FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Teaching Cirque Du Soleil a new trick

A guest blog entry from Richard Oberacker, writer of The Sandman – a little nightmare musical to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

In 1999, I became the first American conductor ever hired by Cirque Du Soleil.  It was for their new Big Top tour, Dralion and it was at a time when it was still really chic to even know what Cirque was.  My theater friends were confounded by how a New York musical theater industry guy had managed to break into the mysterious inner circle of this seemingly impenetrable rising giant.  The truth was it had to do with one small connection followed by about three months of extensive interviews.  Many of these interviews focused on my work as a musical theater conductor, composer and lyricist.  It began to dawn on me then – and continued to be even more clear once I was on the inside – that Cirque was as confused and intrigued by (but ultimately ignorant of) musical theater as the American musical theater industry was by and about Cirque Du Soleil
That same year, I was selected to present my original musical In That Valley at the NAMT Festival of New Musicals – another organization that was a new frontier for me.  Of course I was thrilled to learn about NAMT and to have the opportunity to showcase a very challenging musical that I knew had very little chance of ever being produced commercially (or otherwise, for that matter given its subject).   I set about trying to figure out how I would be able to deliver a great presentation at the festival – with all that NAMT demanded – while doing 10 shows a week on the road with a brand new Cirque show that was still at

the time making substantial changes daily as it prepared for an American premier in Los Angeles.  As it happened, the answer was simple and at that time the only answer possible as far as Cirque was concerned: do NAMT only on my days off. 

Now, in 1999 the Festival was a slightly different animal.  The physical presence of the writers was not demanded to the extent it is now.  Rehearsals could be scheduled over a longer period of time and lots of rules that concerned Equity could be gently bent. And so with the help of my co-author, I learned how to present a NAMT Festival show by way of telephone coaching sessions, mailed rehearsal tapes and many Sunday night red-eye flights.
The fact was that those three months of interviews to get the job with Cirque turned out to be their way of determining how committed I would be to them and how serious I was about continuing to be a writer of musical theater.  Working for Cirque is a lifestyle change.  It is a completely different philosophy about the performing artist and his relationship to his chosen discipline, the show and the company as a whole.  There are very specific clauses in the contract about what an artist can and cannot do outside their work with Cirque. Some of these clauses would appear to an American performer as going way above and beyond a standard “non-compete” clause.  However, once I had accepted this contract and indeed this entire approach to the work, I saw its value as it related to creating and maintaining a Cirqueshow.  It isn’t anything like doing American theater – musical or otherwise – and it must function by these rules to be everything that the world has come to admire. 
After my first NAMT show, my challenge became how to gently guide my Cirquecolleagues to an understanding of my work back in New York.  I knew that I would not simply stop writing and if I was writing, I would naturally be looking for opportunities to develop and present my work.  And that would mean I would have to ensure there was some protocol in place at Cirque that would allow me to get away when it was necessary to fulfill future writing obligations.  And so began my education of Cirque.
The first step was to introduce them to the idea of an associate conductor.  I’ll pause here while you contemplate the full implications of that statement… Remember, they had never hired an American conductor and never dealt with the structures of a standard musical direction team as we know it on a musical.  Subs in the pit? Unheard of. I mean really, REALLY unheard of. As in, “What’s a sub? How does that work?”  My Cirque colleagues and I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had to develop a pretty good poker face so that I wouldn’t damage my jaw by all the many times it was sent dropping to the floor.  I then had to carefully explain to them the concept of how a musical is developed – the many different paths that it can take.  I had to explain what readings were, what workshops were, what a standard rehearsal and tech period was.  I had to explain where in those processes an author or composer might be required to be present and why. I had to explain to a large degree, and delicately of course, revenue streams.  At what point was a composer being paid?  Where is the line between time away to develop a piece without being paid and pursuing “other employment” based on future royalties?  How might these new works of mine be considered in competition with what I bring to Cirque in terms of my own (uncredited) composing for them?
These conversations took place gradually over the next several years and eventually they began to see the value to the company as a whole to having at least some measures in place that would allow other Cirque artists and employees to explore creative endeavors outside their commitments to Cirque.  But most importantly I gained the trust of my colleagues.  I let them know that my work with them would always come first and that my gratitude to them for taking a chance on me back in 1999 was absolute. When they invited me to be the original conductor for the creation of a new show in Las Vegas titled Kathat mutual trust was a given.  Within the first year of public performances of Ka,I was selected to present another original musical for the 2005 NAMT Festival.
However, I still requested of Cirque only the least amount of time away because Ka was so new.  As it happened, I needed only 2 days away because at that time
NAMT still didn’t require the writers to be “in residence” as it were. I also found to my surprise that my colleagues at Cirque asked many more questions about my show at the Festival – how were rehearsals going? Did I get the cast I wanted? Will important people be seeing it? And even (gasp!) – can I hear some of the music from it?
From that festival presentation forward, I noticed that other Cirque artists were taking advantage of this newfound idea of pursuing personal artistic endeavors outside of the regular show.  Some were doing independent films, some were showing in art galleries, some were founding improv troupes that performed late nights in small clubs. And I saw the upper management of Cirque begin to embrace the idea that their artists could find a healthy balance between their work within Cirque and outside it; that these independent projects could fuel their passion and pride in Cirque and give them a much longer run in a given show before burnout might set in.  That was certainly my case. Since that second NAMT presentation, I have been able to balance my weekly show schedule in Las Vegas with five full scale regional premiers of my various works, another
New York new works festival premier, a fringe festival premier and all the attendant readings and developmental stages along the way.  My days have become very structured over the years with writing and phone conferences, various rehearsals and such followed by the consistency of going to the Katheater Tuesday through Saturday evenings to disappear into the world of Cirque.  Conducting Ka has become a foundation, a grounding and not a distraction or a competitor for my energies.  And yes, come Saturday night, I am very often on the red-eye out to New York or wherever I need to be.
To get the demo recording of The Sandman that we knew we needed, I had to fly to New York on three consecutive weekends to accommodate a studio schedule that afforded me the ideal cast.  And the mixing and mastering of the demo was done long distance – daily rough mixes were emailed to me and I would send notes back to the engineer.  This went on for a few weeks to get just what we knew the show would require. It cost us more money but the truth is, doing what we do long distance will always cost more money.  That’s just part of the deal I’ve made with myself.
With this year’s invitation to present The Sandman at the NAMT Festival, I was a bit concerned about scheduling a full two weeks away from Ka since writers are now required to be in residence. And Cirque contractually reserves the right to grant or deny any requests for leaves of absence.  I was also concerned about my daily schedule before my evening show times because I happen to be preparing another new musical for a New York reading and yet another new musical for a series of work sessions with a new director.  I have found that the trick is to deliver any assignments for NAMT as soon as they are requested.  “5 Things you should know…” – hand it in that week.   Song clips? Do it that night.  Script edits? As soon as humanly possible.  It’s a bit like being back in school and knowing if you got your homework done early, you would have more time for the fun stuff.  We were all that disciplined in school, right? Well, at any rate, this has certainly been a second chance to do it the right way.
And as it happened, Ka experienced an unimaginable tragedy in July that forced us to temporarily close the show for over two weeks.  While much of that time was filled with meetings and rehearsals to bring the show back into performance as soon as it was appropriate, I did find that it afforded me extra time to focus on The Sandman.  I was able to deliver a more considered edit of the script still very much ahead of the deadline.  I was able to schedule phone conferences at more convenient times, especially with the East Coast without worrying too much about my rigid performance/gym/sleep schedule. And I was able to get an enormous amount of work done on the other two musicals so that when the NAMT crunch time rolls around, it will be my one and only concern. To quote Dot by way of Sondheim, “You choose things, and then you lose things.”  It’s very true.  I chose to accept the original offer from Cirque. I chose to be away from New York for most of the year, to be away from all the opportunities of the city with showcases, parties and chance meetings on the street that can lead to wonderful connections and even more wonderful new work.  I chose financial security over the bohemian thrill of piecing together a living as a freelance musician in the city.  I have lost out on opportunities for sure.  Out of sight is indeed out of mind, although a good showing of the right material at a NAMT Festival can make up for years of being off the radar. But I have thirteen years of creating magic with Cirque Du Soleil.  I have been in the inner circle for the creation of two magnificent and groundbreaking productions. 
My own musical contributions are on those stages nightly.  And most importantly to my future, I have taught a behemoth company that has always prided itself on being the first to do things, that sometimes it’s okay to adopt some of the long-established practices of the musical theater world.  I taught them a thing or two about how a new musical is made.  I taught some of them what a musical actually is… I know, breathe, take a moment… And thank heavens, because really, what on earth would they have done if they had to learn it from “SMASH”!?

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