A new farm-to-table gastropub.
A performance tent filled with the bizarre and the exceptional.
An outpost in Chicago and another on track to break ground in San Francisco.
We took a look inside Teatro ZinZanni’s business operations and also get to know a little about two of the company’s many key contributors.
There is a sense of magic surrounding Teatro ZinZanni.
The costumes. The performances. The food. The atmosphere. All carefully curated over the past 20 years to create a mystical experience for patrons.
But at the core of this combination of enchanting aspects lies an efficient and well-oiled business model that — unlike the show that keeps drawing ’em in, night after night — rarely finds its way into the spotlight.
The dinner theater bazaar, held within a historic Belgium spiegeltent, relocated from downtown Seattle to the former Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, and launched its inaugural show in November 2018. Now, the company is on the verge of some serious expansion.
Teatro ZinZanni isn’t a one-site operation, as many locals might believe. Its Woodinville location, referred to as its “world headquarters,” is its largest and most developed site, located on 17 acres of land shared with business outposts and wine-tasting rooms. Its acquisition of a 10-year lease on the former Red Hook Brewery lot has positioned the company on a trajectory of growth. This summer, Teatro ZinZanni opened an additional location in downtown Chicago, and it is currently in the midst of securing a new San Francisco branch — after the first site there was shuttered in 2011 due to rezoning and displacement issues.
The company — which borders the service industry, the culinary industry, the performance and theater worlds, and even a bit of retail — has an annual revenue of $10.4 million and employs approximately 75 individuals, fulfilling roles from service workers to aerial acrobats.
Embracing the bizarre and exceptional
Inside the tent in Woodinville, visitors are transported into the prolific imagination of founder and creative director Norm Langill.
Langill first encountered the tent Teatro ZinZanni currently uses in Barcelona in 1997 and was instantly inspired. The draping of elegant fabric; moody colors; walls lined with mirrors; and that classic, striped circus tent top: It all creates an environment that dismantles all expectations of the norm.
This embrace of the bizarre and exceptional allows the performance aspect of the show to flourish. Langill, with his background producing theatrical pieces and coordinating festivals like Bumbershoot, is well-versed in show business. His expertise combines with the various talents and personalities of his on-stage associates to create vibrant and culturally enriching performances.
Then there’s the cuisine, which refuses to be outdone. The onsite kitchen and attentive waitstaff are an integral part of the performance, and meal delivery often is worked into pivotal moments of the show. Four courses and a plentiful cocktail and wine list (it is Woodinville, after all) are designed to pair perfectly with the theme of the current performance. For example, the inaugural Woodinville performance followed the story of three Italian sisters who moved to the Northwest to open a restaurant. The storyline served as culinary inspiration, with chefs constructing Italian-inspired dishes with a Northwest twist, and Woodinville wines were heavily featured in the tasting menu.
“We are an arts-producing company,” Langill said. “Here, the arts are as important if not more important than capital. In any successful business, the ones you like are the ones that maintain their quality. In the arts, that means you have to keep creating.”
On any day, approximately 75 people are working to pull off each enthralling event — including performers, waiters, cooks, bartenders, stagehands, and other support staff.
“All of those people are working to be able to give the full experience,” Langill said. “There’s no app for it, no gizmo — it’s all human beings.”
Langill estimates Teatro ZinZanni clocks in with a total of 7,500 performances and 1.8 million attendees in its 20-year history. And with expansion plans looming, those numbers will inevitably grow.
A growing empire
In San Francisco, the Teatro ZinZanni team is in the final steps of completing a financing package and a review process on a new location. If all goes well, groundbreaking on a site could take place within the year, and the tent could open there as early as 2021.
Performances began in July in Chicago, where a spiegeltent overflows on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel in downtown. Midwest visitors go from a busy downtown elevator into the world of Teatro ZinZanni, and business at this urban utopia already is booming.
“These locations are not franchises,” Langill explained. “There is an efficiency to be gained from running the same type of show at multiple locations, but each performance will embody the spirit of the city in which it’s located.”
The plans to expand to San Francisco and Chicago have been in the works for more than 10 years, Langill said, but the expansion wasn’t possible until the acquisition of the former Red Hook Brewery site.
Teatro ZinZanni’s headquarters in Woodinville acts as a centralized home base for operations. It contains the company’s prop shop, where sets for multiple locations are built; costume shop, where diligent designers put together the wardrobe for actors performing across the country; directors and sales offices; and more. The amount of real estate in Teatro ZinZanni’s permanent home allowed for its operations to be consolidated into one cohesive headquarters, with additional development on the horizon.
Most recently, Teatro ZinZanni announced the opening of its new restaurant on the Woodinville campus. Wheelhouse, a “farm-to-table gastropub,” opened in late October, and will act as another revenue stream. The eatery will be open seven days a week, and plans to honor the tradition of Red Hook — with an updated warm atmosphere. It will seat up to 300, with room for an additional 100 in an outdoor patio area.
The Wheelhouse building also contains the adjoining prop and costume shops, and will come to hold the Teatro ZinZanni’s new circus school. Programming and construction are underway for an aerial gym that will hold circus-skills classes for both children and adults. The space currently is a high-ceiling staging space, but visitors can look forward to summer camps and specialized classes starting next year.
The other major transformation will be constructing a home for the spiegeltent. It’s currently operating on a temporary-use permit, which forces the use of a mobile kitchen, and offers fewer options for stage customization and temperature control. Beginning in January, the Woodinville campus of Teatro ZinZanni will take a brief hiatus (performances only — the restaurant and adjoining areas will remain open) in order to construct a permanent structure.
What will that look like? A massive, slanted-roof building will be built in the meadow where the tent currently sits. “The heartbeat of the building will be the spiegeltent,” Langill said. “But we’re encasing it in a glass box with 30-foot windows.” The uniquely Northwest design will allow for weather protection, infrastructure underneath the stage, a larger kitchen, and a sense of stability in the company’s permanent home.
The Teatro ZinZanni campus is in a prime location. It’s immediately across from Chateau Ste. Michelle. The campus includes myriad tenants, including tasting rooms from DeLille Cellars and Sparkman Cellars. This symbiotic relationship brings in increased foot traffic, and Teatro ZinZanni proudly pours both of those companies’ wines during performances. When the campus is built out, the consensus among Teatro ZinZanni staffers is that the area will be the “entertainment capital of the Pacific Northwest,” “an adult amusement park,” and “a real playland.”
“Everything is expanding,” Langill said. “We’re two years into turning it into what it will be for the next 20.” — MM
Peer behind the curtains with two of the show’s most inspiring assets
When it comes to pulling off a production as dazzling and multilayered as Teatro ZinZanni, it takes a village of dedicated and endlessly talented folks. We recently spoke with two integral players — one hidden in the shadows behind the scenes, the other glowing in the limelight. — CW
Actress Christine Deaver, a.k.a. “Madame ZinZanni”
Even as a child growing up in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Deaver staged shows in her basement and living room. As an adult, she moved to L.A. to “slay some dragons” — something she clearly achieved, as evidenced by her impressive résumé.
Fifteen years ago, a director she had worked with in film and theater recommended her for Teatro ZinZanni and, at this point, she has performed so many shows there she can’t even count them all.
Though still based in L.A., Deaver comes to Woodinville for the duration of each production — typically four to six months — where she lives in housing near the spiegeltent. Before each run, she simply packs up her things in her car — including her cat — and drives north. This time, once the Woodinville show wraps, she’ll have five weeks off before heading to Chicago for the ZinZanni production there.
A city girl at heart, Deaver says she enjoys working in “peaceful and lovely” Woodinville, though working and living there does make it difficult to find a late-night bite to eat after each performance.
In this industry, Deaver said, “Employment isn’t always there. You have to hustle and create your own work.” When in Los Angeles, she’s often busy with freelance gigs that range from voice-overs to one-person cabaret shows. Yet she doesn’t sit around and wait for work to come to her. Instead, she often creates her own. “In the life of the actor, you’re using your craft in a lot of different mediums. There’s never a dull day,” she said.
Her nontraditional lifestyle requires abundant self-motivation, yet, Deaver said, her barometer for happiness means never having to say, “Thank God, it’s Friday” — and never counting down to retirement. Deaver views that traditional 9-to-5 lifestyle as a “slow death.”
“I refuse to live like that,” she said. “Life is short. If you’re not happy, change it.”
There’s no doubt Deaver is living her best life when in character on stage, where she gets to write her own material and be quick, inventive, and think on her feet. As a headliner, she arrives a week earlier than the rest of the cast, which leaves only a maximum of two and a half weeks before opening night. It’s a limited rehearsal time compared to traditional theater.
With ZinZanni, Deaver feels perpetually challenged. “I get to say and do whatever crazy, creative things will work in this tent,” she said. “I love the artistic freedom and room I’m given to play.”
Resident Designer Beaver Bauer
Like Deaver, Beaver Bauer loves the creative freedom allowed at Teatro ZinZanni, especially when it comes to dreaming up costumes for her favorite subject: Deaver. Deaver is one of her “top favorite people to design for in the world.”
The pair hadn’t worked together since the ZinZanni tent closed in San Francisco eight years ago, but when the two combine forces, it’s “an absolute collaboration.”
“When we get together, ideas are always cracking and popping,” Bauer said.
It’s in Bauer’s nature to be collaborative and responsive, traits that are reflective of her days living in a theatrical commune in the 1970s. Though her work has taken her all over the globe, Bauer has a special soft spot for ZinZanni. She always has those shows on her mind, she said, and is constantly gathering trims and fabrics that catch her eye and sketching characters around her — whether on a plane or while being a “bus queen” around San Francisco, where she’s based.
When we spoke with her, Bauer was preparing for both the newest Woodinville show as well as the Chicago production that was to follow. Since more than half of the Woodinville cast won’t continue on to Chicago, she needs to make more outfits.
In contrast to most ballet and theatrical productions Bauer works on, ZinZanni has an extremely fast turnaround for pieces with very specific requirements. Not only do cast members arrive close to opening night, but fittings can be very complicated and exacting. Bauer must consider countless practical issues related to the equipment performers use — how much stretch is needed and how the costumes appear when viewed upside down — in addition to crucial visual elements. She aims for a minimum of three costumes per subject; often the wardrobe progression mirrors a character’s transformation throughout the storyline.
Bauer relishes creations that might range from a wig made of horsehair tubing to an armor-like skirt built from a deconstructed vegetable steamer from the Dollar Store. “I like to joke that I’ve made something out of a broccoli steamer. It makes me happy. The act of transformation is what we’re in the business for in ZinZanni.”
Bauer said her craft has kept her propped up through the ups and downs of life. Rather than moping, she chooses to dream.
“I never really wanted to live in reality myself,” she said. “This gives me the chance to explore so many different magical realms.”