The creation process through the eyes of a stage manager

Hello!  Welcome to the Cirque Us blog!

My name is Hannah and I’m the Stage Manager for Cirque Us for the next month helping director Jesse Dryden and the ten cast members create their show, StarStruck: A Cosmic Circus! I’m absolutely thrilled to work alongside this incredible team.

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Myself alongside Director, Jesse Dryden during a rehearsal. 

We’ve been in creation here in Brattleboro, VT, for a week and I’m happy to report that everyone is still alive! To my surprise and pleasant satisfaction, Cirque Us has officially entered week two of training. Surprise is a word I mean retrospectively; I’m surprised that after the whirlwind of a week everyone just went through, we are continuing to make enormous strides forward!  When I agreed to stage manage this kick-ass crew, Doug tried his best to paint a picture of the insanely hectic scene that occurs at the Austine gym and circus house all 12 of us share. He eventually confessed that it’s an experience you have to live through to understand. Although his answer triggered seven more questions in my brain, I decided to be patient. Maybe it’s a circus thing; something completely  intangible and indescribable. Almost like magic.

A little background about who I am… I currently attend Columbia College Chicago where I am pursuing a bachelor of arts in Theater. This is my first summer working for Cirque Us, although I’ve been best friends with Doug for three years now. Within those years of friendship, he introduced me to the wonderful world of circus. His enthusiasm and genuine love of this art form is what led me to accept the position of stage manager this past October without a second thought. My parents took some additional convincing, understandably so; picking up to join a circus created by a 22-year-old entrepreneur is not what they were expecting to hear when they asked about my summer plans. But Doug’s god-given charm and Cirque Us’s solid business model eventually pull them onboard.

The creation process began before training; way way back in January when Doug and Jesse were casting the show. Instead of character roles that need to be filled in a play or musical, it’s almost the reverse in circus. Each circus artist has their skill which is then strategically placed in the show. For the most part, it’s a game of numbers and skill level. Once the show is cast, it’s a few months of brainstorming show themes and big picture ideas. It’s not until everyone is in the training space that the meat of the work can begin.  And there’s a lot of meat.

Before day 1 was day 0.  Day 0 was the day before training and also the day I arrived in Brattleboro.  That morning I was welcomed to a house with 5 bedrooms and 11 new faces, all of whom I’d be living with for the next three and a half weeks. I immediately started doing the math.

That’s 21 days.

That’s 504 hours to be exact.

Of those 504 hours, 210 of them would be spent training, creating, and polishing a show. I can’t imagine a more collaborative and collective environment than that.

I was already overwhelmed and I had not even met the director yet. Of my list of scary things I was about to do, meeting the director, Jesse, was probably number one. That and if I was going to have a mattress to sleep on or not. The past Hannah had nothing to worry about! Jesse has been incredible to work with so far. His insight and knowledge of circus is incredible and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor to learn from during my first circus stage management experience.  

Jesse, Doug, Marieke, and I sat in one of the five bedrooms and conducted the first production meeting at the end of day 0. We discussed the type of environment we all expected in the Austine gymnasium starting the next day and throughout the next 210 hours. After we established a common vocabulary and scheduling system, we started to sketch the beginnings of a storyline. But none of us could foresee the attitude of the cast. None of us could have predicted the caliber and sheer determination that they brought into day 1 of creation. I was blown away by the professionalism of each cast member. Into days 2 and 3, it was their open mindedness and inhibition. Day 4 and 5 brought the dreaded yet expected exhaustion;  these are the days that stage managers start watching with a sharper eye. The heat, lack of sleep, and sore muscles can bring up disputes or negative energy. I’ve worked with singers, dancers, and actors of all types, and I must say circus artists have something special. Disagreements occurred, but they were all minor and remained respectful. I suspect it has something to do with this one thing Doug told me about when we first met, and Cirque Us was this crazy idea in his head. He called it “circus magic”. I look forward to this expression revealing more of itself to me in the next few weeks.

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Photo by Justin Durham of our rehearsal space at NECCA’s Austine Campus in Brattleboro, VT
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