Cirque Du Soleil Art Director: Mark Shaub

I was able to talk with Cirque Du Soleil art director, Mark Shaub, to talk about his show Corteo, coming to Jacksonville August 1-5 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Read on to hear what it’s like living on the road, working with people from all over the world, what he loves most about his job and more. Jacksonville BUZZ is giving away tickets to see Corteo live, click here to enter.

BUZZ: You’ve been with Cirque Du Soleil since 2005 after a 20 year career in dance as not only performer but teacher and director. Can you tell us more about how you got started with cirque Du Soleil and what that transition was like?

Mark Shaub: Sure, I was primarily a dancer for those 20 years. I did do some teaching but I was mostly a performer. And when it came time for me to think of moving on and not relying on my body so much to make my living because it was getting on. I fortunately did the majority of my dance career in Montreal, it was a real hot point in contemporary dance in the 80s, 90s and early 2000’s. Cirque Du Soleil is really one of the major entertainment industries in the city that’s where their homebase is and that’s where the international headquarters of cirque Du Soleil is, Montreal. So it’s, I wouldn’t say a natural progression, but it is for many people from the arts in Montreal eventually end up working for Cirque Du Soleil, either for some time or for a long time.

The show Corteo follows the story of a clown who pictures his own funeral taking place while in a mysterious place between heaven and earth. What inspired this story line and why do you think it’s an important story to tell?

Well, the story and show was created by Daniele Finzi Pasca, an Italian-Swiss director who’s directed circus, opera, theater–he’s from a clown background. He was looking at a way to celebrate a life in traditional circus, and a unique way of doing that, and he wanted to have it focus on one individual, one character. And that character his name is Mauro, and in this version of the show we have the same Mauro that created the show in 2005 with Daniele. And you know, having a funeral where he is actually there, we don’t know if he’s imagining it, if he’s dreaming it or if he’s actually living his own funeral. It’s a place where people come from all aspects of your life and they pay tribute to you. It’s a show full of memories, emotions and it really is a celebration of a life lived in the circus.

Corteo first premiered in 2005 and has since visited more than 60 cities in 19 different countries. What keeps the show alive for so long and what would cause a show to ever stop running?

Well, Corteo’s first 10, almost 11, years of touring was in a big top tent and those are very large productions. It takes a week to set up the stage, the big top, the training facilities, the concession stands, all of that. So usually a big top show will run anywhere from six weeks to 12 weeks, depending on the size of the city. And there’s only a certain number of cities in the world that can support a Cirque Du Soleil big top tour. So usually after about 10 years, there are exceptions, we would retire the show or, as in the case for Corteo and several other of our shows, we convert them into an arena format. And that’s what we did for Corteo, so over about a six to eight month period of time, we went through the content of the show and we edited it down, we changed the technical aspects of the show so that it could be set up in one day in an arena and torn down in four hours and loaded on the truck. Whereas, with big tops, like I said before, it’s six or seven days to set up and three days to tear it down. So the arena way of touring is much faster paced and it allows us to go to smaller centers and take the show to many, many more communities that the big top could never go to because they just couldn’t support a big top for the number of weeks it takes.  But with Corteo, we were able to keep the essence of the show, it looks very much like the show we did in the big top. But technically, [the structures] behind it, underneath it and on top of it have really been changed quite dramatically to allow for the faster pace that an arena tour demands.

For the first time in Cirque Du Soleil history, the rotating stage will be positioned in a way where half of the audience is facing the other half, with the stage in between them. What was the inspiration for the change?

Corteo was always that way in the big top but this is the first time we’ve done it this way in the arena. Daniele wanted to do that because it’s a very interesting experience to watch the action on stage and at the same time you’re watching another audience experience what you’re experiencing. For Daniele that was a really interesting idea because it builds a sense of community in the big top and we’re finding it does the same thing in the arena as well. If you’re turning away from the stage to watch the people beside you and how they’re reacting, then you’re not watching what’s going on on stage. In this format if you’re watching the stage, by the nature of it you’re also watching the other side of the audience. It also allows for much more seats to be closer to the stage. If you imagine a hockey or basketball arena, we’re on the floor of the arena going lengthwise and the ends are closed off because those are the backstage areas , so the audience are sitting just on the sides of the arena. So there’s no seat that’s sitting that far away from the stage. That really helps Corteo because Corteo is  a character-driven circus show and you really get to know the characters and like them and follow them, and even though yes, there are lots of big and exciting acrobatics, there are also characters and if you’re not that far away from them it really helps convey the emotions and feelings that are there in the show.

Cirque Du Soleil as a whole has 4,000 employees, including 1,300 artists from more than 50 different countries, with the Corteo cast and crew representing more than 15 nationalities. What’s it like working in such a diverse environment and how does it inspire you as an art director?

It’s fantastic working in that kind of environment. I’ve been asked before “doesn’t that make it difficult?” and for me it’s not really a difficulty, it’s a challenge, it’s exciting, it’s interesting because it breaks down a lot of barriers. Even though you might have a difficulty finding language to communicate with somebody, you’ll find a commonality in the work, in making the show as good as it possibly can be, in doing something that gets a reaction from the audience. There’s a lot of universal languages and emotions that we’re dealing with that don’t require me to have a knowledge of Russian, or Spanish or you name it–we find a way of communicating. We work in English, so sometimes when people first join the company or join the show they’re not very proficient in English, but we have a commonality that helps them integrate into the group, into the company and into the show because it has its own logic and its own demands. I know when I was a dancer, I went to Montreal and I was English speaking and the first dance group I was with had 28 people and all of them were French-speaking except for me. I just kept thinking “I’m so glad I work in dance and not in theater” because I was able to function. It was hard, I would go home mentally exhausted even though I was dancing seven hours a day, I would be mentally exhausted just trying to figure stuff out, but because there was a common physical language, you’re able to overcome that and it helps you learn new languages as well. It’s exciting and I love meeting people from all over the world and seeing their different ways of approaching the work, the different ways they train, it’s all fascinating and we all manage to come together all under one roof and all under the idea and the desire and the goal of wanting to do the best show that we can, that brings people together.    

How many people are traveling on the road together to put on the show? What’s the dynamic there like?

I believe at the moment we’re at 109, I could be off a couple of people there but I think we’re at 109. That’s 52 artists, there’s an artistic team with coaches, stage managers, physical therapists, myself, all the technicians that make the show run and set up the stage. We have our touring logistics tour management department that look after travel, accommodation, immigration, insurance, all of those things. Everybody has a job to do and it’s quite a lovely experience  because when you travel together, you work together and often eat together because we travel with our own catering group. You learn to appreciate other people doing other jobs. It kind of takes away from the self importance of “I am a star and the show couldn’t go on without me” because you realize that the show couldn’t go on without every person here. It really is a group effort, a community effort and I don’t wanna idealize it and say there’s never any tension and it’s always wonderful, but in general  it is wonderful and it is a very exciting environment to work in. There’s a comradery that comes from everybody being away from home, going through these experiences together, entertaining people and listening to the applause at the end of the show that really makes it all worthwhile.

What makes the Cirque Du Soleil environment your preferred method for story telling? Why not gravitate to the movie and TV industry?

Well, that’s a good question. I think perhaps if I was wanting to create something to communicate with people I might look at other mediums to do that. But the thing is, I’ve been working with Cirque Du Soleil for many years now and I came from a dance background and was lucky enough to evolve seamlessly into Cirque Du Soleil, and is it the best way to tell a story? Perhaps not, perhaps words are the best way to tell a story. But is it a wonderful way to communicate emotions, excitement, laughter, pleasure? It can be a really effective way to communicate those feelings and emotions because it’s not reliant on language. It’s reliant on reaching out to people and hitting them in their heart, in their stomach, more than in their brain. If you want to call that storytelling, then it’s very, very effective. But I’d say it’s a very effective way of communicating with people from all cultures, all ages, all language groups–it’s a very effective communication tool.  

You’re the art director for several Cirque Du soleil shows, but you’ve been with Corteo since it’s beginning in 2005. How is it different working with a show from the very beginning, versus joining other preexisting shows?

It is different, I must say. I know Corteo so intimately, and yes I did begin it in 2005 but I left shortly after that and did other things. I came back to Cirque Du Soleil in 2011, then came back to Corteo for the second time in 2015 for the last year of the big top and then we closed the show. So I was there for the beginning of it, the closing of it and then the rebirth of it in the arena. So for me there’s a special place in my heart for Corteo  because I’ve seen it go through so many different permutations: I saw it when it was young and rough and fresh, and then I saw this beautiful, mature show in 2015 that had been touring the world for almost 11 years, and now I see the birth of this new version of the show. For me, I feel like I’m the right person to be with this show right now.

But I have stepped into other shows that had been running for a while. I worked on Dralion after it had been on the road for 13 or 14 years and it was wonderful to go in there, the first month or so you’re working you’re just absorbing it and looking at it wanting to know how this works as opposed to another show. What’s the culture of the show and what are the dynamics? Then you step in more gradually and you look at ways to influence and make a difference in a positive way rather than coming in like I’m gonna change everything because that’s not my job. But you know, it’s different. With Corteo,
and with the history I have with it,
It’s very special.

What’s your favorite part of your job? What makes it worth it?

Well there’s two things I think. I work with a lot of people that are very inspiring, that are very dynamic, that are the best at what they do. There’s a lot of pride, in the good sense. Pride in quality, pride in doing a good job, and working in that environment with those people for me is a real privilege. I feel that we’ve all been in a job in some point in our life where you’re dragging your heels going into work and you look around you and no one’s too motivated, and that’s not the case here. The other thing is sitting in the audience and watching the audience’s reaction to a very beautiful show. That gives me a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment, that we are able to have people come into the arena and we can take them someplace else, somewhere different, and you see at the end of the show it’s genuine, it’s happiness, it’s appreciation, it’s applause. And that’s kind of a wonderful thing to have, in your job, where a couple thousand people stand up and clap at the end of a day’s work. It’s wonderful.

With more than 1300 performers, Cirque Du Soleil is a huge operation. When casting new performers, what are some attributes you look for?

We have a huge  casting department in Montreal and they work both electronically and physically. They travel the world to look at gymnastic competitions, circus competitions, dance, music, theater, all types of things. They do the work of going out and scouting but they do a lot of the work electronically now. We receive videos from all over the world, and because of the reputation Cirque Du Soleil has we’re able to look at those people and really find the best people in the world. And because of our reputation we do have a lot of people that want to come and work here, which is a very nice position to be in when you’re, say, casting for a show and you’re looking for an acrobat to do a trampoline number and you can look at people and go “Oh, here’s an Olympic gold medalist, here’s somebody with five generations with circus in their family.” We’re very fortunate to have that opportunity to look at some of the best people in the world and we’re doubly fortunate that a lot of them wanna work with us.

Cirque Du Soleil began as a small group of street performers in Quebec, Canada in 1984 after booking their first show celebrating Canada’s 450th anniversary of discovery. I imagine the company had changed a lot by the time you joined in 2005. Since then, how has it changed in the years you’ve been with Cirque Du Soleil and what is your vision for the future?

Cirque Du Soleil has constantly been evolving, I must say that. When I joined I could tell that it was in a real growth spurt back in 2005 and I think the company went from having 11 or 12 shows to having 18 shows in those first few years that I worked there. Now, we’re really looking at ways of doing different types of shows, different ways to explore what we do and use the knowledge that we’ve built over the last 30 years of working with different mediums and combining art forms to create something new. That’s why last year we did something new for the first time with an ice show, Crystal. We had never tried doing something like that before and I don’t think we would have even imagined it back in 2005. But it’s the type of thing that we’re looking at doing now. We’re doing a permanent show in China where some of our big tops and arena shows will actually go to China to tour, when 10 years ago we didn’t go there. We’re developing new markets, we’re developing new shows and I think really the sky’s the limit. As long as people want to go out to see live entertainment, and want to be transported to some other place through our shows, then we’ll be able to keep working for many, many years to come. We’ll be able to make all types of entertainment that I wouldn’t even be able to imagine now.

What are some of the main points you want viewers to take away after seeing the show?

Well, I don’t like to prescribe what people should take away from the show. I think if they come with an open mind and an open heart, sit down and let themselves be absorbed by the atmosphere, the beauty, the music, the humor, the emotions that are there in Corteo then it’s gonna take them somewhere and they’re gonna feel something. Some people will react stronger to some aspects of the show, others relate more to another aspect–and they’re all valid.  I think rather than say “I want them to think this of this clown having his funeral,” I think no, watch this, enjoy it, and see what happens.  I think if you have that kind of openness of spirit in a way, you’re gonna walk away pretty happy with what you saw.  

Is there anything else you want us to know about Corteo?

I would encourage anyone to come and see it. This show works with all ages, all nationalities, all language groups, there’s something for children, there’s something for mom and dad, there’s something for the grandparents. There’s really a lot. I would say don’t censor yourself, just come out and see the show and I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a pleasurable experience.


See Corteo at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena August 1-5. Click here to enter the Jacksonville BUZZ ticket giveaway.