Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 3 of 12: “What! No Animals?”

Cirque du Soleil is an animal free circus. In fact, this is one of the keys to its success. But, it wasn’t really the result of a decision we made. It was a natural outgrowth of who we were. After all, Cirque began as a group of street performers: acrobats, stilt walkers, fire eaters, clowns. And none of them used animals. The absence of animal acts in Cirque was a matter of artistic preference.

In the early 1980s, Canada had no real circus tradition to speak of. Sure, traveling circuses with animal acts crisscrossed the country, but they were American-owned. Our troupe consisted of street performers, not traditional circus artists. Animals didn’t enter the picture. At first, we didn’t anticipate the impact a circus without animals would have. Later on, we found out!

In early 1985, we took the Cirque to Ontario. We needed to extend our season, and the rich, heavily populated neighboring province seemed an ideal destination. So, that summer, we penetrated an English-language market for the first time. In a way we didn’t know what we were getting into. It was uncharted territory. None of us had any experience working with the Ontario market. To facilitate communications and media relations, we billed ourselves as “Sun Circus.” People needed to understand who we were and what we offered.

I was invited to Toronto for an interview on a nationwide radio program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My English was none too good, but my sense of humor was as keen as ever. The host started off the segment by asking me point blank why the show didn’t have any animal acts. Any circus worthy of the name, he insisted, featured animals. I couldn’t understand why it seemed to be an issue. To me, it seemed perfectly natural that we didn’t have animals. His line of questioning floored me. When I had got over the surprise, my answer was brief, if somewhat colorful. I told him with a straight face that we’d tried to do a number with beavers, our national symbol. Unfortunately, our wooden set didn’t survive the test. It took only three shows for the little critters to gnaw their way through the ring.

I added that we’d also intended to arrive in the city with a big parade featuring caribou and polar bears. But we ran into logistical problems. The police turned us down at the last minute. The interviewer wondered whether I was pulling his leg… I reminded him that Canada didn’t have a circus tradition, so there was no tradition to respect… And finally I said that we thought it was better to hire 20 young Canadian acrobats than four American elephants; artists cost less to feed! He finally understood! I left the interview proud as a peacock!

Our first entry into the English-language market was a disaster. Let’s face it we bombed. It was one of the worst performances in our history! That year more people requested refunds than ever before. In Toronto, only 20 minutes into the show customers would begin storming out of the big top dragging their children in tears and demanding their money back. It was perfectly understandable: “The Cirque du Soleil isn’t a circus,” they complained, “Where are the animals?” For them, the word “circus” had a very precise meaning, perhaps too precise. It meant a traditional traveling show with animals, cotton candy, popcorn, and children’s laughter. But we’d understood too late. Playing in Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls, we were $750,000 CA in the red. A marketing fiasco that threatened to bury us. Some lesson!

Our analysis of the situation inevitably led us to the most important decision we ever made: never translate the name Cirque du Soleil. Leave well enough alone. Our French name, reflecting our origins and our identity, was our trademark. We didn’t realize at the time, but the decision would define our audience and would be a constant catalyst to our growth.

As early as the following year, after merely placing inserts with our French name in English-Canadian newspapers, we discovered the demographic attracted by the exoticism of the message. Most of the people were women, 60% of whom were aged 24 to 45. They had a higher than average level of education, and not surprisingly, a higher family income. Quite simply, they were the arts community clientele. Everywhere we performed from 1984 to 1999, our target public was the same. You’d think we’d been cherry-picking our customers at the big top gate. The surveys we carried out in every town confirmed these characteristics.

And wherever we went, the animal issue came up, particularly during our first years on American soil. In 1988, at a premiere in the Los Angeles area, all of a sudden there were 50 demonstrators brandishing posters and chanting slogans as the guests entered the big top. At first, we were taken aback. What in the world was happening! Then, it donned on us, they were animal-rights advocates shouting words of encouragement to our customers: “Cirque du Soleil is a good circus; it doesn’t use animals; you’ve made the right choice.” We could hardly have asked for more.

The same reaction spread across the United States. In Washington, Seattle, and Chicago, American animal-rights groups cited us as a role model, in contrast to traditional circuses. They handed out pamphlets to patrons at these shows, urging people to support us. A number of North American towns banned shows with animal acts. Our name came up in the debates that swirled around the topic. After a few years, we realized that we could never use an animal in our shows, not even a rat! Our trademark would forever bear the label “ANIMAL FREE.”

Without realizing it, we’d made a decision with social implications, responding to a growing preoccupation among our clientele. But, out of respect for our colleagues in traditional circuses, we turned down invitations to join animal-rights organizations. We were in showbiz, not politics! Traditional circuses appeal mostly to children. Cirque du Soleil, on the other hand, drew largely an adult clientele despite repeated efforts to set a family-friendly pricing policy. In American markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, adults made up to 95% of our audiences; children (aged 12 or less), 5%. Children brought their parents to traditional circuses with animals. Parents tried to persuade their children to go to our circus and ended up calling a babysitter so they could enjoy an extraordinary night out.

Go Beyond Yourself

As our incredible adventure got under way, the spectators were delighted and we were very proud of our show. The excellence and commitment of the artists motivated all of us: technicians and management alike. The performers were going all out on stage and we felt that, in the office and backstage, we had to step up to the plate and match their effort. We had to be as good as they were for the project to excel. We had little management experience, but the example set by our troupe of clowns, tumblers, jugglers, contortionists and musicians was truly inspirational.

The feeling of confidence and teamwork was organic to the group, which was infused with incredible energy. We were in the middle of a fireball of interaction and discussion, a constant sharing of ideas. Everyone was welcome to give an opinion about any aspect of the project: the artistic and technical sides, logistics, communications, marketing, as well as public and administrative services. It was give and take. Everyone was free to make suggestions; none of us had a lock on the truth. There was a real effort to reach consensus; no one had the right to impose his or her views. Common sense prevailed. Excellence came from within. Shaped by camaraderie, confidence and solidarity, the approach fostered a group dynamic that gave the team tremendous drive and attracted wide appeal with the public and suppliers.

The youthful members of Cirque du Soleil’s original team had several traits in common. We were completely open and had nothing to lose. Our obligations and personal responsibilities were minimal. “Good for nothing but ready to take on anything,” as the song goes. We had the sense that together we were doing something that had never been done. We were driven by a keen sense of belonging coupled with a passion and determination to accomplish the tasks at hand. The feeling of openness we shared translated into a willingness to invest ourselves fully. We poured our time and energy, gave both body and soul to our enterprise and to the public. Our group was united, strong, colourful, even the stuff of cartoons.

At the time, arts and culture had long been considered a weak, disorganized sector too often governed by emotion. Words like financial performance, surplus, return on investment were almost totally absent from the basic vocabulary of people in the milieu. We were making a naïve attempt to ally the performance arts and business as if no one had ever tried to do so before. We were convinced that the two spheres were compatible and we fully intended to prove it. It was possible to achieve profitability and financial performance in the cultural arena. We just had to work a little harder than everyone else to prove it.

We were hungry to conquer new markets, to reinvent ourselves. We had the capacity to take on new challenges and we weren’t afraid to try. That’s what I call the art of going beyond yourself. It became a game we played on the stage, in the office, on the site and even in management meetings. We had the deep conviction that we were taking part in something bigger than us, something extraordinary, hard to define, hard to explain. We combined an entrepreneurial spirit with a warrior’s soul.

We were brimming with ambition. We constantly strived to do better. Combining rigour with determination, we doubled our sales figures year after year. Our performances were exhilarating. We were sailing on a sea of passion, riding the winds of success. Hard as we tried to make medium- and long-term forecasts, none of our three- or five-year plans stood up. Every six months, we had to reassess the way we did things, reevaluate our teams and our budgets. Rapid and constant growth became one of the biggest problems confronting the company every day. It was hell!

With everything moving so fast, the organization was under constant pressure. Far from discouraging us, the rapid developments stimulated and excited us. We were forced to change because the environment was shifting and the parameters we had set no longer existed. We struggled to keep up with events; we were obliged to adjust. I must admit that we soon developed a taste for the hectic pace; growth was like a drug for us. Our greatest satisfaction came from getting optimal results: drawing bigger audiences at each show, every day and in every town, penetrating new markets and conquering new territories.

Of course, rapid growth took a toll on the employees. It spoiled them. At the same time, it was a painful learning experience, forcing us to constantly reevaluate ourselves. The need to constantly improve our performance also meant having less and less room for error: mistakes had their consequences. At the same time, rapid growth encouraged humility. Success didn’t depend on one person; everyone was involved: audiences, employees, artists, technicians, management and associates. Humility encouraged us to be tolerant toward others and open to the unknown.

I well remember how I felt driven to become more professional, less of a generalist, more specialized and responsible: a daunting challenge! For the early tours, I performed a number of functions. Then, from one year to the next, I had fewer tasks, but my responsibilities grew and with them came added stress. For my co-workers and me, constant growth provided the most intense, difficult but also creative of learning experiences.

Do you have the guts?

Heads or Tails

Circumstances led Cirque du Soleil to set up its first headquarters in Quebec City. The team had been based in Baie-Saint-Paul, but when we got our first contract in 1984, Quebec City became a more strategic location for setting up production and managing relations with the government. Cirque du Soleil then moved to Montreal in 1985.

Quebec City played a key role in Cirque’s development. We achieved our first success in the town where we received the constant support of the media, the spectators and the public in general. But, as we grew and North America opened up for us, Quebec City soon became our smallest market and very early in the 1990s, it was no longer a profitable destination. Even playing to sold-out audiences, we lost money there. Production costs when measured against the maximum number of performances the population basin would allow, ticket prices and taxes made the town economically unsound.

Cirque management often debated the viability of playing in Quebec City. Our heads told us to drop the city from our tour plan, but our hearts told us to keep it. I listened to my heart. Having been present in every stage of the organization’s development, I thought it important to make the effort and perform there.

In a way, the city represented Quebec taxpayers to whom we were indebted. One day, in a tour planning session, the debate about retaining Quebec City raged once more. After agonizing over the pros and cons, we had to make a decision. Both camps were digging in their heels, so the owners, Daniel Gauthier and Guy Laliberté, decided to settle the issue by a coin toss (heads or tails). And that’s how Quebec City became a tour fixture. Unless someone someday decides otherwise.

What would you have done in our place?