February 26, 2008 — Cirque du Soleil is known around the world as a spectacular visual feast. Performers — aerialists, acrobats, dancers, the list goes on and on — occupy more than the traditional stage, with over-the-top feats making use of all of the vertical space in the theater.
While the show is magnificent and mind-blowing, what goes on behind the scenes is an equally amazing extravaganza of cutting-edge technology and talented workers. Two University of Virginia drama graduate students — Rebecca Foster and David Mims — are finding out firsthand, learning from those who are pushing the envelope of technical theater, in internships at Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas base during the spring semester.
"When you talk about theater technology today, Cirque du Soleil is the best," Mims said. "They are at the top of the game, and with each new show they are raising the bar for excellence and redefining the state of the arts."
Concerned that she would be overwhelmed by the size of a production that requires the services of about 100 technicians working day and night, Foster prepared to enter the KÀ theater in Las Vegas, where she is assigned for her 12-week internship, by reminding herself that "it's just a theater and it's really, really big."
Yes, it is a really big theater, and the KÀ performers navigate both a 150-ton flying stage and elements that revolve around multiple axes, but Foster quickly learned that communication timed down to the split-second and teamwork are major keys in keeping all the automation — the motors, drives, breaks and computer control system — operating seamlessly to maintain a safe and smooth-running performance.
As part of her training, Foster even learned to rappel from high up in the rigging in case a performer is injured.
"They have contingencies planned to take care of problems that might arise," Foster said, explaining that if a show had to be cancelled because of technical difficulties, the loss would be in the range of a quarter-million dollars.
Foster and Mims are among five students chosen from about 100 applicants to participate in the Cirque du Soleil internship program, in its third year at Cirque's home base in Las Vegas.
Mims, whose specialty is rigging, is spending his eight-week internship in rigging and automation with Mystère, the first Cirque du Soleil production in the company's ongoing adventure in Las Vegas.
Although the scale of the productions at the U.Va. Drama Department and Cirque du Soleil differ dramatically, Mims said he quickly felt at home there.
"It took a day or two of me picking up tools, jumping right in with them, and being able to keep up in work-related conversation to let them know that I understood," Mims said. "After that they gave me small projects to work on by myself. My first was to replace cable on the net for the trapeze act at the finale of Mystère. [U.Va.] gave me a great beginning to hit the ground running with these guys."
"Technology has allowed the theater to do things that could only be dreamed of before," said drama professor LaVahn Hoh, an expert in technical theater and special effects and the students' adviser. "If we are to keep up with that, we need to expose the students to that and to have some of that technology here."
To that end, the drama department hired lecturer and technical director Steven Warner in fall 2006. Since his arrival, Warner, who spent the last six years at Cirque du Soleil, has been responsible for overseeing the upgrade of the rigging system in Culbreth Theater. After outside consultants carefully evaluated the requirements needed to upgrade the system, it was decided to replace it with a new state-of-the-art power lift system and user-friendly, computer-operated scene control that can be operated with a remote device. The package, made by the JR Clancy Company, consists of a power lift that has a lift capacity of 1,200 pounds and the systems safety features allow it to sense the exact load as well as control the speed of the rigging at any rate from 0 to 180 feet-per-minute. In turn, these sensors communicate to the computer when the load has been compromised and shuts the winch down or sends it into emergency stop mode.
"This system is really smart," Warner said.
Warner chose the computer interface for its capability of showing 3-D images of the theater space and its touch screen functions. These features allow for higher standards of safety. Other improved safety measures have also been put in place. In addition to reorganizing the scene shop to incorporate redundant safety procedures and systems, Warner also initiated training sessions with outside professionals for students on scissor lifts and booms lifts — equipment they may encounter in theaters as they pursue their professional goals.
In preparation for the new system, it was decided to demolish the old one in-house. Foster and Mims participated in that effort and learned a lot, Warner said. "The demolition, coupled with learning to use the professionally installed new rigging system and the accompanying automation control, helped them acquire the competence and confidence they needed to get the internships," Warner said.
He credits Cirque du Soleil's advances in the technical aspect of theater with re-invigorating all forms of live theater, from the spectacles at music concerts to the half-time events at football and basketball games, and even traditional live theater.
Educators need to prepare students for the variety of possible jobs and sophisticated new positions they will encounter out in the world, Warner said.
"The great thing is the similarity between Mystère and our shows [at U.Va.]. Just like them, we are a group of people who love theater and want to put on the best show we can for an audience," said Mims, who came away with enhanced confidence. "This is a goal I can achieve and not a fantasy dream job. "
When Mims returns to U.Va. to complete the spring semester, his last in the master's of fine arts cycle that brings together actors, directors, costume, scene and lighting designers, and technical directors to work together in the program for three years, he will bring with him new tools as he steps in to teach the remainder of an undergraduate-level scenic technology course. "Before, when I taught the class, I could teach theories on many things, but now I will have practical knowledge and stories to share with the students," he said.
Tom Bloom, chairman of the drama department, applauds the increasing availability of internship opportunities the students seek. In addition to the two students at Cirque du Soleil, M.F.A. scenic designer Rachel Witt is in residency at the Chateauville Foundation in Caselton, Va., founded by orchestra conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban. The Chateauville Foundation performing arts program is designed to nurture young artists in a collaborative atmosphere with master artists. Witt is working with a New York designer on the scenery for the upcoming production of "The Beggar's Opera." Scenic designer Lisi Stoessel's fall fellowship at the Pig Iron Theater Company provided her a chance to work with an ensemble-style theater group on a production that premiered at Philadelphia Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival last summer.
"We see it as our role as educators to try to facilitate the students' interests and support their internship initiatives. It is the beauty of the structure and size of our program that allows us to do that," Bloom said.
As he travels around the country interviewing students to fill the upcoming ensemble of M.F.A. students, 19 in all, Bloom said, "Internship opportunities like those at Cirque du Soleil and others are a strong selling point for students looking at our grad program."