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Cirque du Soleil staff members were gracious hosts to members of the Midwest Section who enjoyed a tour and performance when Kooza was in Chicago.

Photo/M.C. Friedrich


Bonjour Cirque in Chicago!

M.C. Friedrich
Midwest Section

On Saturday, July 12, 35 people (27 members and eight guests) from all four states of the USITT-Midwest Regional Section trekked to Chicago to take full advantage of the opportunity to tour the backstage then enjoy a performance of Cirque du Soliel's travelling big-top show, Kooza. Steven Jacobs arranged the tour with the host, Michael Wilder, Kooza's technical operations director. The two-and-a-half-hour tour was conducted by Mr. Wilder; David Millman, head of lighting; George Mercier, head of carpentry; and Remi Lemieux, assistant head of rigging.

The tour began in the parking lot of the United Center behind the massive system of blue- and yellow-striped tents and semi trailers. Kooza comes completely self-contained including a trailer of four huge electrical generators and a sea of cleverly specialized road cases for quick set-up and strike. From the moment the trucks roll into a city and the crew begins to set up the four impressive masts that support the big-top and the complex rigging, it is just one week to the first performance.

Just inside the back of the tent was the artists' practice/warm-up area containing a trampoline, a 2-foot high tightrope wire, comparatively small trapeze rig, assorted other props, and a lounge area complete with a big-screen monitor. Next to this is the dressing room/make-up area; each artist has an individual road case that opens up into a personalized mirrored vanity. A physio-therapist retreat is nearby. Across the practice area from the dressing rooms is wardrobe, equipped with all the necessary tools of the trade, including a cobbler's workstation, as well as spare costumes and replacement pieces.

A tunnel/hallway, lined with additional props ready for the show, leads to the big-top and the more immediate backstage area behind swaths of green-printed poly-silk drapery. Mr. Wilder said they work to use as much inherently fire-retardant fabric as possible to minimize the need for environmentally questionable chemicals. This space looks as familiar as any backstage area with all the platforms and scenic elements stacked and stored in preparation for shifting during the performance. Backstage extends circularly under the seating units where more equipment, conveniently nestled in customized road boxes, is stashed.

In the house, the tour included a close-up look at the complex masts with rigging, cabling, props, and followspot crows nests. There were hanging truss front-of-house lighting positions and speakers between the masts. High center of the big-top was a sizeable "cupola" with shaped truss on a winch system housing much more lighting, speakers, trapeze rigs, and other Cirque paraphernalia. There was a front-of-house sound position and a control booth, but also a winch system control area for the complex uses of high-wire and trapeze acts.

The tour then circled around to the scene shop where various prop, electrical, and sound equipment repairs can take place. The company tours with a spare of every critical (show-stopper) piece of equipment, and the shop is equipped to repair almost anything else. The tour walked past the office trailers and the kitchen trailers that provide three meals a day for all crew and performers.

Most of the participants had tickets for the matinee performance, so there was time to walk from the United Center for a lunch of cheeseburgers at the Billy Goat Inn, made famous in a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1970s.

The show was entertaining and the experience was made richer by the backstage tour information. After the performance, Mr. Wilder again met with participants to answer additional questions which invariably began with "How did you do…?" He also was encouraging and generous in offering advice to the students on the tour about getting started in the business and what the work is like. He encouraged them to search Cirque's web site for further information. As one student was overheard saying at the end of the day, "Today was amazingly, overwhelmingly awesome!" Merci, Kooza!

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