Sunday, March 02, 2008

Cirque du Desertion: Why and What to Make of It?

About those performers on the Kooza unit who are rumored/reported to have walked off, the reasons range from low wages to callously disrespectful treatment at the hands of their bosses. I for one was quite surprised at the sudden exits, although when I think about what I know of this phenomenally successful enterprise, there is no reason at all to be shocked.

Ample are the examples, some bordering on the sadistic, of a ruthless operation that treats its employees like discardable electronic components. For one, the Bravo tv special on the creation of Varekai was an eye-opener.

Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s brilliant founder and impresario, can, I suppose, continue to treat his secondary acts as chattel. Something like how Broadway chorus hoofers get pushed around, so they say. I doubt that he can get away with it for long in his dealings with the real ring stars he will increasingly need as the public tires of too much same-old same-old special effects, choreography and senseless narrative allusions. Noted the Savvy Insider in an e-mail to me, “Let’s face it, a large part of every Cirque show requires basic circus skills prettied up with choreography, staging and music.” And as he also points out, whatever little money they make is fairly typical around most circus lots. It was always thus.

On the positive side, if you spend some time at a Cirque fan website, you will understand that through the eyes of the young bristling with talent and ambition, here is a form of circus to feel good about. It is, as Ringling once was (recalling the words of the late Harold Ronk) the “modern circus.” Its production values are nearly without compare. It has billions to afford. And it may need to start spending more on first rate talent.

But with all its money, might the darker quirks of Guy Laliberte — who might, for example, suffer a serious greed problem — at some point self-destruct artistically? I think not, and I will tell you why.

Kooza tells us many things. It show us what excitement true stars like Anthony Gatto bring to a show that was beginning to look a bit too fey, too precious. It tells us that Guy Laliberte is able to let go of one aesthetic and charge ahead after another. After all, at the very beginning, he and his cohorts set out to “reinvent” the circus. At his relatively young age, he may still have a few more reinventions left inside of him.

Kooza also tells us that you can’t expect to treat your staff like dirt without consequences. Perhaps the most telling element of this new edition is the program magazine itself. Unlike every other show that has preceded Kooza, the magazine for this edition comes with a separate insert listing the acts. Does this not suggest that management has already suffered or expects turnover? And what does that say, may I ask you, Mr. Laliberte?

The young and the hip have a very new age circus to aspire to. But they will not stick around forever. “The glow is gone,” guesses the Savvy Insider. And if that’s the case, some of the same kids — among them, our possible ring stars of tomorrow — will begin to look elsewhere, and they might change their attitudes about traditional circus. If they can’t increase their pay scale, at least they can look around in search of friendlier circumstances. There are a number of shows out there, I have to believe, that treat people like human beings. John Ringling North II, for one, has shown real compassion in managing his Kelly-Miller staff.

Circus performers with rare exception have never been unionized in this country. They are known for accepting low wages, for going well beyond the call of duty (“cherry pie”) when needed, to help move the show. At times, they have nearly spilled their blood in the love of the big top. The least they deserve is respect.

[Anthony Gatto]


Wade Burck said...

David, of all the book's written on the subject of Circus, why has the issue of salary's never been addressed in any depth. I believe it is a subject that would most "gasping
for breath".
Your respect appreciated,
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Interesting question and issue, Wade, and I assume (?) you are the animal trainer who reached Ringling's center ring. From my own experience, it is hard to get salary information from performers during interviews; they feel uncomfortable, and I have felt reluctant to press. It's a sensitive issue for many.
Chris Lashua, who appeared on Cirque du Soleil's Quidam for 5 years, was very generous in granting me an interview and being quite candid about his own experiences. On pay, he indicated that it's a touchy subject, but he did lend the impression that Cirque performers are paid well, especially considering the "fantastic" food served, private hotel accomodations etc. I do agree, though, that books could do a lot more in addressing this subject. Musicans, actors, singers and dancers are all unionized. Not circus artists. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for all the sacrifices they make to bring their magic into the tents.

The Business Side said...

The business benefits from silence. Wade works for a company that pays its employees pretty well, or is said to. But I imagine he'll verify that there are presenters and trainers working cats today making a lot less than they made twenty years ago. In 2005 there was one older gentleman presenting show owned cats on one circus for two hundred a week and two hundred more for driving. If anything the influx of performers from Asia and South America has allowed shows, even Feld shows, to pay less and less, not more and more. BAC treats everyone well. Some spot date producers do the right thing. RBBB and Cirque treat "Stars" well and a handful of really big names very, very well... But the rank and file are supposed to bask in the glory of "showbiz." Here's the deal, if you work for XYZ Circus and you present the big featured act, are you going to admit that you only make $500 a week? Hell no, you're afraid Ms Shrine Date will offer you $650 instead of $1000 next winter if she knows that you work cheap because some kid from Panama will jump at the chance to make $300.

True story... RBBB pays clowns $XXX... let's just say it's $300... Sarasota tent show pays clowns from South America half that. So after a couple years Feld hires the South American clowns away from the tent show and pays say $250. RBBB just saved $50 a week per clown. Does Sarasota tent show go looking for new clowns that will work for $150? Nope, they hire a couple cousins of the last clowns and pay them $100.

And then people wonder why so many kids out of "circus schools" spend two or three years with Cirque and then work for Starbucks.

You really can do pretty well in this business, but you'd better own a piece of it, manage a piece of it, or get a share of something.

Some things don't change much. When Beatty was filled Madison Square Garden for RBBB in 1934 he was the biggest name in circus and one of the most famous entertainers in America. His salary was $100 a week. You can bet there guys selling concessions who made as much or more.

Wade G. Burck said...

I wasn't aware that there was an "older gentleman" working besides my self. LOL
Never being one to skirt an issue that I feel has crippled my profession I have always answered the question of compensation, when asked, honestly.
My greatest salary was paid in 1991-1993 by Ringling Bros. circus. Compensation was $1500.00 per week and $750.00 per off week, plus "housing."
My greatest salary up to that point, 1988-1990 was paid by Hawthorn, and was $850.00 per week and $300.00 per off week, plus housing."
To date 2002-2008 my salary is $1000.00 per week, and $600.00 per off week, plus "housing."
My first salary from Hawthorn in 1976 was $350.00 per week, and $150.00 per off week, plus "housing."
You are free to "speculate" about anybody else. I have found it to be the the most closely guarded secret, next to the combination of Fort Knox, and being a "townie" never knew what the base was.
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Business side,
Asia and South American never had much influence on my profession, that I was aware of. This issue of compensation was raised many months ago on a neighboring blog, without much input, and no conclusion. After 33 years, I can only assume a similar fate will befell it here. David, as you seen to relish "tough issues", it might be up to you to seek an answer.
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Gattos skill's a year ago in Germany. Truly remarkable. I haven't seen such skill personally since Lottie Brunn and her son, Michael.
Wade Burck

Wade G. Burck said...

Lauren Fairchild,
I will answer you poste of Feb. 26 here, as it follow's issues that have been raised. You made some valid point's in your response. But I think you also left more unanswered questions? What is a clown worth compared to an Anthony Gatto? What is a dancers worth compared to an Animal trainer? What is a basic 3 ball juggler worth compared to Lottie Brunn. What is a flyer worth compared to a catcher. What is the base salary/scale that is used in this business? We know what quarterback's are worth, in judging the value of Tom Brady.
Help anybody?
My best, Lauren

Showbiz David said...

I'm finding this all very fascinating. Have to go to the tea shop to think about it... -:)

Anonymous said...

Well you do raise some interesting points. However, I am not sure that I can fully answer those questions. You're right, there is no "base pay" in our end of show biz, as there is in sports. But I think there are several factors involved in this discussion..First, I think that "we performers" have been ashamed of the money that we do make. We all dress up in our finest gold and tiger claws and go to "the club" to hob-nob and make people think we are well off, when in reality, most don't have 2 nickels to rub together...but I digress...Ultimately, none of us are ever paid what we are worth. When you look back at the performers who have dedicated their lives to practice and perfect their craft ( Lottie Brunn, Kris Kremo, etc..) I HOPE most of them would say they WERE paid what they were worth and deserved it. But if you look at how this biz has changed over the past 20 years and look at some of the crappy "acts" that are working today, most of them aren't worth a tinkers damn compared to the performers of the past.
In reality, all performers are important to the overall function and operation of the show and while some may be financially compensated better than others, ALL play an important role. I do think that most performers want and need to work SO bad, that they are willing to work for ANY salary, just to be able to do what they do...there is a beauty and a curse to that thinking, as eventually, the pay scale declines because people are willing to work for less and less...
With all admiration and respect, I will await your reply...

Lauren Fairchild

Wade G. Burck said...

Ms. Fairchild,
Respect and admiration, are mine to return to you graciously. You are the second person to ever respond to this issue, assuming that Business Side actually did respond, and had the courage, dignity and honor to actually pridefully sign you name. David, I think this is a subject that has not been written about ad nauseum(sp)when addressing the history of the circus, and what went wrong. Not from the perspective of John North, Guy Laliberte, and countless other circus owners/producers. A perspective from the players point of view on the loss of the superbowl, and not just notes gathered from the board room. Lest the pride of "some" performer's is ever doubted, I will remind you that, historically this is an industry of performer's ranging in the 1000's, from the great to the not so great. As of yet, few have responded. We don't want to paint to sweeping of a path with that pride brush just yet. Let's see who else has an "honest" response.
Well done, Lauren Fairchild, That David, is why standing ovation's are given.
Wade Burck

the business side said...

It's interesting. Historically in the "Golden Age" of the circus there were Unions. Hostlers were unionized on some big shows, bill posters on almost all shows, and musicians if the shows played cities where musicians unions were strong. Could be argued that performers saw themselves as a cut above, but in the "performing arts" performers discovered that uniform contacts stipulating basic minimums didn't hurt the bigger players who could still demand a lot more money. Maybe it's the breadth of variety in circus that made it different. A cat act and an aerial act share a space, but a different skill set. That said, had a basic minimum for performers existed a couple of generations ago, everyone would have benefited.

Wade G. Burck said...

Business Side,
I alluded to a football team, with many skill levels, hoping you would raise the issue of what "performing arts" performers had discovered, which you did nicely. And I don't think breadth of variety is an issue. I have been told many inflated amounts over the years, and many deflated amounts, as both you and Ms. Fairchild illuded to over a span of 33 years. If contract verification is asked for, you are met with icy stares. And unless you are a producer, and have access to those contracts Business Side, I would assume you know as little as myself or anybody else. What other profession keep's the salary, or base that locked away? Showbiz Dave, you appear to be a person, and author, who relishes in "digging for the facts". I think you would find this issue to your liking, but it would require monumental digging. Who benefited from the illusion? Let me offer this example. In 1984 in a WALL STREET JOURNAL feature on myself, Irvin Feld was asked how much he was paying me.(he wasn't Hawthorn was) He said, I can't give you an amount, but more then I have ever paid for an act before. 20 years later people still believe that.
I do thank you and Ms. Fairchild for stepping forward with your thought's. I would assume and expect with 1000's of performers in this thing of our's, others would step up, even if hidden in the clock of anonymous. I gave you actually documented verifiable figures, Business Side. Have you ever received that information before?
Showbiz Dave, I was impressed by your heading "outtakes and outburts" , and so brought this issue to your house, assuming you don't flinch from tough question's or issues. Do you think it is worth addressing? Or does it need to be covered back up, and a deeper hole dug? How was your tea? I am assuming you are back. Do you want an assignment?
Wade Burck

Showbiz David said...

Ha! Not to tea place yet, I am forming my thoughts (and paying myself one dollar an hour), and will appear soon back on my side show platform ...

Wade G. Burck said...

Showbiz David,
A dollar an hour!!!! What act do you do? Two or more? You can't be that "with it and for it", you'll never get ahead.
I hope the subject is not to "hot and touchy" for even you? I had such expectations, hopes, and faith after reading the "paper that has been hung." I was expecting Mr. Hartzell to respond with further "insight", we already knew how "fortunate" we are.
Wade Burck