Cirque du Soleil is, without question, one of the largest producers of theatrical entertainment in the world. The Quebec-founded company has enjoyed explosive growth, from a band of street performers to a huge international organization in a little more than two decades. The numbers tell the story: 3,000 employees presenting 14 productions to more than 60 million spectators in more than 130 cities on five continents.
There are no signs of a slow-down either: Cirque du Soleil has nine productions currently in process that will open within the next five years, including two new productions in Las Vegas at the Luxor and City Center; two productions in Macau, China; and a production in Dubai slated for opening in 2011. Because Cirque's current productions show no signs of dwindling in popularity either (with Mystère approaching its 15th year of exceptional attendance), the company will be supporting 23 productions by the end of 2011. Also, unlike most theatrical productions, Cirque du Soleil shows are not considered “locked” after opening — or ever. Creative staffs frequently make changes to shows in production. Mystère 10 years ago is not the same show as Mystère today.
Add to all of these factors the company's continual pushing of the proverbial envelope with the most daring acrobatics and sophisticated technical elements, and you have a recipe for a phenomenon. You also have a recipe for an employment challenge.
Although the exact number cannot be accurately predicted because the shows have not finished the creation stage, those nine new productions could easily represent 1,000 new hires in the technical departments. At this rate of hire, Cirque du Soleil threatens to outstrip the available pool of candidates or leave the technical departments of every theatre in the country empty.
In addition to hiring all of these new technicians, Cirque du Soleil has a challenge just keeping the employees it has. Other productions and companies like to take advantage of Cirque du Soleil's excellent in-house training and development programs by luring technicians away, sometimes not for very long, however. “More than a few times, we've had folks move to other shows on the Strip and then come back within six months,” says one Cirque du Soleil production manager. In addition to excellent pay rates and benefits, Cirque du Soleil hangs on to its employees by offering them the intangibles: intellectual challenges, frequent opportunities to move between departments as an employee's interests shift, and a philosophy of promoting from within.
The Cirque du Soleil technician is a fairly unique animal within the world of production. Each needs to know his/her entire department from the ground up, comprising some of the most complex systems in entertainment today. “This creates the experience that Cirque du Soleil fans expect in live theatrical entertainment on a grand scale,” says Kim Scott, training and recruitment manager for the Resident Shows Division. “While these systems can be very complex, they build on basic principles, with safety and reliability as top priorities. Each creation's technical team is determined to take all of these factors into consideration.”
Cirque du Soleil currently has a number of opportunities for potential employees to get a foot in the door with the company, most of them with the Resident Shows Division in Las Vegas. The oldest and most established of these opportunities are the so-called “on-call” positions. On-calls serve as fill-ins for technicians on leave or to temporarily replace technicians who have moved to other shows while searches are conducted. Though essentially serving as a temp agency within the Resident Shows Division, the on-calls enjoy a competitive rate of pay and benefits after six months. While precise numbers are not available, on-calls also have a reputedly high rate of employment in full-time positions when they become available.
Cirque du Soleil's Touring Division is also starting a new development program. Soon, when a tour visits a new city, students and technicians interested in potential employment can meet with the show's technicians and tour the production. In some cases, candidates might choose to apply to be a “fly-in.” Fly-ins act in many capacities for the touring productions as on-calls do for the Resident Show Divisions (though some fly-ins do work with the resident shows from time to time). Fly-ins can live anywhere, provided that they can relocate for up to six weeks at a time to anywhere in the world for a load-in or to cover a technician on leave.
Cirque du Soleil is also reaching out directly to a younger pool of potential employees with the two-year-old internship program, which is open to upper-division undergraduates and graduate students currently enrolled in theatre or entertainment-related programs. The internships have an average length of 12 weeks in the fall, spring, or summer, and require the interns to spend time with all the technical departments of a given production before choosing an area of specialty. According to the various heads of these technical departments, the internship program has been very successful, leading several of the interns toward full-time employment with the company.
In July, the Resident Shows Division hosted the University Partnership Retreat at its Las Vegas offices. The mission was to develop stronger connections between Cirque du Soleil and a variety of universities from across the country. Representatives from various Las Vegas productions talked with university professors, discussing subjects ranging from what characteristics they look for in potential candidates to subjects for potential inclusion in the schools' curricula.
The discussions of the “ideal candidate” were enlivened and full of that quality that so obviously pervades the engine behind Cirque du Soleil: passion. The speakers stressed attitude over aptitude and said that a strong education in fundamental skills (AutoCAD, knots) combined with a desire to learn was all it took for them to build a successful Cirque du Soleil technician.
However, the suggestions for new collegiate subjects in technical production indicated that the company would love to hire expertise and aptitude when they can get it. The suggestions for courses included automation, fluid systems, advanced rigging skills, projection technologies, circuits, and networking.
Though some of these subjects are well within the reach of some theatre departments, and others can be had through electives in engineering or computer sciences, some are simply too resource-dependent to be available at most collegiate programs. This seems to indicate the need for new structures in entertainment technology education. Potentially, as other companies follow the trail that Cirque du Soleil has blazed and these technologies become more prevalent, new programs will emerge to fill this educational gap.
In the meantime, Cirque du Soleil is reaching out in a variety of ways to satisfy its voracious need for technicians. This month at LDI in Orlando, FL, Cirque du Soleil will be conducting onsite interviews for potential employees. Candidates who are interested should visit www.cirquedusoleil.com and follow the LDI2007 link. Resumes will be prescreened and appointments set up for interviews with department heads, productions managers, and technical directors.
“We are going to be more visible than ever before,” says Scott. “The message that I want people interested in working for CDS to know is that if you are passionate about being a part of the world's best and most innovative entertainment company and bringing these creations to life for our audiences to enjoy, then we have a place for you!”
Jake Pinholster is the professor of media design at Arizona State University's Herberger College School of Theatre & Film. He can be reached at [email protected].