Contract - Life is a Circus: David Rockwell Interviews Lyn Heward

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Life is a Circus: David Rockwell Interviews Lyn Heward

17 July, 2009


Contract: Lyn, you talk about how you search for talent and about how you go around the world and find people who are talented, but they also really have to want to be part of a team.

Heward: That's one of the big keys for Cirque. You can take the most talented, most gifted people in the world, but unless they want to be a member of a team, they're not going to last long in the company. We have an expression, which is a little bit of kitsch, but we say that the show is the star. When you go to a Cirque de Soleil show, you don't see anybody's name associated with the title of the show. At the bottom of the page or the program, you might see the name of the director of the show or the person who wrote the show, but you don't see the name of an individual artist. And that's because Cirque chooses a collaborative team approach to creating, and that applies not just to the artists on the stage, but also it applies to the team of creators that we put together each and every time we build a show.

Rockwell: So the whole notion of collaboration is, in some ways, about setting the context in which people are comfortable collaborating, and creating the context in which people can improve and do their best work. It seems that the key part of collaboration is setting that kind of mission and spirit in which people are willing to take risks. What are the key components of creating that trust among the collaborators so that can happen?

Heward: First of all, I believe in strong visionary leadership. We go out and target whom we want to have as a writer/director at Cirque. The director is also the writer of the show. That's the person who conceives the show. And that new director is extremely important. There's a meeting of the minds going on there. There's a building of confidence. There's an understanding of how each person works and likes to work.

The second thing is offering the director of the show team workers, people with whom he or she may never have worked before, but would like to work with, as a set designer, costumer designer, composer, lighting designer, sound designer, prop designer, etc., and giving them a little bit of a comfort zone—maybe they'll choose one or two people that they've worked with before—and then challenging them with a few other people who have other diverse experiences. They might come from different parts of the world. One may come from the world of live entertainment, and another comes from the world of cinema.

Rockwell: So clear leadership obviously is important—visionary leadership, a team that is inspired by each other, with some unexpected elements that you add. And we like to think of that, in our work, as the radical free agent that will add to a more stable condition.

The thing that has always interested me about collaboration—and we just got out of a totally new collaboration on the Academy Awards—is that a Cirque show represents the very best that each artist is able to give. Having spent time in Montreal and seeing what you do, I think every one of the artists somehow ends up feeling comfortable risking.

Heward: I think two things happen. First—and it's something you know a lot about—is environment. And I'm not talking about the theater environment or the big-top environment, but the working environment in which we invite people to come and play. What is the structure of our working environment, the physical structure of it? Is it a playground? I know that's a funny-sounding word in this context.

Rockwell: Well, that's a wonderful-sounding word to me.

Heward: OK. Is it a playground? Is it a stimulating environment visually? Is it a stimulating environment through all of our senses? Is there a core team of people who know that environment inside out and can make it a magical place in which to create? So on one side, you have the actual physical structure of the building, like our creation studio in Montreal, but you also have the support teams in place that allow the creators and the designers of the show and the artists in that show to dream and live experiences, and support strongly the realization of those dreams.

Rockwell: You also embrace change. Your shows change over time. How do you continue to make it fresh?

Heward: We encourage the artists who are working in the show to grow. What does that mean? We offer them workshops. We learn—we actually listen to our audiences. Our artistic directors sit in the house night after night. They listen to the comments that people are making. They'll challenge the artists, as well. We encourage the artists to do some work on the outside. So in Vegas, it's not unusual to find that our band members are also playing in clubs on their two nights off a week. That's stretching it a little, but it is important.

Rockwell: Do you get together regularly with the team and talk about how the show is going?

Heward: Yes. It's part of the various creators' responsibility to the show itself. And people forget that in any given night, no two shows are exactly the same. There are unpredictable things, or predictable things, like an artist who's out sick, or something happens with the stage machinery and the artists have to save the show. We are kept on the our toes because of the ongoing risk that doing a show requires of us—not just from an acrobatic or performance standpoint, but we're also facing the challenges of some highly technological shows that force us to adapt.

Rockwell: The economy is depressed; there's concern about taking risks. I'm just so struck by how everything is invented new for a Cirque show. The amount of invention you guys do is inspiring to readers. How do you continue to make that a vital part of Cirque's future?

Heward: For us, risk-taking is mitigated by a very open-ended research and development attitude within the company. It's funny—we never use the word "failure" at Cirque. Research and development, or risk-taking, is an ongoing process. It doesn't stop at the end of the creation of a show; it will continue on through the show. It's a continuum that doesn't stop at one show. It's a long-term evolutionary process. But it's also what mitigates risk-taking. It allows us to take risk over a longer period of time.

Rockwell: And what are you most excited about in the immediate future for Cirque?

Heward: I think it's an attempt at diversifying itself and taking entertainment to a broader scale. We've been endeavoring to do this since 1999 or 2000, with this notion of a complex Cirque, which is going into other fields—you know, restaurants and that kind of stuff. I think we're at the verge right now. It's just been announced that Cirque will work on an ongoing, ever-changing, parade performance-type environment for Quebec City. We did something similar for three or four months last summer, where our show wasn't static; it actually moved through the streets of the city, and many, many people got to see it over the course of the year. I like the fact that Cirque is looking beyond the borders of the traditional theater or a big top.

Then there's the whole risk-taking thing, which we've talked about here— that it's an ongoing process, that we encourage individual risk-taking. David, you mentioned the Academy Awards. We got to do them in 2002, and we asked the 31 artists we brought with us each to take individual risks onstage so that Cirque could take its big corporate risk, which was putting it in front of a billion spectators. But the bottom line is, risk-taking is the sum total of risk taken by the individuals on the team.

Rockwell: Lyn, what I'm going to say as a closing comment is, one day, I want to grow up and run away and join the circus.



Life is a Circus: David Rockwell Interviews Lyn Heward

17 July, 2009


Contract: Lyn, you talk about how you search for talent and about how you go around the world and find people who are talented, but they also really have to want to be part of a team.

Heward: That's one of the big keys for Cirque. You can take the most talented, most gifted people in the world, but unless they want to be a member of a team, they're not going to last long in the company. We have an expression, which is a little bit of kitsch, but we say that the show is the star. When you go to a Cirque de Soleil show, you don't see anybody's name associated with the title of the show. At the bottom of the page or the program, you might see the name of the director of the show or the person who wrote the show, but you don't see the name of an individual artist. And that's because Cirque chooses a collaborative team approach to creating, and that applies not just to the artists on the stage, but also it applies to the team of creators that we put together each and every time we build a show.

Rockwell: So the whole notion of collaboration is, in some ways, about setting the context in which people are comfortable collaborating, and creating the context in which people can improve and do their best work. It seems that the key part of collaboration is setting that kind of mission and spirit in which people are willing to take risks. What are the key components of creating that trust among the collaborators so that can happen?

Heward: First of all, I believe in strong visionary leadership. We go out and target whom we want to have as a writer/director at Cirque. The director is also the writer of the show. That's the person who conceives the show. And that new director is extremely important. There's a meeting of the minds going on there. There's a building of confidence. There's an understanding of how each person works and likes to work.

The second thing is offering the director of the show team workers, people with whom he or she may never have worked before, but would like to work with, as a set designer, costumer designer, composer, lighting designer, sound designer, prop designer, etc., and giving them a little bit of a comfort zone—maybe they'll choose one or two people that they've worked with before—and then challenging them with a few other people who have other diverse experiences. They might come from different parts of the world. One may come from the world of live entertainment, and another comes from the world of cinema.

Rockwell: So clear leadership obviously is important—visionary leadership, a team that is inspired by each other, with some unexpected elements that you add. And we like to think of that, in our work, as the radical free agent that will add to a more stable condition.

The thing that has always interested me about collaboration—and we just got out of a totally new collaboration on the Academy Awards—is that a Cirque show represents the very best that each artist is able to give. Having spent time in Montreal and seeing what you do, I think every one of the artists somehow ends up feeling comfortable risking.

Heward: I think two things happen. First—and it's something you know a lot about—is environment. And I'm not talking about the theater environment or the big-top environment, but the working environment in which we invite people to come and play. What is the structure of our working environment, the physical structure of it? Is it a playground? I know that's a funny-sounding word in this context.

Rockwell: Well, that's a wonderful-sounding word to me.

Heward: OK. Is it a playground? Is it a stimulating environment visually? Is it a stimulating environment through all of our senses? Is there a core team of people who know that environment inside out and can make it a magical place in which to create? So on one side, you have the actual physical structure of the building, like our creation studio in Montreal, but you also have the support teams in place that allow the creators and the designers of the show and the artists in that show to dream and live experiences, and support strongly the realization of those dreams.

Rockwell: You also embrace change. Your shows change over time. How do you continue to make it fresh?

Heward: We encourage the artists who are working in the show to grow. What does that mean? We offer them workshops. We learn—we actually listen to our audiences. Our artistic directors sit in the house night after night. They listen to the comments that people are making. They'll challenge the artists, as well. We encourage the artists to do some work on the outside. So in Vegas, it's not unusual to find that our band members are also playing in clubs on their two nights off a week. That's stretching it a little, but it is important.

Rockwell: Do you get together regularly with the team and talk about how the show is going?

Heward: Yes. It's part of the various creators' responsibility to the show itself. And people forget that in any given night, no two shows are exactly the same. There are unpredictable things, or predictable things, like an artist who's out sick, or something happens with the stage machinery and the artists have to save the show. We are kept on the our toes because of the ongoing risk that doing a show requires of us—not just from an acrobatic or performance standpoint, but we're also facing the challenges of some highly technological shows that force us to adapt.

Rockwell: The economy is depressed; there's concern about taking risks. I'm just so struck by how everything is invented new for a Cirque show. The amount of invention you guys do is inspiring to readers. How do you continue to make that a vital part of Cirque's future?

Heward: For us, risk-taking is mitigated by a very open-ended research and development attitude within the company. It's funny—we never use the word "failure" at Cirque. Research and development, or risk-taking, is an ongoing process. It doesn't stop at the end of the creation of a show; it will continue on through the show. It's a continuum that doesn't stop at one show. It's a long-term evolutionary process. But it's also what mitigates risk-taking. It allows us to take risk over a longer period of time.

Rockwell: And what are you most excited about in the immediate future for Cirque?

Heward: I think it's an attempt at diversifying itself and taking entertainment to a broader scale. We've been endeavoring to do this since 1999 or 2000, with this notion of a complex Cirque, which is going into other fields—you know, restaurants and that kind of stuff. I think we're at the verge right now. It's just been announced that Cirque will work on an ongoing, ever-changing, parade performance-type environment for Quebec City. We did something similar for three or four months last summer, where our show wasn't static; it actually moved through the streets of the city, and many, many people got to see it over the course of the year. I like the fact that Cirque is looking beyond the borders of the traditional theater or a big top.

Then there's the whole risk-taking thing, which we've talked about here— that it's an ongoing process, that we encourage individual risk-taking. David, you mentioned the Academy Awards. We got to do them in 2002, and we asked the 31 artists we brought with us each to take individual risks onstage so that Cirque could take its big corporate risk, which was putting it in front of a billion spectators. But the bottom line is, risk-taking is the sum total of risk taken by the individuals on the team.

Rockwell: Lyn, what I'm going to say as a closing comment is, one day, I want to grow up and run away and join the circus.
 


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