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Kooza Me!

Master clown David Shiner talks about the secret of creating Cirque du Soleil's popular traveling show.

David Shiner
(© Olivier Samson-Arcand)
David Shiner first became a fan of Cirque du Soleil a quarter of a century ago when he saw their first street show in Montreal, and not long after, he became an official member of the troupe's extended family. In 1990, he performed around the world in the company's Nouvelle Experience, but he drifted away from Cirque after that, with Shiner soon gaining international fame with the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Fool Moon with his good friend Bill Irwin. Recently, he returned to the Cirque fold to create Kooza, which has been touring the world for two years and which begins an extended run at New York City's Randall's Island on April 16. TheaterMania recently spoke to Shiner about the show and his other future plans, Cirque and otherwise.

THEATERMANIA: So how does one start creating a Cirque du Soleil show?
DAVID SHINER: What I wanted to do with Kooza was go back to the roots of Cirque du Soleil -- to pull all the high-tech stuff out and really focus on the artists, which is what I love most about the circus. I think we achieved a show that has classic elements but is still very very modern. And I think we have some of the best acrobats and artists that the circus has had in a long time. There's not a single act in the show that's mediocre. I also wanted the show to be very emotional. There has to be a good connection to the audience, and I think we've succeeded in creating that.

TM: How did the casting process work?
DS: Some of the artists I've seen in other shows throughout Europe and the United States, and some of them I saw just on video. I knew I wanted a contortion act, because when I did Nouveau Experience, we had a beautiful contortion act. I saw Anthony, our juggler, in Las Vegas and he blew me out the door. I've never seen a juggler like him in my life. His tempo, his timing, and his rhythm are phenomenal; he rarely drops anything during a performance. We have a beautiful unicycle act from Russia, and a Wheel of Death act, and a chair act from China. Really, everything and everyone in the show is just great.

TM: It must be a real luxury to have the resources of the whole Cirque operation. Do you even have to worry about things like a budget?
DS: We're given a budget, but if they're concerned about it, they just say: "David, this is costing too much; you've got to stop." Otherwise, the support you have and the liberty you're given to create is extraordinary. This is [Cirque founder] Guy Laliberté's secret to success. He trusts you and your idea, and then he leaves you alone.

TM: Was it your preference to do a traveling tent show as opposed to, say, a stationary show in Las Vegas?
DS: Yes, I wanted to do a big top show, because it's what I really love -- and what I've done myself as a clown. There's nothing like it -- the smell going into the tent for one thing. To me, it's the experience of the circus which you just don't get in a regular theater.

TM: Still, is there something you think you could bring to the Vegas experience?
DS: I think a comedy show would do really well in Vegas, like getting the world's greatest physical slapstick comedians and putting them all together.

A scene from Kooza
(© Olivier Samson-Arcand)
TM: Did you know Kooza was a great show from the very beginning?
DS: Actually, I remember we did our first run-through of the show at the headquarters in Montreal and it was awful. Dead silence. Afterwards, when the whole team got together, everybody was looking at me like "oh my god, I hope he saw that it was a mess." And I said to everybody: "What in god's name was I thinking about?" And everybody laughed. The show had become really serious and dramatic. Sometimes you need to go down a road like that. And literally, in two weeks, I was able to change it.

TM: Who do you listen to when you're putting a show together?
DS: Everybody. Because if I don't, the risk is that it's all about me and then it's never as good as it could be. But the person I work closest with is my co-director, Serge Roy. He's very bright, and he's been with Cirque since the very beginning. And we work great together. He's keeps me in check; he's the one who can say "David, you're going a little too far." And he's usually right!

TM: How does it feel to bring this show to New York City?
DS: It feels great to be back here. I love this city. If I was to live in the United States instead of Europe, this is the one place where I would live. I also think New Yorkers are such a smart audience, because they really have seen a lot of stuff. That said, when we first did Fool Moon in 1993, my feeling was that we were going to die a thousand deaths. I kept saying "Who's going to want to see a couple of clowns and a five-piece band? New Yorkers are just not going to get this." And I was so wrong.

TM: We hear you're doing another show for Cirque next year, but you say you can't talk about it. Is there anything else on your agenda you can talk about?
DS: I've been working on a solo show that's been in my mind a long time. It will be very different from what I did with Fool Moon in that it would have a lot of different characters. And I'd love to get back on the Broadway stage, maybe with Bill. Again, not something like Fool Moon -- because we're both a bit too old to be throwing ourselves around like that. But maybe we could do an actual play together. We just have to find the right material. I think it should be a comedy where we could still use our physical gifts. Or who knows? I've always wanted to play a really evil character -- a maniac of some kind or a lunatic or even some sort of gang member. Something where you get to be really dark. That would be fun!


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