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Krista Monson: Exploring Humanity in Performance, Casting & Directing, Pt. 2

You have said that you work to keep a level of humanity in your relationships with artists and everyone you work with.  How do you manage this?

By taking the time to talk to people and listening.  It’s really that. Really listening and being interested in people’s stories. This is how I manage it.  We are all human. I’m just really interested in who people are.

I was a very good dancer but I wasn’t a great dancer. I think that was a gift in some ways because sometimes you discover what you want to do when you figure out what you don’t want to do.

I had the opportunity to do so many different things because a range of opportunities presented themselves and perhaps because I reached my limits in dance. With our limitations, we are able to open new doors.  When I have discussions with people, I am interested in them.  It’s not “wham bam thank you ma’am” there’s always more to learn. I am very interested and I just talk to people and listen.

 Auditions can be one of the most harrowing experiences for performers.  You once said, “If in an audition, someone feels incredibly uncomfortable, it means they are probably doing something right!” How do you try to create an experience for artists in casting situations to make them feel comfortable to do something uncomfortable?

Respect for them. When they walk through the door when we first say “Hello, welcome to this moment in this room” it’s inviting and there is warmth.  That said, everyone knows why they are there, everyone knows this is serious and high level, but I would create an inviting experience from the first hello and really be honest in saying it.

I would also say, “You are going to be asked to do things that you don’t feel comfortable doing and I am asking you to be open and do it.” So, they all knew in advance that this was the expectation. I would try to create a feeling that was an enticing invitation to get out of your comfort zone. You can accept the invitation or not.

 With Cirque du Soleil casting, you had to develop an incredibly vast amount of knowledge understanding the disciplines: sport, circus, instrumentalists, singers, dancer, actors, and clowning. How did you become proficient in so many diverse areas so that you could be successful with casting each unique role?

 First of all, I’m not a specialist in all of the areas. I worked with an incredible team. But it probably goes back to the idea of listening again. One of the reasons we established a casting office in Las Vegas was to be able to see the shows and in return gain a true sense of what the nuances in each profile were, what exactly the artistic director or head coach was looking for besides this weight, this height, this technical skill set. The Pink Nowhere Man at The Beatles LOVE, or a bateau catcher at “O”, each have distinct profiles with many nuances.

From the show’s point of view, I was able to watch the shows and really learn the nuanced details of each track. From the casting point of view, I would talk a lot with the scouts to learn details on each discipline. Each show is so different that you really didn’t have a choice but immerse yourself in the different disciplines.

After being an artistic director, I was used to working with casting which is really like a consulting and advising role – I don’t want to say it’s like going to a shoe store but it’s not like ordering hamburgers where you order a cheeseburger and expect to get a cheeseburger. This is a custom-made leather shop in Brazil making shoes with care and attention.  That’s what this is.

To care about the little things, that mean a lot, and express them back to the scouts who may be doing auditions in Russia, for example. Or to ask for a video of an artist in Mongolia introducing herself, even if it’s in Mongolian knowing it is difficult to understand.  Of course, a video of them doing a contortion tower or skill is important but the show is hiring that human being so they want to know who this person is besides what they can do physically. It’s really about listening and learning to understand the show side and the external market side, what is needed and becoming attentive to detail.

 You have really seen so many artists over the years. Was there an audition or one video you saw that you were like, this is the coolest thing?  It doesn’t necessarily fit a specific profile but I’m going to remember this for the future!

There are many! I remember that I got a call from “the top” in Montreal asking that we (casting department) look at a video asap and see what we can do for this person.  The video was of “Hannah the Mermaid”. It showed a blonde, phenomenally beautiful woman deep sea diving without breathing apparatus with her legs bound like a mermaid.

I thought, who is going to evaluate this? I mean she looks good and I can tell that she is in ocean water. She’s literally swimming with sting rays and whales off the coast of wherever and she’s right beside them in National Geographic and Vogue. I was thinking this is pretty cool but in terms of her skill, I need another piece of advice so I thought synchronized swimming is probably the closest thing to this unique skill.

I took her video to “O” where I showed it to the coach and the captain of the synchronized swimming team. They agreed what she was doing was incredible in huge part because she was using her arms only at her sides. When one’s feet are tied together, the natural compensation is to use your arms in front of you to keep stable and centered, but here, Hannah’s arms were delicately sculling at her sides and her feet are tied together in a tail and she’s really deep in the ocean and she’s not wearing any scuba equipment. And she’s smiling effortlessly.

Then I thought, now what? I spoke to “O”, and asked, “Do you need a mermaid?” (she laughs)

I ended up using Hannah in “One Night for One Drop” and she was remarkable!

Another guy, God bless him.  We were holding an audition in Vegas for actors and clowns. Some actors and clowns have a vision of Cirque du Soleil as a corporate machine under the neon lights in Vegas. So for this audition, we scouted an audition venue off of the Vegas strip called the Onyx Theatre. It was intimate black box theatre where you had to go through an S&M shop to get to the theatre.

An exhausted looking guy walked in and crashed the audition. He had just gotten off the plane from Sweden and had with him a huge crate. He had crazy blond hair and asked if he could be seen. We did not have the heart to turn him away.

“Ok, show us what you’ve got.” His act started slow. Finally, he opened his crate and brought out the craziest act with spinning plates and whipped cream. He was literally hitting himself in the face with whipped cream and all of these other substances all the while spinning plates and playing a vinyl record which was battery powered from inside the crate. We just sat back and said to ourselves, “this is total courage.” He was pretty amazing and I will never forget him.

That was one time that made me think, wow, what I do is pretty special.

 As you are creating and directing shows and you are thinking of what acts to put into your productions, what excites you more: choosing a discipline or an apparatus that you feel really well versed in or creating a brand-new apparatus or discipline?

What excites me is the concept. Experienced colleagues of mine in Montreal would often say Cirque du Soleil may not have the greatest acts in the world on stage at any given moment but it’s the way that they put them together which makes the shows unforgettable. Yes, there are unbelievable acts, no doubt, but in terms of death-defying acts filled with risk, it is the case other companies are doing that also.  For me, the concept is the soul and glue of a show.

What are we trying to say? What do I want to say? What are the values of the event or client that they want to have included in the concept?

First of all, I start with the concept, the rhythm and the flow, the style and the beginning-middle-end direction.  I get very grumpy and really in my head.

Sometimes you ask which came first, the chicken or the egg? Sometimes you will see an act and think, this must be in the show! How can we include this in the concept?

More often than not, for myself, creating shows is more of an abstract art form so whereas some people start with the acts first, I start with the whole vision and then I work on the content. Where do we need a high intensity act? Where do we need a lower intensity act to create the rhythm and flow? Then we start researching acts that fit the energy of the concept.

All things change as well due to availability of artists or budget realities, and things begin to evolve. I have no problem with taking an existing act but again I am more interested in the impact and emotion of a tableau as a whole. How can we present it in a new way whether it’s stage space, the visual design of the space, and then innovating how that act is presented, perhaps with the music?  Contortion acts to traditional Mongolian music is a lot different to contortion to Guns N’ Roses.

It can go from “that’s a nice act” to a ‘wow’ act because of a music choice.  The music can transform it from traditional to something completely contemporary. It’s really about being open to everything that is out there and the collaboration with outstanding designers who are also breaking barriers in their fields.

It’s also about time. If we have eight months to R&D things, then you can afford the time for certain exploration. It is all about delivery and you have to deliver on time.

At one time, a show could take its time to mature within one or two years. Shows opened a lot differently than we open them now. Now, with the expectations of audiences and the ability for information to travel instantly, shows must open at a very high level at the first preview.

With this pressure, you have to do the math and even as a writer and director who likes to dream, feasibility is part of the equation.  I am more aware through the years of working in entertainment and circus that new acts and apparatuses take months and months to develop and perform safely and well. Not to say that it shouldn’t be done or can’t be done, we still want to push ourselves, but with the time we have and the expertise around you, you have to decide what is possible to deliver in a spectacular way. Perhaps I am a realist that way.

Continue to Krista Monson: Exploring Humanity in Performance, Casting & Directing, Pt. 3

Return to Krista Monson: Exploring Humanity in Performance, Casting & Directing, Pt. 1

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*Featured Photos of Krista Monson by Jeniffer LaRocca, Makeup by Meghanne Mason

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