By: Lee Ross
First, I’m a Leo, born into an artistic family in the mid-60’s. My father now retired, was a well-known illustrator working within several industries, drawing for Golf Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Aerospace, & the famous close-up magic book by Bill Tarr, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t!” My mom, was (and still is to this day) a working interior decorator & an amazing individual, along with my sister, who also is in business arts administration.
I discovered the art of mime while at sleep away camp the summer I taught myself to juggle–I was 10 years old. It was during a counselor mime performance that I knew in an instant I had to learn this amazing craft, superpower, ability to make the invisible visible. I was already involved in theater and so I was on this trajectory early in life.
My street theater career began while I was studying theater at the High School of the Performing Arts (from the movie “Fame”). I was wearing white face at lunch going out onto busy 6th Avenue in New York, and later migrated to Central Park, the CP Zoo, Bethesda Fountain, and finally the steps of the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue.
The busker world was everything to me, New York City was my playground, my act at the time – circa 1984/85 was traditional non-verbal whiteface. I went on to further mime movement theater studies in Paris with the LeCoq School, as well as with Etienne Decroux, who was still alive at 91 years old teaching. It was wonderful to perform in Europe back in those days.
The Canadian World’s Fair, Expo 86’, was my last year as a silent act. My world was shattered when I met all the amazing international acts and performers @Expo. I realized I needed to be a verbal act at that time. Standup comedy clubs ensued & stand up was my calling card. In 1987 I was a working “Middle,” on the road, while still performing at those early busker festivals like Halifax.
I landed in Australia in 1988, where the next World Expo was taking place in Brisbane. A six month contract gave me lots of room to try new material and further develop my verbal following, new routines, and work at many Expo stages–including my biggest gig to date, opening for John Farham on the River Stage, 15,000 person crowd. It was a thrill at 25!
I moved to Melbourne and for several years toured Australia as a headlining standup comic, also working in New Zealand long before the big Christchurch busker festival started. My years in Australia were some of the best times I’ve ever experienced in my street performing life. By 1993 I was back in the states, hitting my saturn return, and desiring to explore the landscape of screen writing.
For two years I wrote my first screenplays, and explored improvisational dance, improv theater, while still hitting a select few Street festivals like Edmonton, Halifax, Montréal Fringe, Victoria BC Buskerfest, and Vancouver… and this was when Cirque du Soleil first found me.
I had just finished a huge show in downtown at the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery (just like the MET where I had begun) when out of the blue, Cirque du Soleil casting representative, Carmen Rouet, walks up to me, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She inhales and states,
“…I’m from Cirque du Soleil and I just videotaped you without your permission.”
She then asked for my card and that was it. It was over a year later that the phone finally rang, and there was Carmen, again reminding me who she was, and that there was a lead clown role available for a show called Saltimbanco, and that the director would like to meet me asap.
So, they flew me to Houston, Texas where I met with Andrew Watson. We had drinks, he showed me video of the original tour of the show–he was British, a former aerialist, and a decent guy. Andrew told me he would be re-booting the show and he wanted me to replace Rene’ Bazinet, the famous mime and creator of the 2 lead character roles; the kid clown Eddie, & the spell casting character, The Baron. IE; play 2 roles in one show:)
Let me remind everyone, this was the 1996 Cirque du Soleil. The company was big at this time but not huge. It’s famed director Franco Dragone, had ended his 10th show, ‘O”, and Cirque still had 2 primary owners Daniel G. & Guy L. I entered into contract negotiations. Their 1st offer was an insult, I said “No thanks” – a few months later a 2nd offer came in, it still was not up to par, so I asked John Gilkey (from Quidam) for a attorney referral. I spoke with Lawyer Bogatin, who had many other cirque clients acrobats and a deal & contract were put together.
By the summer of 1998 I was on my way to the famed “Studio” in Montréal for rehearsals and training. Six months later we papered trained the show in Ottawa, and then all flew to Sydney for the premiere in January, 1999. It was the 1st time Cirque had opened in Australia.
Because of my past comedy career in Oz, I felt very comfortable returning to that lovely country, it was a thrill to be back. Opening night was a huge smashing success! Many celebrities in the audience! We set sail with Saltimbanco a show which would go onto the Pacific Northwest, Asia, Japan and eventually open South America. Saltimbanco was the icebreaker show, it was lean, it was fluid, it was simple and it also included the longest clown solo of all the Cirque shows at that time.
Just to set the record straight, I performed my own material. In fact, I could not train an understudy because the routines were more complicated than the original clown (René Bazinet’s material). First half of the show I had a 10 minute solo and the 2nd half was a 20 minute full gunfight with live band. Since I was playing two main characters, I had to make many costume changes from one character to the other, the crowd not knowing until the bow that I was playing both the magician Baron, as well as the playful kid character, Eddie.
Cirque du Soleil uses negative reinforcement to get results. They will not tell you you can renegotiate your contract. There were many Russian and foreign acrobats on the tour who had no idea that they could ask for more $$$ if they wanted to renegotiate. In the Cirque du Soleil landscape, once you are in one show, that is your home. It’s usually a bit of time “under the hood” before you can move to a different show. Often Cirque du Soleil would not train a backup person to do your trick should you get injured. They will tell you, “There is no one who can do your trick, so don’t get sick, and don’t hurt yourself.” Smile.
CDS is a corporate entity with a billionaire owner who may have started out as a nice guy (excuse the pun) juggler & pot smoking hippy in the late 70’s, but at the end of the day he had become a kick ass businessman. Cirque is a formula like any street act. A great show has a certain type of structure that gets results (puts money in the hat). There are many variations on how to juggle a machete, bowling ball, and apple, and in Cirque du Soleil there are many ways to reinvent the general themes, elements, and effects, to reboot show after show.
Yes, Cirque du Soleil is an amazing groundbreaking company. Yes they brought Circus back to the main stream and gave a whole new generation a chance to be thrilled by what circus can be, but they were not alone in the early day’s and mid-80s.
Circus Archaos, Roncalli, Circus Oz, and the list goes on. For me personally, Cirque was a job and at the same time it became an exercise in mental and emotional survival. After the excitement wore off of opening nights and 8-10 shows a week–you settle in for the long haul, the marathon of moving from city to city in the fish tank of 120 staff, performers, and crew.
For me, it ended up that most of the time I was living for the moments of freedom I had onstage untethered from corporate control, or the next bar, the next affair, or next flight to another city to do it all over again. Those magic moments where time stands still and the eternity of laughter & the unity of the audience with your act is all that there is. At the end of the day the one thing that can live on is your ability to create the magic, and when I had my moment alone with the crowd it became the art and science of everything I had known as a street performer or for that matter, since that first mime lesson in class at the age of 12.
There comes a time where letting go of all that you know, all the knowledge base, all the skills and hard work must fall away and all there it is you. And in its essence, you offer your self up to the greater magician, the greater performer, that whispers the magic through you night after night.
At a certain point, somewhere around Singapore, I realized I was depressed, unhappy, and needed to set myself free. I had a negotiated 2 year contract (they usually try to get you for 3) I called my attorney, and said I need to get out of this because the stress of playing 2 roles, which normally were given to 2 different people! I could not handle anymore.
By the time Cirque du Soleil gave in, and confirmed that I would be paid the same amount for playing just the clown role, it was too late. I had offered them the opening weekend in Hong Kong just to make sure that the new clown would have a enough time to get ready to take over. They replaced me with some French kid (trained move for move by Bazinet) who had already done the role before. On opening night in Hong Kong (which had just been taken over by the Chinese) every single important executive from the highest level of Cirque du Soleil were there. I chose 3 magnificent volunteers and had one of the most killer opening nights ever!! Like a sports figure hitting the final run out of the park, It was a great way to leave.
I must admit after Cirque du Soleil nothing was ever the same regarding my desire to be a performer on stage. I went through a intense introspective couple of years before getting my screen writing career going. Cirque du Soleil was a synthesis of my skill set as a performer, it brought me back to my roots and set me free. I will forever be grateful for the time I had in that show. That said, it also was the proverbial nail in the coffin of my desire to be on the onstage in that capacity.
I’m turning 50 this year along with a bunch of other veteran acts, you know who you are. You may want to call it “The Wall”, but hitting the identity crisis of how you define yourself as who you are in the world is your path to walk. Yes, we all must make a living, we all must survive… Where do we go when the pavement stops being enough? How do we transition to the next level of our evolution as a creative being? To be or not to be the bringer of amusement, laughter, and reflect the essence of what we all are at the core…human beings who cry, laugh, and want to be loved.
I did not see it coming when I was younger… I believed I always would want to be a performer, and in some ways I still am, just the canvas I choose to express myself is slightly different today. I am not a super successful screenwriter, I am lucky to have had a few movies produced, yet even in that container I am still seeking, still searching for a greater expression of ideas around Community that bring us together. At its core, that is why I became a performer, I discovered that more than an audience there is Community with others of like minds and this is still the case.
All roads lead to Rome. Cirque du Soleil is just one potential Choice around how you would like to move your career forward. It is a large corporate entity full of structure and if you would like to operate within those confines then be my guest… After five years they give you a leather jacket and after ten they give you a different leather jacket. There is no profit sharing their, no publicly traded stock options, and they will never honor the creative artist the way they should. DS will need a sea-change inside their culture and it must come from the top down, so if Guy Laliberte’ is listening… Well you know where you can find me.
I commend those of you who are still out there making those street shows happen. I remember one year I got to Edmonton with Master Lee, and I could not even watch shows any more. It was the weirdest feeling to have no feeling around this craft anymore. All I wanted to do was to know for sure that I did not want to be out there–it took me 15 shows just to get the old groove back, and by that time it was almost the end of the festival… I thank all of you for reading my little story here, and if ever Cirque du Soleil gives you a call…make sure you have an attorney and ask for what you are worth & then (after that) double it.