circus life

Run away and join the circus: One woman's story

Run away and join the circus: One woman's story

Whether it happens at an early age, during a defining moment in high school, or when the pressure is on to pick a major in college, once a career path is chosen, we tend to stick that path as we advance in life. Even if we stray a little, we tend to take complementary routes.

At the age of 34, I managed not only to stray from my path, but to leave the forest altogether.

Ever since I saw the original Superman movie with the tough but vulnerable newspaper woman Lois Lane, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. So, I followed the English major sequence in college and eventually went on to pursue journalism at the graduate level.

I tried the newspaper life in Paris at The Wall Street Journal Europe, ran a website for the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, worked the overseas copy desk at Dow Jones, edited at ELLE magazine and ELLE.com, and finally started freelancing and working at local magazines upon my arrival in Austin in 2004. I was mostly content with the way my career was progressing, even though at times I would have preferred a straighter, smoother journey.

And then the circus came to town.

Not just any old circus, but Cirque du Soleil, the ground-breaking circus founded in 1984 by French-Canadian street performer Guy Laliberté. This theater-like circus—where there are no animal acts—attracts performers, acrobats, musicians and singers from around the globe: Russian former Olympic gymnasts; Mexican jugglers; Spanish and Italian acrobats; British twins who soar and glide through the air suspended by wrist straps in an electric and evocative aerial dance. Imaginary, fantastic beings share the stage with strolling musicians, clowns, fireflies and fire-breathing creatures.

 I was hooked. I had to have more. I called my parents, gathered my colleagues and told my friends, “I am running away to join the circus.” 

Every Cirque show (there are currently ten traveling shows and 11 permanent ones) tells a different story. As each act unfolds, the audience is transported to other dimensions through the grace of the performers, the haunting music, the staging, lighting and costumes.

At first, signing up for the circus was just a whim. "Varekai," the North American show, was in Austin for five weeks beginning in February 2005. I thought it would be interesting short-term work and a free ticket. But the Cirque du Soleil experience proved to be so much more. It captured my imagination in a way that no other job had ever done. Each night I worked the VIP party in the “Tapis Rouge” lounge, where the high-end ticket holders relax and sip champagne pre-show and during intermission.

The job involved greeting guests, anticipating their needs and chatting to them about Cirque. Many just wanted to know if I traveled with the circus and, if so, what that was like. The contagious excitement and pure joy of the customers each night; the stimulation of working with people from so many diverse cultures, languages and nationalities; the giddiness of living the Cirque magic and dream day in and day out made everything else I’d ever done pale in comparison. That, and using my French every night to converse with my supervisors, made for the ideal job.

I was hooked. I had to have more. I called my parents, gathered my colleagues and told my friends, “I am running away to join the circus.”

Come May 2005, I left my life in Austin behind and drove the 1,560 miles to Baltimore, the next Cirque stop. Cirque attracts many people who “follow” them from city to city—people like me who can’t go back to their “regular” jobs after they’ve had a dose of working for the company.

Much of the staff is composed of non-Cirque people who show up in each city, providing their own transport and lodging. Some eventually get hired, but no one is actually working for the money. It’s about living out the dream spun by the beauty of Cirque. It’s about living in a state of passion and keeping the dream alive from city to city, from one performance to the next.

I arrived in Baltimore a little after midnight following a whirlwind cross-country trip. Eight hours later I had to be on site, blurry eyed from so much driving and so little sleep, my mind and body not having caught up with my new surroundings. But when I spied the cheerfully familiar blue and yellow big top, I was giddy with excitement and emotion, not to mention too much caffeine.

The first thing my manager Benoit said to me after a kissy-cheeked “Bonjour” was, “Here’s your hard hat.” I and two other “followers,” two fresh-faced kids from Pittsburgh, had to literally assemble the VIP tent ourselves. This meant the wooden paneled flooring, the royal blue curtains and video screens, not to mention the complex electrical, lighting and music system, the furniture and décor. And this had to be done in two days. 

Though demanding, it was a jovial time spent getting to know my new co-workers and being plied with the unending supply of Red Bull by our supervisor Stéphane. Come opening night, I was back under the spell of it all, mesmerized and transported all over again, even though I’d now seen the show too many times to count.

It was easy to fall back into the familiar rhythm. I worked evenings Wednesday through Sunday with two shows on the weekends, and the tent dark Monday and Tuesday. On site, you understood and respected the hierarchy. At the bottom you have the city-by-city local hires: the ushers, merchandisers, concession stand people, the rest of our VIP team and extra canteen staff.

 Much of the staff is composed of non-Cirque people who show up in each city, providing their own transport and lodging. Some eventually get hired, but no one is actually working for the money. 

Next came the “followers,” who might occupy any of the above positions but had already paid their dues and earned a certain amount of respect depending on how long they’d been “following.” Our elder janitor on tour had been with Cirque for an eternity, going from city to city with them, yet paying his own way since his position was not considered staff.

Next came management and Cirque staff like the seamstresses, trainers, coaches, caterers for VIP and school teachers who taught the kids who traveled with the circus.

And at the top of the hierarchy were the Cirque performers. They were like movie stars, and we were told never to approach them—especially in the canteen where we were “allowed” to mingle freely with everyone. For this reason, the performers were frequently the subject of “sightings” and gossip.

The five weeks in Baltimore flew by and soon it was time to pull up stakes and move on again. And that’s when I learned that my Circus dreams would be short lived. The next stop, The Meadowlands Sports Complex in NJ, had a union hire policy. So one evening Benoit sympathetically explained that there were no local hires allowed in NJ and that only the most senior “followers” could come and temporarily be put on Cirque payroll. I was not one of them.

And though my heart certainly sunk that day, part of me was relieved. Life on the road was not for everybody; it could be lonely, not to mention expensive. So I bid my “au revoirs” to all of my Cirque friends and hit the road again.  

But even if I was not going to be a circus girl for the rest of my life, I was glad I had followed my heart; straying a little from the conventional path and the experience will forever make for a good chapter in my own life story.

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Cirque du Soleil is currently on tour in North America with Dralion. They will be in Texas starting November 17 and tickets are currently on sale for multiple cities. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com for tickets. 

Austin Photo Set: News_Kristen O'Brien_life with the circus_August 2011_promo
Still from Varekai Photo by Tomas Muscionico
Austin Photo Set: News_Kristen O'Brien_life with the circus_August 2011_circus vip
The author in front with the Austin VIP Cirque gang.
Austin Photo Set: News_Kristen O'Brien_life with the circus_August 2011_truck
The author with the Verakai truck outside of the tent.