conversation with Ben was fascinating on many levels. If you’re curious to learn more, check out the Duo Madrona page on Facebook or see them at Teatro Zinzanni. I’m really looking forward to seeing them perform at Moisture Festival 2018 – the 15th anniversary year. See you there!

Seattle's Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè, founded in 2004, is the largest and longest running comedy/varietè festival in the world. Learn more at http://www.moisturefestival.org/.
Thanks to Kirby Lindsay for background information.