Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Five Lessons from Cirque du Soleil

Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
- Henry V

Oh Patti, Patti, Patti.  You're a doll and we all love you.  But you're just wrong:
Cirque du Soleil - it's the big, bad brother now. Cirque du Soleil taking a five-year lease on Radio City Music Hall is going to suck Broadway dry. ... If you don't know a particular playwright or a particular play and you're facing a huge ticket price, what are you going to do? You're going to go with what you know, and more people know Cirque de - the tourists come and people know Cirque du Soleil. They really are, I think, ridiculous now. Go back to Montreal.
To be fair to Ms. LuPone, her publicist offered a bullshit retraction some days after the above quote was published.  To be honest, although I think she's wrong I admire the fire and passion in Patti LuPone's original statement.  I kind of wish she had stood by it.  Anyway.

Don Shirley asks the question of Cirque du Soleil's new Los Angeles show, Iris, "what's in it for us?"  Actually, I'm not going to pick on Don Shirley.  He has some good ideas for how the folks at Cirque could lend a hand to Los Angeles companies that are struggling, just as Cirque struggled in the very beginning.  You should read the whole thing

I will say that I believe Cirque owes us nothing, and yet provides more than we could ask for.  This is a company that started out as two performers on the streets of Quebec, and has grown into an incredible panoply of exciting live entertainments that folks can't seem to get enough of.  There is much to be learned from Cirque.  Rather than bemoan their success as Ms. LuPone does, or fantasize about the handouts they could give us, I propose we try to learn something we can use to improve what we do.  And so ...

5 lessons from Cirque du Soleil
1. Production values are as important as performer quality.

Broadway has this tapped, and certainly the better waiver companies know what they're doing.  But I have seen -- and been party to -- far too many productions that settle for shit production values when just an ounce of cleverness or creativity could have made the proverbial silk purse.  This extends to something as seemingly mundane as postcard and program design.  We humans like pretty things, and Cirque du Soleil fills that need by the truckload.  Don Shirley observes, "I can easily imagine that some LA theatrical designers, in particular, might not like competing with Cirque du Soleil for Ovations."  No kidding.
2. Want to make a profit?  Transition away from non-profit. 

Cirque du Soleil was a complete financial failure when it first started.  The turning point?  Re-privatizing the company and hiring people who knew how to run a business.  If you want to make a career out of it, run it like a business.
3. Let your audience know what they can expect (including surprises!).
Cirque du Soleil is a recognizable brand that conjures up images of lean, muscular performers in tight-fitting body suits leaping through the air.  It also conjures up an air of mystery; of magic.  The audience knows what sort of experience they can expect from Cirque du Soleil.

That doesn't mean there are no surprises -- we know to expect those as well.  As Mr. Shirley puts it, "I won’t go on in greater detail about Iris here, not only because McNulty and others are already doing so, but also because the highlights of it shouldn’t be known in advance, just like plot twists in a more earthbound theatrical production."  Each and every one of Cirque du Soleil's ba-zillion shows has those highlights.  Can we say the same for the average Under-99 play in Los Angeles?
4. The only community that matters is the one YOU build.

A Cirque do Soleil (or a Wal-Mart or Starbucks for that matter) doesn't happen overnight.  As much as it pains one to admit, it takes a lot of work to go from one dingy show (or storefront) to world domination.  Part of that work involves cultivating the people you serve.  The People in the Dark -- that's the community we should build. 

The thing that frustrates me most about Patti LuPone's comments is that Cirque is not stealing audience from some unknown playwright or play.  The unknown playwright or play is failing on its own just fine, thank you.  On the contrary, Cirque is motivating people to get off of the couch and see an incredible show.  Maybe, just maybe that public will get a taste for live entertainment and a longing for "a night out."  After Iris, they will cast about for their next fix.  They will find other shows, and their tastes will deepen with experience.  A new community of theatre-goers is born.

(The reverse is true.  The same audience is one lousy play away from throwing up their hands and returning to Dancing with the Stars.  Don't fuck it up.)
5. Blow your audience's mind.

The difference between live entertainment and other forms of entertainment is encapsulated in that word, "live."

The performer who runs the Wheel of Destiny can't have an "off night."

So here's a novel thought:  GIVE THE AUDIENCE A REASON TO LEAVE THEIR LIVING ROOMS.  When you're standing in the lobby, wondering if you should hold the curtain another five minutes on the off chance someone else shows up -- or if you find yourself in a situation where your Equity cast members are voting to cancel the evening's performance for lack of audience -- remember this.  The audience owes you NOTHING.  You owe them EVERYTHING.  So give them everything you can muster.

If you're not sweating when you leave the stage, you didn't do enough.
There is more -- much more -- to be learned from the unprecedented success of a couple of French Canadian buskers.
What have YOU learned from Cirque du Soleil?

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