When the arena tour of Quidam recently visited Everett, Washington, my wife and I had the opportunity to revisit a show we first saw during the first CirqueCon in 2004. One of the pleasant surprises was to find that Mark Ward, who was kind enough to be part of the first CirqueCon post-show Q&A years ago, was still performing the role of John.
With the increasing number of older big top shows being converted to the arena format we have often wondered what was involved in the process of conversion. And who better to ask than someone who has been on both sides – the big top and the arena. Mr. Ward fills that role perfectly!
Mark Ward (W?rd with the “a” as in “ha,” not W?hrd with the “a” as in “war”) was born December 11, 1965. In his youth he trained in ballet, all types of dance, gymnastics, and classical piano. He joined Cirque du Soleil in June of 1993 at the age of 27; this month marks his 18th anniversary with the company.
It wasn’t his first thought to go for the role of John, though, he explains. “[In 1998] I’d just finished working for five years in Mystére as an original member [Ed. Being with the show since its premiere on December 25, 1994]. I did bungee, the Red, White & Blue Bird, ball walking, Japanese taiko drums, dancing, fast track, a little bit of everything – I had seven characters. Because it’s a large company what I’ve found over the years is that if you would like to learn something, if you have the gumption, they’re more than willing to teach you another art, which is fabulous, I think that’s fantastic. They hired me as a dancer with acrobatic capabilities and I’ve learned so many other things.”
“I had aspirations to be an acrobat in Saltimbanco. But at the time I was approached by Gilles Ste-Croix who thought I would be a good candidate for the role of John in Quidam. So I took his advice and accepted the part and now I’ve been in the role for 12 years.” Mark is the only other person to have played John, following on after role creator John Gilkey, who performed the role for three years in North America and [the first] two months of the European tour.
How does his “John” differ from Mr. Gilkey’s “John?” “I just say we’re two different people! (laughs) Some things that John did worked for him but didn’t work for me. He was able to be a lot more stern in his character and still get laughs. I found when I did that it didn’t work so well. I don’t know why it didn’t work but I didn’t feel comfortable and I just didn’t feel I was getting the same reactions. So I treat John more as a kid trapped inside of a man’s body.”
“As a principle character you have to be open and flexible and be ready to change and sensitive to what the audience is giving you. Because what worked in Japan may not work in the United States or in South America and vice versa. There are just different things that you learn along the way and you have to be flexible.”
Different Yet The Same
Having been part of Quidam for a large portion of its big top life, we wanted to find out from Mr. Ward about converting a Cirque show from big top to arena format. They first found out, “a little over a year ago [Ed. While on tour in South America] that they were thinking about it; they tried to give people a heads up. Everyone knows that the plan now is that the older shows that have been in existence longer will at some point go to arenas. So we knew that after Alegría [went to arena format] that we would go at some point. Dralion [Ed. which was created after Quidam] went before us so we were prepared for it.”
But that didn’t mean this would be a totally new experience for the artists and crew. “We had done a small arena tour in the UK [Ed. For 8 weeks in Feb-April of 2009, visiting Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Sheffield and Glasgow], and performed in the Royal Albert Hall [Ed. In Jan-Feb of 2009]. So we had some experience with Quidam in arenas, but [now] it was going into arenas full-time.”
They plunged right into the conversion process immediately after drawing the curtain on Quidam’s big top life. “We really didn’t have a break because [after closing in Bogotá, Columbia on Nov 21, 2010] we did a six-week arena tour in Canada at the end of last year [Ed. From Dec 11, 2010 – Jan 16, 2011] with the cast we had for the South America tour. We played Kingston, Montréal, Québec City and Chicoutimi. Then in January we stopped because we had a 60% new cast of artists. So we went to training in Montréal for two weeks where we met new members of the show. Then the whole group went to Nashville and trained there for six weeks, to get everything together. We just basically [rehearsed] the full show from beginning to end for everybody – technical, artists, and everybody – to get an idea of how it runs and put things together from top to bottom. For us it was like being in a theater built for us because they set up a stage in Nashville and we used that space every day for over a month.”
“Then we immediately started on the arena tour leg that we’re on now. The first city was Vancouver, Canada [Ed. On March 9, 2011], this full leg is ten cities [Ed. Essentially going from north to south along the West Coast of the US, ending in Sacramento on May 15.]”
It came as a surprise to us that none of the original creative team were involved in the conversion process, given what Cirque has previously said about consistent checkbacks by the creators to ensure artistic integrity. “Franco (Dragone, show director) did a revamp in 1999 but hasn’t been back since. [Ed. The revamp was done in May ‘99 while the show was in Amsterdam preparing for its video recording, three years after its premiere in Montréal on April 23, 1996.] Benoit (Jutras, musical composer) comes in periodically to check on things. [But] we have our own team of directors who work in Montréal full-time. We have our stage managers, we have our show director, we have our artistic director, and we have all those people that are working with us 24-7.”
A few press reviews of the arena-format version of Quidam have suggested that the tone and underlying drama have been massaged (one used the word “lightened”) to work for a larger audience. Not so, Mr. Ward responds, “It’s still the same Quidam; it’s still the exact same show that was created by Franco Dragone.” But there have been changes to address some of the challenges presented by this style of touring. “For instance, we don’t have a school traveling with us anymore so we don’t have underage children. We used to have four little girls doing the diabolo act, and now they’re adults from 18 to 20-something.”
“It’s the same with Zoé. She’s really really small and from the stage people think she’s a little girl. She’s like 20-21 but she’s actually a small girl. A lot of people meet her and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I thought you were 15 years old!””
“The only thing with the diabolos is [they’re adults with] more sophisticated costumes, more sultry if you will, and the movement is different. But all the other acts are the same, the costumes are the same, the tempo, the story and ending are the same. It isn’t “lighter.” For me it’s the most human show. There’s a darker side to it, but we still have the comedy elements we’ve always had.”
Does the larger theater space mean he has to approach the role of John differently? “I had a full career in musical theater, ballet, acrobatics and music before I joined Cirque du Soleil so I know this kind of thing. Of course they give everyone notes on how you have to reach everyone in the arena. But for me my job, my main purpose, is connecting with the people. So that doesn’t change, it’s just now there are more of them. I remind myself all the time that there are more people. So there are some things that I would have done more intimately that I make bigger, or I allow more time to register far away. But it still reads.”
Life On The Road
The arena touring model brings its own new set of challenges and opportunities for not only the company but the artists and crew as well. “One thing we don’t have is the intimacy of the big top. But what you gain in arenas is the ability to have more people see the show at one time. And [visit] smaller markets. But it could also be a large city that doesn’t have the capability of supporting a big top. It could be a big international city [such as] Prague where you have all these ancient buildings, where are you going to put a big top? However, if they have [arenas], you can introduce a whole new set of people to the world of Cirque du Soleil. And that’s what the arena tours are doing which is actually very exciting.”
Having performed in each Mr. Ward has an informed perspective on the different type of show models. “If you [work for] a permanent show you can more easily have a family life. You can go to school, you can have your kids there, you can do whatever and it’s more of a “normal” life. You can do things during the day with your family and you have your two shows a night from 7 to 12 like a regular days work, and you have two days off. So for people who are more family oriented or want to stay in one place it might be beneficial for them to consider a permanent show.”
“With a [big top] touring show you’re hitting more countries, but you still have a chance to have a family and kids with you. But you don’t have the privilege of being home as you would at a permanent show.”
“The arena tours are just faster than all those put together. You have a day of travel, Sunday night. I have my days off and I see the city on Monday and Tuesday. I usually work out in the gym on Tuesday, in my hotel or in my room or onsite. [I work out] four times a week. And I do 8 shows a week. However, we usually do 8-10 weeks then have two weeks off. So I have several two-week vacations in between the legs.”
“It just depends on the person, how old you are, where you are in your life at that moment. I’ve done my whole career backwards, I started with a permanent show, then I went on a big top tour, and now I’m with an arena tour. I actually love the schedule and the quick pace of it.”
What does he see as the greatest challenge in arena touring? “I guess the switching [from one touring style to another]. Because with the big top you’re in a city for [from] six weeks to sometimes three months depending on the size of the city. But [with arenas] I guess the most is sometimes three weeks in a city. Normally you have five days in a city, you do eight shows, and you leave Sunday night on a plane or by bus for the next city. For the first couple of weeks it takes a bit of getting used to but after a while you like it and enjoy it because of the fast pace.”
“Actually it hasn’t been a challenge for me. I find that I see more of the cities now that I have two free days of doing nothing. And I find that I’ve been able to research and really get into these cities and get to know them. Whereas when I was in a city for longer I’d say, “Oh, I’ll get around to doing it,” and then I was leaving before I get to know it.”
“With the arenas you have to take advantage of what it is, but I like it a lot. Just the opportunity to travel to more countries and visit more cities. I love it.” Any favorite places? “It’s hard to say, I like so many places. I loved Europe. I loved Spain, Denmark, Switzerland. London was great. I loved Argentina, I live in Buenos Aires. There are so many great cities in the States. They all have their own special things, it depends on what happens there.”
Prepared and Challenged
His role as a principle character in a Cirque du Soleil show means Mr. Ward is often on the short list of people asked to meet the public and participate in such things as Meet & Greets and Question and Answer sessions. It’s an aspect he relishes. “We know that we’re touching people, we get that feedback and it’s our life’s blood. But sometimes when we do [one-on-one] things it gets us a little bit closer to people. In South America we were able to get to know [groups like] Cirque Nation [Ed. A South American Cirque du Soleil fan group]. It’s very overwhelming to say the least, it’s a beautiful thing.”
In fact, Mr. Ward was a part of the genesis of CirqueCon! While attending a performance of Quidam in Vancouver back in 2004, our 31 first-ever Passionates were treated to a post-show Q&A with several artists, including Mr. Ward. It was that experience in Vancouver that spurred our imaginations to consider other trips to other (in some cases exotic) locales (check us out at www.cirquecon.com).
When we mentioned this to Mr. Ward we had our most surprising moment of our talk – he remembered! “There was a question and answer for that I remember. And I remember a question from one of the guys there, he asked, “Isn’t it true that you were Quidam?” I thought it was very surprising, really sweet [that someone would remember].”
And it was true! “I said that [the character of] Quidam is not a prison sentence (laughs). When I joined Quidam in 1999, John Gilkey went across with us to Europe. During the time John was working I did all kinds of stuff in the show. I did animation, I did the ballerina but they didn’t want me to point my toes and I said I couldn’t do bad dancing. So they kicked me out [of the part], they said I looked too much like a real ballerina!” (laughs)
“One tidbit of information that a lot of people don’t know is that during the show you can have up to three people playing Quidam, including girls. People think it’s the same person, but we have three different times he appears and most times it’s three different people! [When] they were going to do the live filming of the Quidam DVD John [Gilkey] was still there and I wasn’t going to start [playing John] until two and a half months later. But Franco was working with everyone and I said, “You know what, Franco? I would really love to help out and be a part of the DVD. Let me be Quidam!” So I’m Quidam on the DVD.”
Finally, as our time was winding down, we wondered what words Mr. Ward might have for aspiring artists. “It’s almost cliché to say “dream your dream.” Know what you want to do and make sure you give yourself the steps to get there. Give yourself goals, a far off goal but also goals you can reach easily. If someone says no, go to the next person that’s going to say yes.”
“If you want to be in Cirque du Soleil come to impress, have your stuff ready and be flexible. Come not only with what you think you want to do but be open to other things. Come prepared but also be ready to be challenged and to meet that challenge.”
“But I also like to say – you know what, the reality is that we forget who we are in life. I’ve been around long enough to know that I survived before Cirque du Soleil and I will survive after Cirque du Soleil no matter what I’m doing. I just happen to be lucky enough to be in this company and it’s been amazing to me and it’s changed my life. But I also know that if I weren’t in Cirque du Soleil I would be doing something else that would make me happy as well. But I’ve been privileged enough to be in Cirque du Soleil.”
“That’s what you need to be true to yourself as an artist. Whether it’s with Cirque du Soleil or anyone, you have to find those things that get you out there, get yourself noticed and make yourself happy.”
“Because in the long run it has to be you.”
My sincere thanks go to: Mr. Ward for spending time with us, Chantal Côte, Corporate PR Manager, “Our” Jessica Leboeuf, Quidam publicist, And my wife LouAnna for putting up with my sometimes obsessive hobby.
INTERVIEW /// “MARK WARD: ‘A CAREER BACKWARDS’”
BY: KEITH JOHNSON – SEATTLE, WASHINGTON (USA)