Krista Monson: Exploring Humanity in Performance, Casting & Directing, Pt. 1
Krista Monson is one of the most relevant creative minds in the entertainment industry today receiving requests to direct productions with the United Nations to Cirque du Soleil and A-List fashion designers. From her humble beginnings as a dancer in Edmonton, Canada, to choreographer, casting director, artistic director, and now writer/director, Krista is a passionate woman who finds meaning in conceptual design and interpreting powerful messages to everyone in her path. “Krista Monson is a beautiful human who creates from her heart.” said Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar, Director & Choreograper. Krista joined me via Skype from her hotel room in Berlin where she is creating a new project that is sure to dazzle the world.
TheatreArtLife: Your journey in the entertainment industry has been so diverse. From starting as a freelance dancer/ choreographer in Canada to working with Cirque du Soleil as Artistic Director for ‘O’, Director of Casting, and now creating your own major productions around the globe, can you share how your journey began?
Krista Monson: I deeply believe in the idea of sculpting a career and forming it over time as opposed to defining it too much in advance, but this has been my experience. As a child and young adult, I dreamed of being a dancer and being on stage. At the same time, I liked academics and I fell in love with the sound and romance of the French language.
Throughout my career, I have often found myself faced with having to make duelling choices, and so I decided to pursue a degree in French as a second language, but at the same time, I was dancing intensely and doing small shows. When I finished my degree, I realized that I was at the point of “oh now what” and I started auditioning.
I was a professional Equity performer for around seven years and became really interested in multidisciplinary work, even as a performer. I discovered quickly as I was auditioning that it wasn’t pure dance that I was interested in, it was story telling experiences using multiple genres. I started taking singing and acting lessons. One of my first paid jobs was touring schools in a van throughout western Canada. I became fascinated with putting things together in order to create an experience for the audience.
While teaching in the late 90s, I sustained a vocal injury where nodes had grown on my vocal chords. At the time, I was heavily into tap dance and teaching tap workshops across Canada. It was very loud and I was always yelling over the noise, resulting in the abuse of my voice. Finally, my treating physician asked me to go on total vocal rest for 2 months. This news was devastating because I was freelancing and had just been hired to do a regional theatre version of the musical Nunsense.
The injury caused me to start analysing my career. I realized that I was often being typecast in the “cute pretty blonde girl” role and it made me mad. I felt like I had something more to say and to contribute.
With the vocal nodes, the type cast roles, and feeling frustrated, I became more interested in design and choreography offstage. I began working as a choreographer, and over the next ten years, I worked in musical theatre, large scale sporting events like the International Association of Athletics Federation Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and created my own show with a creative partner that we toured in the USA and Canada. All of these projects were continually feeding my need for multidisciplinary expression and challenge.
Using diverse elements together to create cool experiences for the audience and spectator, that is what I loved.
Working with the International Association of Athletics Federation exposed me to sports and martial arts and started breaking boundaries for me because in the musical theatre world, you are taught to think in a certain way. You have a script and essentially follow a formula to mount those types of shows, whereas when you are working with athletes, they work in a completely different way. Athletics is a world of training versus rehearsing and it’s a pretty interesting distinction.
In 2001, I was producing, directing, and creating choreography. I was working in a wide variety of venues coast to coast in Canada and the US from A-houses to fringe theatre, children’s theatre, and regional theatre. I rarely said no to anything since I wanted to work and learn. My hometown of Edmonton, Alberta was known to have the top theatre goers per capita in Canada. They were sophisticated and critical audiences. Critics could be cut throat and, let’s say, honest.
Seize Each Opportunity
It was a really interesting time in Edmonton as a hotbed of critical theatre. I had the opportunity to create work for The Edmonton Fringe Festival which was second only in size at that time to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Theatregoers could choose among 200 shows in a single day. But it had to be good. I learned an incredible amount in Edmonton.
The Desire To Struggle
In 2001, my husband Paul and I, now in our 30s, and working steadily in Canada, decided to move to Los Angeles with our one year old son.
I know it sounds like martyred reasoning but I became romantically in love with that feeling of struggle and I wanted to engage it again!
We were in the airport leaving Edmonton and I ran into the mother of a synchronized swimmer from my home town. I asked what her daughter was up to these days and she told me that her daughter was working for the Cirque du Soleil show, ‘O’ in Las Vegas. I gave her daughter Heather a call and she suggested that I reach out to Cirque du Soleil. Cirque du Soleil wanted to meet in Las Vegas. After the five-hour drive in our used car, I quickly realized it was not a typical job interview, in fact there was not a job to be had for me at the time. It was really just getting to know each other.
For about two years, I was getting my wish about feeling the struggle! Working in Los Angeles couldn’t have been more different than Edmonton with the name-dropping, the need to land jobs, and navigating through the city. I was doing some nice gigs like teaching at Millennium Dance Complex and creating corporate fashion shows in Paris, Tokyo, and LA, but it was a challenge.
At the time, I became concerned that people would assume that because I was a mother I would only want to take certain jobs. I disliked it when people would assume things about me. I therefore sometimes edited out that I had a child when I was having a professional conversation. I wanted to be taken seriously and now I think it’s sad that I felt that way, but it’s the way I felt at the time.
I learned back then, and applied it when I was a Casting Director later on, to resist making assumptions about people. “Oh, they wouldn’t move for a job.”
You never know what they want until you ask.
A Cirque Du Soleil Artistic Director
In 2004, I got the call from Cirque du Soleil and was offered the role as Artistic Coordinator of ‘O’ and we moved to Las Vegas. Everything was new. Cirque du Soleil in Vegas was relatively young, my role was completely new to me, as was the world of circus. Circus was an entirely different culture of creating live entertainment. I learned about the culture while adapting to working with people from all over the world.
Working with ‘O’ was fantastic! It was already a masterpiece and had been running for six years at the time. In many ways, it did not need a “doctor in the house” but in other ways, it did.
I learned to pay attention to and nourish the little things. Together, many little things add up to big things and contributes to the greatness of the show is how I felt. At the same time, I learned from sitting back, seeing the show as a whole and imagining what Franco Dragone saw when he created it.
“Our job is to change hearts and souls forever at 7:30 pm and 10:30 pm, every day,” our company manager at the time would say. Whether you were a follow spot operator, a physiotherapist, an artistic director, or artist, we all had a common goal.
As Artistic Coordinator, my job was all about maintaining excellence by coordinating flow including managing the different vocabularies and ways of working. Everyone I worked with was elite, many of the best in the world at their discipline. The artists had high expectations of themselves and in turn, had high expectations of others, so it was a truly fantastic experience where I learned a great deal and fell in love with the circus way of storytelling.
For the previous 15 years, I had been immersed with creating theatre and wondering if it was good or not: will people clap when we want them to, does the story make sense? I was constantly worrying about the “what”.
Now, at ‘O’, the “what” was already there not to mention with huge success. My job was managing the “how”. All aspects of a production, like how to give feedback to artists from 25 different countries, evaluate how departments are talking to each other and how each artist emotionally brings himself or herself to the work besides achieving high technical skill, were important. Of course, we were still dealing with the “what” to some degree because after a show has been performed thousands of times, we all have to ask ourselves, is the show still maintaining its edge, its ‘wow’ quality, its joy? Long-term resident shows challenge us to stay motivated. My position was keeping people at the top of their game.
To keep the creation spirit alive, I pushed for lots of creative side events. Of course, doing seasonal cabarets was not a new for cirque shows, but I wanted to do more. One of the really cool things we did was obtain the rights to do Rocky Horror Picture Show for Halloween for two years in the ‘O’ theatre. We invited all of the other Vegas cirque shows to attend and participate. My approach as artistic coordinator and later artistic director was always to keep it fresh and learn new things.
After my third year with ‘O’, I had had another baby and felt like it was time to explore new things. Before I left my position, the casting director from Montreal asked if we could meet. Cirque du Soleil Headquarters was thinking about establishing a casting office in Las Vegas and while I had never considered becoming a casting director before, this sounded interesting. I started working with Cirque du Soleil to establish their casting office and I fell in love with the world of casting.
A Casting Director with Cirque du Soleil
I worked as a casting director for Cirque du Soleil for five years which was a very long time for me! What I loved about the job was similar to my love working as a freelancer: I found satisfaction from projects that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. In a key way, this was casting.
You could totally throw yourself into each project, work really hard to find the pearl of an artist, and then move on to the next. With each casting call, you faced a huge challenge. Rarely did you find the exact person that you were looking for because every role is so specific in a Cirque du Soleil show.
As Director of Casting I was involved with more long-term items but when I started, I found great challenge looking for a very specific profile.
Casting is so interesting because it allows you to spend an equal amount of time with the external world and the internal world of Cirque du Soleil. When you are immersed in the Cirque du Soleil world, it’s a wonderful “all in” environment. It’s a big family of passionate people. Then, just as you think, “I might need a break from all of this passion”, you find yourself working heavily with the external world of performing artists, agents and circuses.
You may be at an audition or meeting with the founder of a school in France that specializes in a wild mix of a dance and parkour. Taking the time to ask that person about his or her field before asking, “Can you send me five artists?” can go a long way and is a fascinating way to learn new things.
It’s important that our approach was respectful because as a representative of Cirque du Soleil, I had a responsibility to help maintain its strong reputation in the world. We did not favour the perception of ordering items off of a menu. Countries invest so much in their athletes, up to and including their Olympians, and it was vital to be respectful to all external sources that train performers.
At a Cirque du Soleil audition, you are working with people who want to be there. You are working with people who are hungry for these roles, who are on top of their game, who are giving, generous, and open. To say this was an inspiring environment would be an understatement.
It’s Time To Transition, But First…
I am a pretty binary person, I am either 100% or 0% and that can be a good thing or a good challenge. The first signal for me that it might be time to move on, is when I wake up and don’t feel that I can be 100% anymore, then for me that’s the sign that it may be a time for a transition.
One day I was walking in the halls at the Cirque du Soleil offices and a colleague said to me, “you could retire with this job.” He was saying this as a compliment of course but as soon as he said it, I thought, “I need to have another kick at the cat”. I want to reinvent myself a little before I even think of retiring!!
I had fully enjoyed casting, but after five years, I let my VP know that in a nine-month period, I wished to phase out. I felt that the department was in a good position and time to transition it to someone new. I decided to enrol in a Master degree program at Gonzaga University. I had taken my Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), got accepted into the university and had a plan. But, unbeknownst to me, during the nine-month transition period, Cirque was creating an idea to put on a large one night only fundraising production for Guy Laliberté’s One Drop.
In the beginning of One Night for One Drop, there were meetings in back rooms and I wasn’t involved. However, one day I got a call from Russ Petroni, at the time Director of Lifestyle Projects. Russ is a dear friend with whom I had worked during my “O” days. On behalf of Jerry Nadal, he called and asked if I wanted to be the writer and director for this project. I literally almost fell off of my chair! I was sick to my stomach. Literally sick to my stomach. I felt a bolt of cement in my gut. I thought “can I do this?” Can I say yes? Can I actually do this? But also, can I say no?
I already had a plan, I was going to school. The One Drop project was only supposed to be a six-month timeline so I asked myself, could I do both? I knew it was going to be high pressure, with one chance to do it right, and it would have to be an incredibly high-level production since it was the inauguration of Guy Laliberté’s vision.
Looking back, I realize now that what I was experiencing was complete fear. I had to give it a go.
One Night for One Drop
I threw myself into the project for six months, and it was full on and very intense. I honestly did not understand how to live in the present, it was such a crusade. We chose the ‘O’ theatre for the production and so also it was like going home.
During our production design process, ‘O’ was still performing shows so the technical part of the design process had to occur after the show came down. From December through March, we did all of our lighting, automation, and multimedia from midnight to 5am every night, or is that morning?
My husband is a musician at ‘O’ as well so he was also working late into the night and our sons were young so they would get up early for school. We try to be active parents so to say we were incredibly fatigued at this time was an understatement.
One Night for One Drop 2013 was remarkably gratifying. In total, we had 237 artists onstage. With designers, technicians, and staff, there were over 500 volunteering for this great cause. When it was all finished, it was time for a break.
About a week after One Night at One Drop, I took a vacation to Palm Springs for Spring Break with my two kids. We were going down water slides and making hamburgers, I wanted to do nothing but uber uber ‘Mom” things. While I was there, I got a call from Cirque du Soleil.
“Would you like to join us to help us pitch a project in Italy?” they said.
I remember saying, “Honestly, I don’t have any energy to talk to you, I respect so much that you are phoning me and thank you but can I talk to you in a week? I just have zero to give. I’m totally depleted.”
The next week we spoke again, and they asked if I wanted to do the project. At this stage, it was going to be a pitch but with a full technical and creative team to create the vision and content ideas for the entire production, “Ok, I’ll work on the pitch while I’m studying for my courses that I haven’t started yet!” was my response.
I threw myself into the Italy project. I remember being in Milan and had to submit my first paper. I hadn’t gone to school in over 20 years and I was struggling with an annotated bibliography. My husband, Paul, had just completed his master’s degree at Boston University and I remembered him saying, “once you learn the way you do it, then it is no big deal but you have to learn how to do it.” I was working on it on the plane and finally finished.
When my professor sent me my marks for my first paper, it was a low grade. I didn’t fail but you know we all have pretty high standards and I thought to myself “ok, hold on”.
I had decided to go to school in part to have more time with my children. This is not quite checking the boxes like I had planned. I realized I had a choice to make and although I hated the idea of dropping out of school, in the end, I decided to do just that.
I directed the show in Italy which was a great success and have been lucky since to be a part of other creative projects. In my home city of Edmonton, I enjoy talking with high school students about the creative process and risk taking. It’s very scary yet normal for young people to think that they aren’t in a position to create anything great or pursue their dreams.
When I look at my own journey, I think, why me? What do I have to offer? It’s just really about getting started, showing up and getting to work and being vulnerable, it’s kind of that duality of being vulnerable and also strong. And not giving up.
I came from a really modest family in Canada. My grandfather was an Olympic gold medallist in hockey but I didn’t even learn that until I was a teenager. My grandfather just sat in his chair and did his thing. My parents are very humble and so I guess I am more of a “walk the walk than talk the talk” kind of person. That is what I have learned about myself.
Recently I was asked to speak at The University of Alberta for undergrad students. I walked into a building on the French speaking campus and suddenly had a flash back of feeling like a complete idiot. Back then, I could hardly speak the language, and now here I am 25 years later and I’m in the same hallways and I am looking at these students and I’m thinking I can clearly remember when I was a student facing a lot of unknowns.
I think we have to make choices and things sort of have to happen. They can get messy and it’s totally fine.
*Featured Photos of Krista Monson by Jeniffer LaRocca, Makeup by Meghanne Mason
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