First of two parts
Not many people get to run away and join the circus. But I did several times in the last few years as a consultant to Cirque du Soleil.
A few years ago, I led a workshop in the heart of the Cirque du Soleil empire — Montreal, Quebec — in collaboration with David Shiner. Shiner is one of the early proponents of New Vaudeville, along with Bill Irwin, with whom he performed in their award-winning Broadway show Fool Moon. Before that, he had been the "Top Banana" for Cirque in the early years. He was back in the fold as the director of a new production.
David and I met in 2001, when he was in residence at ACT in Seattle. He was here on a grant to develop a new show; and I was brought in to share my experience as a director and coach in the areas of physical theater, masks, improvisation, and Commedia d'ell Arte — "art of comedy." David and I fast became friends.
In Montreal, we faced 18 clown hopefuls of physical theater artists with experience, many with their own acts or "personal clowns." They were trying out for several roles in Koozå, the new show. Cirque du Soleil had scouted them and flown them to Montreal, where Shiner and I were to put them through a rigorous week of physical training and improvisation, as a kind of audition camp for clowns.
We were housed in a large, dormitory-like apartment building owned by Cirque, just across the street from their commodious headquarters. Although we had kitchens, the main building housed two cafeterias, as well as several gigantic studios, design shops, and training facilities.
In the span of one week, we put all 18 performers through many improvisations and exercises. We tested new ideas that were being considered for the new show, and watched their original acts. The "creative team" was looking for performers to cast several characters in a rough scenario that had been conceived before we assembled for the audition session. Everyone was committed and dedicated that week to discovering each other, testing the material for the new show and whether they had the right stuff to make the cut.
As talented as the performers were, only three were offered contracts although at least six more had the abilities and the experience to be trained for the material. One declined, two accepted, and then one was dropped, leaving only one performer who is still in the show, Gordon White ("Gordo") from B.C. I had directed Gordo many years ago for Axis Theater Co. in Vancouver, and he has matured into a first-rate "Top Banana."
It is extremely hard to find people who are funny and entertaining enough to be able to fill a huge tent, hold the attention of large audiences, and create genuinely imaginative routines. If they are truly gifted, they are often uninterested in being locked into a tour that could last for years, as most of the Cirque du Soleil shows do. The show Corteo, running through June 1 in Seattle, has been out on the road for three years. Other shows have been on that grueling journey longer.
After helping to launch Koozå, I was in New York working on a workshop of The Glorious Ones, a Commedia d'ell Arte musical piece that eventually went to Lincoln Center via Pittsburgh's Public Theater. Cirque again asked me to do some workshops for their production of Delirium, a gigantic spectacle designed to play in arena spaces with the audience seated on two sides of a gigantic projection scrim. It played then at Madison Square Garden and has been adapted to play locally at KeyArena. The cast was huge — 20 to 30 performers ranging from trapeze flyers and stilt walkers to tumblers and singers.
I taught two Master Classes in improvisation, masks, and Commedia d'ell Arte archetypes. The Russians and Europeans, with an innate sense of the comic grotesque styles of Gogol, Brecht, Beckett, and Moliére, were instantly inspired by the material. The French Canadians also understood the style. However, it can be challenging for American performers and even some western Europeans to grasp the size and point of view required for this kind of physical humor, despite a few pop culture exceptions that do work, such as Mike Myers, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird, the creator of The IronGiant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.
Implementing this mindset is difficult in the usual abstract surrealism that is inherent in Cirque du Soleil's stylish shows. It requires a long, arduous training period, and the time to test and retest material. This might explain why Cirque has been so often scolded by the critics for the quality of the clowning in their shows. This is why they invited David Shiner to come back and create Koozå.
Next: The life of a clown doctor.