An Inside Look at Quidam and the Cirque du Soleil
The circus is coming to town!
Circuses in America have a long history that goes all the way back to shortly after the Revolution, offering the masses a source of diversion and entertainment unlike anything else. In the days before radio and television, there were as many as a hundred circuses weaving their way about the land. But the circus was not just about spectacular entertainment. At the heart of the circus was an innovative showmanship and entrepreneurism.
In their day, the Ringling Brothers weren’t far off the mark when they called their travelling road show The Greatest Show on Earth. They not only had masterful entertainment, but they also had become skilled in managing the enormous entourage of people and animals.
Times have changed, and so has the circus, but some things have not changed. When the circus comes to town, managing all the details involved is a major undertaking. But it’s ever worth it because people love spectacle. The Cirque du Soleil knows how to deliver it on the same breathtaking scale that the great circuses were famous for. This weekend, May 4-6, the AMSOIL Arena will play host to Quidam, a surreal happening of unbound art and imagination, athleticism, agility, and wonder. It is one of 22 different shows that Cirque has worldwide.
Last week I had a chance to speak with two members of this travelling road show, the show’s production manager Chris Brislin and the talented twenty-year-old performer Mei Bouchard. Both play important roles, one behind the scenes and the other as the rabbit character and a collaborator in the Spanish Web.
EN: What prompted you to first take an interest in the circus?
Chris Brislin: The circus actually found me, like quite a few people here. They’re always looking for the most talented people, technicians, and performers. When they called there was no decision to be made. I definitely wanted to work for a company like Cirque du Soleil.
EN: How did they find you?
Chris: Recommendations. It’s a very small industry. I was touring professionally with some rock groups and theater groups. They were told I was a pretty good production manager and they gave me a call. Afterwards I was on a flight to Europe.
EN: What is your role with Quidam?
Chris: As production manager I’m in charge of all technical aspects of the show: making sure we fit into the different arenas, hiring the local crew members we need to set up the show, trucking logistics, safety, and … my goodness, that’s enough.
EN: What are some of the other roles behind the scenes?
Chris: One thing people don’t think about is how we eat. We have our own catering team with six talented chefs who travel with us city to city. They’re feeding over 100 people lunch and dinner and snacks. So they have to go to the supermarket for 100 people and plan a lot of meals.
We also hire a local runner for every city because we need things. We need nails, we need paint, we need glue, we need printer paper and pens. So we hire a full-time runner for all seven days that we’re in the city, and he goes through our daily shopping list for everything from batteries to a new car engine.
It’s an extremely large sound team. We have four full-time people who travel with us. And we have twice as many speakers as you would find at a Madonna concert or a U2 concert, just to get the sound perfect. Not louder, but perfect.
EN: What do you find most rewarding?
Chris: It’s being able to travel all around the world and get a town or city excited about our show because it’s the only place in the world that the show is playing right now. It’s fun seeing new places and making the show the talk of the town for a week.
EN: How long have you been with Quidam?
Chris: This would be my fourth continent, 30th country, and I stopped counting cities around 65.
EN: Do you ever wake up and wonder where you are?
Chris: All the time. It’s always written on the phone in the hotel.
EN: Mei, you’re from Orlando, where people come from all over the world. The Cirque du Soleil is also made up of performers from all over. Are there ever communication issues?
Mei: We have translators that help. It’s kind of like a hodge podge, but that’s kind of cool because you learn languages that you wouldn’t otherwise be learning.
EN: How long have you been with Quidam?
Mei: I’ve been with Quidam since the middle of last year.
EN: What prompted you to take up performing?
Mei: I began having an interest in dance when I was younger. I was drawn to circus arts, so I do the rope act in the show. I took an interest in being up in the air and discovered I like this more than dance. I decided I’d like to try out for Cirque. Since I’m from Florida, they have La Nouba there (another Cirque du Soleil troop). They were holding auditions, so I went to an audition there.
EN: What do you like most?
Mei: My favorite part would be to work with all these people from all over the world. And I also like travelling a lot to different cities.
EN: What is family life like for people in the circus?
Mei: For permanent shows they can have their families there, but some families travel with the performers as they tour. Every ten weeks we get to go home for a vacation, so there are opportunities to be with friends and family.
Chris: On the technical side it’s very difficult to maintain a healthy family life while on the road. A hotel room isn’t a very good place to raise a child. Generally the arena division of our shows is quite a few single people. With family, they try to make it work and turn it into an adventure. We are, after all, the circus.
EN: What’s your favorite act in Quidam?
Mei: Every act is a piece of the puzzle overall, to tell the story. To try to pick one, that’s really tough. I do like the group at the end. They toss people up in the air.
Chris: I have to agree with Mei. You’re on the edge of your seat when Mei’s group is performing, and then when it comes time for the finale you simply fall off your seat. You can’t believe it could get any more amazing. And all of our performers perform without nets. The celebration of their own strength in the finale is just that.
EN: How long is Quidam to continue?
Chris: It’s actually at the heart of what Cirque is. It was one of Cirque’s first shows, and like everything Cirque does it’s timeless. It can touch hearts and imagination no matter what era you’re watching it in.
What is going to end our show eventually is when we run out of cities to perform it in. Once we’ve done every city that will be the time to move on to a new show. Right now there are still plenty of places where Quidam has never performed. That’s how we see the show.
EN: Mei, you’re young. Where was the first place you went when you left home, and what were your first impressions?
Mei: I think I was really excited, a little nervous because you’re off to something unknown. But it was a very uplifting experience to try new things. I went up to Montreal first to train. Everyone was very supportive so it was a good experience for me.
EN: The Spanish Web and other acts require such strength & agility. How do you stay fit?
Mei: We have training every week with the whole team. We have a team of seven right now. And after the show a lot of artists like to work out to stay in shape.
EN: What kinds of things do you like to do in a typical workout?
Mei: Anything from core workouts and upper body. We can rig our Spanish Web in the back and climb that as well. It depends on how you’re feeling. You listen to your body so you’re not too sore. We also have two physical therapists who travel with us to keep us healthy, and they’re great.
EN: Is your family proud of you?
Mei: Yes, they are. They’re very excited for me. I did some part-time things for Disney as a dancer, but after I saw the circus I switched everything…
EN: Any final thoughts you would like to share with the people of Duluth?
Chris: What amazes me the most is that cities don’t realize how much of the city we need to do the show. I’m going to need 125 qualified technicians to help me build this show. And I can’t do it without them. I can’t do it without the police shutting down streets so I can back in trailers. I can’t do it without the drivers. Our catering team hired local help to wash the dishes and prepare the food. Our wardrobe team will need help to wash the clothes and iron them. We’re going to need ushers and ticket takers, and merchandise sales people. We have a special effect in the show and we need the support of the fire department. In the winter we need the help of the fire department to help us remove the snow. Our show is so heavy that we’re at the maximum capacity for a roof. And the fire department needs to remove the snow so we’re at a safe working load.
And then finally, we’re a hundred travelling people from all around the world and we like to go out to eat, we like to go shopping, we like to go to movies. We’re always looking for a friendly town that is willing to put up with a hundred of us that need a place to live. We usually take an entire hotel. Getting to and from the arena requires bus companies. It’s really quite amazing how much we need the town to support us.
We start planning a city two years in advance, and we like to have everything buttoned up four months ahead of time. We had probably over thirty conference calls with the arena and local officials. We’ve contacted hospitals and dentists because after all we get the flu and have teeth that hurt.
EN: Thank you for your time, both of you.