Published: July 26, 2009
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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH...
MICHAEL G SMITH

We are very honoured to give you this exclusive interview with SBF Member Michael, Senior Artistic Director of the Cirque du Soleil productions Alegría & Dralion. Reading through his heartfelt answers you will raise the curtains on an enchanted world hidden behind the project of a bold dream come true.
Michael will also reveal the true soul of a man who, despite achieving a career that has taken him right to the very top of showbiz, has still preserved intact his care for others and actually turned it into the philosophy of his own life...
Michael G Smith

Quote The artistic philosophy at CdS is that every show at every performance is a work in progress, so my job is firstly to create my own artistic vision of the show while respecting the original concept, but also with a view of taking it into the future...
  • You are an ex dancer. How did you make the transition into directing and what brought you to Cirque du Soleil?
    Michael G Smith: I have to admit that there was never a grand design and ambition to become a director, it was more about an accumulation of opportunities and choices. I was incredibly fortunate that certain key and influential people trusted me with their projects and I guess I managed to deliver as each new challenge seemed to acquire more responsibility and creativity. I think that our greatest fears and insecurities come from within, thereby creating our own self-imposed limitations. I have been in so many different genres of the entertainment industry in the last 15 years, ranging from creating a touring show for the Lido de Paris to being a Director of Entertainment for Festival Cruise Lines and onto Cirque du Soleil (CdS), that my comfort zone and experience is now really wide. Creativity and ideas are easy, the craft of the director is being able to communicate those ideas to everyone who will be contributing to the project and make the concept a reality that tells a story and creates good entertainment.
    I came to CdS by simply applying for a job on their webpage, along with probably many others. I was working on a project for a new Lido in Shanghai, then the Chinese government pulled the plug and someone I was working with at the time suggested to apply at Cirque. I had nothing to loose, but within 6 weeks of applying I was flying to Sevilla to join Dralion as the Artistic Director. I had never considered this as an option before, because I know nothing about circus, nor did I have any interest in the genre. I began to realize during the pretty stringent interview process that CdS is a long way from traditional circus, both in their presentations and in their philosophy.


  • What does your role as a Senior Artistic Director involve? Scala de Barcelona, starring la vaca Elisa (in wellington boots) and left to right Joanne Metherell, Andreas Knoop, ? & Michael
    MGS: The artistic philosophy at CdS is that every show at every performance is a work in progress, so my job is firstly to create my own artistic vision of the show while respecting the original concept, but also with a view of taking the show into the future and supervising the creative evolvement and development. Cirque is celebrating it's 25 year anniversary this year, so with that comes a lot of experience and much expertise to help me along the way. Ultimately, I am responsible for everything to do with the show on stage and off, for hiring all the artists and musicians plus the Artistic Support staff, - Physiotherapists, Coaches, Stage Managers and Wardrobe Assistants, and once hired, I am then responsible for managing them all. I am not alone in this however, I have an Artistic Director on the tour to deal with day to day issues and he/she is supported by Supervisors in each area of expertise in the Artistic Support team.
    I work on three fronts, visiting both the shows wherever they are in world - Andreas Knoop, Joanne Metherell, ? & Michael singing passionately to la vaca Elisa and that has been far this past year with Dralion in Australia and Alegria in South America and Asia, plus I also have my office in Montreal at the IHQ Studio where the whole process begins. In Montreal I work with different departments, Casting & Training, Performance Medicine - dealing with artist's injuries and rehabilitation, Talent Acquisition for the Artistic Support teams, Creative Management for contractual negotiations for the artists plus many meeting requests for less interesting topics like immigration issues or tour rules and policies with the HR Department. All this plus I try and stop in Paris whenever I can on my travels to see my boyfriend who is still living in Paris, and which I still call 'home'!
    It is a big job, but I am supported by a great infrastructure to support Cirque's absolutely unique needs and requirements.
    The job is mixture of creativity at a very high level and the management and organisation needed to maintain the quality and integrity of the show and the company.


  • What is it like to work for such a unique company as CdS?
    MGS: I have so enjoyed my time with CdS and not a day passes when I don't remind myself how lucky I am too. It is a very unique company in how it is structured and operated. The multicultural aspect is a very important part of the company philosophy, encouraging and accepting the differences and finding a mutual respect that allows everyone to flourish and work together in an ideal non-judgemental world. On Dralion, there are 65 artists from 12 different countries, on Alegria, 55 artists from 17 countries, so you can see - there are challenges within this ideal.
    The other unique aspect of working at CdS is to be part of the immense creative force and drive of the company. I moved to Montreal in January 2008, when I became Principal Artistic Director, and consequently am now based at the IHQ. Apart from the other things I do when there, I am invited to Creative Summits, when all the senior artistic and creative directors come together to brainstorm for a couple of days to discuss all the new trends in the entertainment industry and develop and explore the creative direction of the company over the next couple of years. The first time I went, I had to keep pinching myself to understand that I was there - particularly as I am the only English guy at this level and have been with the company for what is looked at a short time - 3.5 years! It is a good indicator of how CdS is as an employer when the majority of the people I work with have all been with the company at least for 10 years.
    Costa Cruises, Enrico C - Can Can                                 Alisa Perrott, Michael & Lindsey Raven

  • Do you think that CdS has redefined the concept of "Circus" and how?
    MGS: CdS has undoubtedly redefined the traditional perception of "Circus". I view the touring shows as 'theatre in a tent' because of multimedia aspect of the shows. Guy Laliberte, Cirque's founder, made the decision at the start that animals would not be part of the CdS's shows. This decision was also driven by economics and the costs involved as well as being an artistic call. The option taken was investing in technology to support the shows and developing an identifiable 'sound' in the score. The central difference was however, the integration of theatre and drama into the shows by developing the use of characters that can create an emotional connection to the audience to enhance their experience. There is still the thrill of amazing acrobatic feats that are associated with traditional circus, but the production and presentation that support them have far more depth and meaning than merely nailing an excellent triple twist.
    Quote I think the most motivating tool at a director's disposal is to let all the artists know that someone is watching and is genuinely interested in their individual performance and development. Which artist do you know who does not appreciate the attention of the director?


  • You are responsible for two CdS shows, Dralion & Alegria. The latter has just been revamped, what was your involvement in the remounting of it?
    MGS: Alegria was revamped recently to restage and refresh the show as it starts a new life back touring in North America, but playing in Stadiums and Arenas. This allows a whole new audience access to the show, as we can play in smaller cities and just stay for one week, which we were not able to do touring with the Big Top because of the necessary infrastructure that this operation entailed.
    It was a fabulous experience directing this project, as I brought in all the original creators who were also the people who very much created the artistic direction of CdS. Their talent and generosity were a total inspiration and it has to go down as one of the best creative experiences I have had so far in my career - that is once I got over the initial intimidation of working with such legendary artists and asking myself in quiet moments alone, how on earth I ended up in this position. Once the work started, it was great and we all just focused on achieving the best results and created three new acts for the show, while at the same time respecting the original work and concept. There is something significantly different about working at Cirque, in that it seems that people have less to prove which translates into the feeling there is an underlying confidence and trust in the people you work with. It is more about the quality of the collective work and contribution itself, rather than being driven by ego and need.


  • Most of the cast come from the world of sport. How do you recruit them & what do you look for?
    MGS: We have an army of talent scouts around the world and many experts in Montreal. Cirque have to recruit artists from many different backgrounds and disciplines so it is a big challenge. When I am looking for an artist, I give Casting the heads-up, they do the necessary research and then do a Presentation for me, complete with technical experts and coaches who share their opinion as well. I have to predict 9 months in advance which artists might leave and which ones I might not offer a contract to. We then bring the selected artists for "General Training" in Montreal for at least 6 months to develop their potential and then if in fact I do need someone, I have them ready and trained.
    Despite the fact that there is a huge amount of artists who want to work at Cirque, the technical requirements in themselves are already high, thereby restricting the number of potential candidates. Usually in the presentation, there is footage from the Olympics or World Championships of specific disciplines, but as well as that, the Casting Department also visit many countries throughout the year to see the candidates live and put them through improvisation exercises, a dance routine, physical strength tests and then they have to talk about themselves and their reasons for wanting to join CdS. When choosing an artist, I look at all the different aspects mentioned above, but look very closely at how liberated and uninhibited they are in improvisations and how creative their responses. When working with elite athletes who bring an incredible discipline with them, we also have to be very aware that part of that discipline is psychological, and they are trained to not demonstrate any emotional reaction - we obviously have to turn that around, so looking at the potential to be able to do that is essential to their own individual success and by extension, to their performance in the show.

    Seoul, Sheraton Grande Walker Hill Hotel                 Bonsoir Champs Elysees                                              Richard Marshall, Belinda Smith & Michael
  • How do you turn these athletes into being such artistic performers?
    MGS: It is very much a reoccurring challenge that we face, but this process starts in Montreal during the "General Training" and it has been going on for 25 years so there is plenty of experience and expertise channelled into achieving this goal. This process is also very much continued once they arrive at their show with the Artistic Director who is always on the tour with the company. It is very interesting work artistically, because you are working with people who do not come equipped with the same points of reference that are "normal" for artists working in theatre or cabaret, nor have these people trained all their lives to be an entertainer. We have to realign their priorities and get them away from their single-minded focus on technical acrobatic achievement and create a desire for communication with an audience and try to assimilate the extraordinary discipline they arrive with into artistry on stage that is just good entertainment.
    The continuing development of each artist does not stop once they arrive on the show. Workshops are organised in different cities or experts flown in from different parts of the world. Any artist can attend any kind of class from dance to improvisation and they will be reimbursed for the class. There is a serious investment from both the company and the artist to make the relationship as mutually interesting to both parties.


  • The cast has to put their body through so much and often, due to the nature of their act, risk their lifes. How do you, CdS & the artists handle this?
    MGS: Firstly and most importantly, working as an artist at CdS is more of a lifestyle choice than simply a job. We travel with a support team of Physiotherapists, masseur and coaches who are always there to support and assist in their individual strengthening and conditioning programmes to help keep them in top shape. Individual Pilates programmes are created for each artist and if one of the resident Physiotherapists is not a qualified instructor, then we import one locally in each city.
    It is rare that artists coming from the world of Elite Sports do not have an incredible knowledge and understanding of their bodies and how best to maintain and protect them from injury. We take the Health and Safety of the artists very seriously and always try to cover all possibilities that could occur because of the dangerous nature of what is performed nightly on stage. As a way of protecting the artists too, we carry extra cast members so we can have a rotation when everyone is in good health and we are covered with a back-up plan, in the case of injury. We have a high audience expectation to deliver and could not possibly maintain that without having this cushion.
    There is a constant pressure on the artists to deliver at a high level for their colleagues as much as for the audience, so lifestyle choices become part of the equation, and we don't tend to have a "party crowd" - except on a Sunday evening when Monday is dark and a whole week of tensions are released!
    I have a huge respect for all the artists that I work with and this is also my inspiration which keeps me going when I am constantly travelling the planet and shouldering the responsibility of managing almost 150 people on the tours and all the challenges and drama that come with that. If I didn't feel so privileged and inspired, I think it would be a difficult job to come to terms with, but the generosity of the people I work with far outweighs any of that, particularly when I am sitting watching the show and see the effect of what we as a group create every evening. Maybe pure escapism, but in these tough economic times, who doesn't need that!


    Scala de Barcelona -  Mary De Vries & Michael in 'México'
  • Do you find it different working with sports personalities, rather than "showbiz" people?
    MGS: There is so much investment from both the artist and Cirque in their development that at a certain point, they start to see themselves as artists and start to understand the priorities and make the adjustments. After a while, the dialogue changes and they start thinking like artists and exchanging with others, but the end result is very much geared to achieving optimum performance. I think they are not in the industry for the "high life" glamour lifestyle that attracts a lot of people. At the end of the day, everyone is an individual and it is really important to empower the artists as true performance begins with their own sense of self-confidence in their own ability to excite and deliver a performance to an audience. I don't think that I give a second thought about where the artist may come from once they start doing the show, it is about the present and the future that we are working together to create that is more fulfilling and rewarding. I have never been a person to look backwards and indulge in nostalgia as I have never really found any reward in that - who cares, the past is gone and only has a significance for the present and the future to use as an observation of how to deal with a situation better the next time around.

    Quote When working with elite athletes who bring an incredible discipline with them, we also have to be very aware that part of that discipline is psychological, and they are trained to not demonstrate any emotional reaction - we obviously have to turn that around...
  • Due to Cirque du Soleil's very high reputation, the audience come with great expectations. How do you stimulate the artists into putting in such an outstanding performance every night?
    MGS: Since SBF members are from inside the industry - I am sure that most people reading this remember when they were performing and what they most wanted was feedback - how am I doing - what do I look like doing that number? We may all imagine one thing and the reality may well be another. I think the most motivating tool at a director's disposal is to let all the artists know that someone is watching and is genuinely interested in their individual performance and development. Which artist do you know who does not appreciate the attention of the director? Giving notes is a skill in itself because the moment the artist becomes defensive, your message will be much harder to deliver and may not reach the goal, so it is always a question of how criticism is presented so it supports and nurtures. I think the overriding factor colouring the effectiveness of correction is total sincerity. If you as the director are not open and honest with the artists, how can you ask for the same from them? A great performance from any artist whatever the discipline is based on honesty, truth and understanding so the director has to make sure that his/her ego, insecurities and personal agenda never interfere with this goal and objective. The greatest reward for a director is to facilitate other people's professional and personal achievements and developments - there is nothing more fulfilling as a human being than reaching out a hand to help.

  • What do you think of ShowBiz Friends?
    MGS: I think it is great to be able to see what happened to people we knew many years ago and of course lost touch with - I would love to see more people sign up. I love reading the interviews and comments as it brings back memories very quickly - even if I have no desire to go back to those "golden days" - I like my life better now!

  • Thank you Michael for your brilliant interview and for all your invaluable help with this month's articles!