Making the move to a bigger big top
The Cirque du Soleil is taking its minimalist Big Top show to the cavernous Bell Centre – and it plans to keep the show’s surreal intimacy intact despite the move.
Achieving the finished product you see on stage at a Cirque du Soleil show requires a symphony of co-management at various levels.
Quidam/Saltimbanco senior artistic director Richard Dagenais works with people like Reggie Lyons, who is the public relations manager for all Cirque du Soleil arena shows.
Currently, she has four arena shows on her plate, but another will be added when Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour opens in Montreal next October.
“The arena world has grown greatly for us,” Lyons said. And quickly. The first arena show, Delirium (now extinct) was born as one, in January 2006. Then came the first transformed tent Cirque, Saltimbanco, which premiered in July 2007, in London, Ont., soon followed into arena mode by Alegria and Dralion.
Lyons, an American from Biloxi, Miss., joined up with the Cirque as a publicist 12 years ago in Biloxi, when Alegria played there.
Finn Taylor, an Australian from Melbourne, is the general manager of all the arena shows.
“I look after the business of the shows, with the arenas, the promoters, and Reggie is focused on the PR,” he explained. He joined the Cirque 10 years ago, in Australia, “I was looking after the merchandise (and food and beverages) on tour, in Australia and in Asia. Now, I look after the five shows as well as the staff we have here.”
Does that mean working out of town?
“We travel out and back to the shows a lot. But not as much as when we were touring (tent shows) full time.” Taylor replied.
Taylor and Lyons both live in Montreal. Taylor married a former Cirque publicist. They have two kids. He’s a resident, not quite a citizen yet.
Lyons met her mate, a Torontonian, Dave Churchill, while they were both on tour with Alegria in Australia and New Zealand. He’s the technical director of production for Zarkana, the new Cirque show being prepared to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York next summer.
“He came with two kids, so it was perfect for me,” Lyons joked. “Kids out of diapers. Perfect.”
Dagenais, who is “almost 47,” lives in Montreal and has married (a Pilates coach) within the Cirque circle.
He was born here, but began his career elsewhere, as a dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Then he spent five years working with Actors’ Equity in Toronto. It was his expertise with contracts that landed him a job in the Cirque casting department 10 years ago. Soon afterward, he became a tour coordinator and, three years ago, an artistic director. (Careers move quickly at Cirque.)
“My main responsibility is to protect the artistic integrity of the shows,” he said. That includes overseeing contract renewals, ensuring that new hires fit the acts and being the artistic link between the management team and headquarters.
And yes, he loves his job.
“It’s almost as if everything led me to this,” Dagenais said. “It was a really nice parcours (journey) to get there. Because you can’t learn this stuff at school – the Cirque du Soleil culture and how they work. There’s no book for it, just bits and pieces here and there.”
Surprisingly, he said, except for redesigning a lighter, quickto-assemble set, Quidam didn’t require major alterations for its arena shift.
The size of the cast remains the same, although the clown act has been pared down from three performers to one (Toto, doing numbers created by David Shiner).
Most of the changes were technical, he said. It was the five-rail ceiling track, or téléphérique, that posed the biggest challenge. At the big top, it crossed the entire tent, which isn’t possible in an arena. “What we did is cut a section of the téléphérique, and we raised it so that it’s more open, allowing a bigger view of the stage,” he said.
Maintaining sound quality for the multi-layered soundtrack was another challenge. In the tent, Quidam had surround sound. “We have to adapt in each arena because the acoustics will be different,” he said.
Vanessa Napoli, the assistant PR manager of arena shows and the person delegated to escort visiting media to the exit after press conferences end, summed it up nicely: “The main difference between arena shows and touring big top shows is that we visit a brand new city every week and have a brand new premiere every week.” Speedy hellos, and speedy goodbyes, at weekly media calls have become her norm.