On the Trail with Cirque du Soleil’s Heather Reilly

We’re on the trail with my lovely friend Heather Reilly, of the Canadian performing sensation, Cirque du Soleil. Before we duck inside the big top, tell us about our hike.

Heather: This trail is from a hike up Idaho Peak in British Columbia. From the summit the view is of the Slocan Valley. I grew up in this area and there is nothing I enjoy more than being in the mountains. Any mountains. On this particular hike, I was with my parents and it was just before moving from BC to Ottawa. The weather is very unpredictable on the mountain and there is often snow well into the summer.  We had a stellar day and the fields were in full bloom.  It was fantastic. I think I was destined to always follow a variety of “trails”… it was the name of my hometown in BC:  Trail.

 Beth: I’ve been to your gorgeous hometown with a different kind of circus, Up with People — which is how you and I met. Tell us about your journey with Cirque du Soleil. How many years did you travel with Cirque before settling into corporate headquarters in Montreal?

Heather: I consider Up with People my “not for profit circus” compared to Cirque du Soleil and when I add the two together, I spent fifteen years touring (seven years on the road with UWP and eight years with Cirque). My first position with Cirque was the Tour Services Director (TSD) for the touring show Quidam in Miami. The TSD is responsible for all of the personnel services on a tour, including overseeing the human resources needs, payroll, other finance services, a school for the children who are either artists or children of artists, IT, and a kitchen facility. On a Cirque tour there are approximately 130 people (55 artists and the rest support staff) and they represent 20+ nationalities. I stayed in the position of TSD and worked with the production of Alegria for the next two years.

In mid-2003, our company announced that a new production would be created and launched in 2005.  I knew that the chance to work on a creation was very rare so applied to be the TSD on the new show.  I got the job and once again switched shows to work on Corteo, which premiered in Montreal in 2005. In the summer of 2006, I was promoted to General Manager (GM) of Corteo. It was a honour to be the GM of the largest touring show Cirque had ever created.

We continued in the US and Canada through the end of 2008 and then, after preparing two other shows to make the leap over the Pacific, I went with Corteo to Japan.  I lived in Japan for 2009 in 3 cities (Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka).  During the summer of 2009, I was asked if I would be interested in moving to Montreal to take on the position of Director of Human Resources for the Touring Shows Division.  It was not an easy decision, leaving the world of touring and group of people who I had been with for more than five years, but it felt like the right step, since these opportunities don’t come often. I agreed and finished with Corteo in December 2009. I’ve been in Montreal since then.

As the HR Director for the touring shows, my team of eleven (technicians, Advisors and Sr. Advisors) support eleven touring productions and approximately 200 staff who are based in Montreal. In total, it’s about 1,500 people.

Beth: An impressive and dizzying career! What are some of your favorite cities and why?

Heather: From my Cirque tours: Boston and Portland OR are two I could easily live in. I like the pace of the cities, lots of things to do during the different seasons, and they aren’t huge like the LA or NYC areas. Denver is a natural “like” for me. I consider it my social home with all the people I know who live there. In Japan, I could move there tomorrow if a position came up. It is an amazing country that fascinated me every day I was there and still does. From the UWP days, I liked the cities that had charm no matter where they were. A strong community, some history, people that were involved, and some natural beauty always helps.

Beth: Cirque has been going strong since the Eighties. With all the different shows, each unique in their own right, the creative well must run deep. How often does a new production launch? When is a show retired? What do the creators draw on for inspiration?  I’d love to get a peek behind the curtain.

Heather: The company began in 1984 with grant money from the federal and provincial governments.  It is true that each show is unique: the costumes, music, themes, staging are all specific to the production. Although there are similarities, one can never say, “I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all.” We typically launch a new show every two years in the touring world and it’s been around 18 months for the Resident Shows based in Vegas. The timing is based on need and the development we’ve had in markets globally.  Shows have rarely been retired although we have some now that are getting close. Ones that have closed may have been due to economic reasons or a couple that just didn’t fly.  It’s certainly not the plan, though.

Each creator draws their inspiration from their experiences, but the final approval comes from Cirque. The company is a bit of a “dream factory”. The examples I often use are from Corteo:  it has an opening act with women performing aerial acts on giant chandeliers. This vision, from the creator Daniele Finzi Pasca, was from his childhood and the dream to swing on chandeliers. Corteo also has an act with “bouncing beds”. What person hasn’t jumped on a bed in their lifetime?  Now imagine if you put a trampoline where the mattress goes… now that’s bouncing!

Beth: I adored Corteo, but perhaps my wild children should avoid seeing it. They don’t need additional inspiration to bounce on the bed. 😉 I love the “dream factory” image. It reminds me of Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus. For me, that book evoked the dream-like mystery and beauty of a Cirque performance. I have a secret hunch the author might have been one of your former cast members. What have you read lately that you’ve loved?

Heather: I guess it’s a good thing Corteo has already had it’s run in Denver 🙂 There are a few books that come to mind as favourites. I went through a phase before heading to Japan where I read a lot of Asian themed stories. Two that I couldn’t put down and have recommended many times are Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Fergusson and The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama. Hitching Rides is an account of Fergusson’s adventures in Japan as he travelled from the southern most point to the northernmost point of Japan by hitchhiking. He follows the cherry blossom season as it moves from south to north and has many great adventures along the way. For someone who has been to Japan, they will recognize many cultural traits of the people there and for someone who hasn’t been, it’s still a great adventure. The second book, Thousand Blossoms, is non-fiction. It’s a beautiful story of a set of twin brothers who are separated during WW II and grow up with very different lives.

From the non-Asian category, my recent love is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.  My family has always had pets, both cats and dogs, and I couldn’t help but think about a Golden Retriever we had for many years. I simply couldn’t put it down. For me it’s a must read for anyone who has, or had, a dog. It should also come with a kleenex warning.

Beth: What’s something from behind the scenes that would surprise the average Cirque fan?

Heather: One thing that people usually don’t think of is the community behind the scenes. First of all, we have families who travel and with those families come children. The children add a lot to the spirit of the tour. Some of these children are born on the road and others are older. We have school on the tours. Just like a regular school, children attend classes from Grade 1 through high school graduation and complete with the same certification as children who attend school in Quebec. We also provide the meals for everyone each day. Four chefs serve over 300 meals daily trying to meet the palates of the world. It’s a great way for us to try new things… the chefs are awesome!

From a performance point of view, I don’t think people realize that most of the artists do much more than their main “act”. They move props, assist other acts, and can have multiple roles. The changes of costumes mask that people may be the same from one scene to another.

Beth: How fascinating to think of those kids growing up on the road. The travel, the performances, the international food, the adventure . . . now I’m getting itchy feet again!

What do you miss about being on the road? What do you appreciate about your new digs in Montreal?

Heather: Having lived on the road and out of suitcases for fifteen years, the time was right to stop touring. There are two things that come to mind that I miss. The first is the spontaneity of road life. Leaving a site or theatre and deciding with people to go to a restaurant or explore an area right at that moment is special. In my “new” world, things take time to plan: people have different schedules, children, jobs, etc. that need to be managed so the “in the moment” opportunities with other people are fewer.

The second is reaction of the public. It didn’t matter whether it was UWP or Cirque, taking an audience on an adventure for two hours is a privilege. They chose to come see what we do. Their reactions, smiles, excitement, the applause . . .nothing can replace that.

Montreal is a great city. I’m very lucky to have been able to leave the road and stay with a company I know and move to a city that I know and like. I didn’t have a hard time adjusting to the change or at least not as hard as I’d expected. I live in a wonderful house built in 1916 that still has a lot of original charm. No more white corporate apartments or hotels (unless I’m on a trip) for me. I also chose to live in a true neighbourhood where I can walk to everything I need, talk with my neighbours, and enjoy the multicultural city I’m in.

I don’t know if this is where I’ll stay forever, but for now, it’s a very good place to be.

Beth: And it was very good to hear about your exciting life. Thanks so much for sharing, and congratulations on your many accomplishments!



Hunger Pangs

Young Adult book editor Jessica Schein said, “There are books we all love, and books we can’t put down, and then there are books that morph into cultural events.” She’s referring, of course, to the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I ADORED the novels, and am completely geeked-out excited about seeing the movie, which in case you haven’t heard, OPENS TODAY!!!!!

Movies almost never live up to my expectations after having loved the book, but there are so many things the Hunger Games film has going for it – a knock-out cast, Suzanne Collins’ involvement in writing the script, and the dedication of director Gary Ross to “give the audience the same experience they had when reading the book.” Check out this brief interview where he talks about making the film, plus some sneak peak footage.

Interview with Hunger Games director Gary Ross

If you’re braving the masses to see it this weekend, may the odds be ever in your favor!

Pipe Dream Farm

I like to daydream. You already know the one about getting my novel published. Another dream of mine is to have a hobby farm where I’d raise llamas, alpacas and goats (oh my!). While it sounds a bit whack-a-doo, I’m totally serious. I come from a long line of cattle ranchers, and while I have no desire to become a bovine baroness, the urge to raise livestock runs deep in my DNA. I’m too tender hearted to slaughter my lovies though, so it couldn’t be cattle. Or pigs or chickens because of the stench.

Much to my wild children’s chagrin, every year I drag them to the llama barn at the 4-H fair so I can feast my eyes on those creatures that look like they’ve walked straight out of a Dr. Suess book. They hum to communicate to each other, and spit or neck wrestle when they’re mad. They’re curious and quirky. Seriously, how can you not love a face like this?

Llamas are known for their wool, but did you know that there are also guard llamas? Llamas can kick a coyote’s keister, and a couple of llama’s together can even put a whooping on a mountain lion. I’d like to raise a few ninja llamas, whose offspring could be sold to protect sheep, or for that matter, anyone who needed a little extra security. Think about it… would you attack someone with a 400 lb llama, who depending on her anger level, could hawk a loogey from all three of her stomachs?

My hobby farm would also have goats. Not only would we never have to mow the lawn again, we’d never have a weed problem because goats are cool like that. Our cloven-footed friends are the best weed whackers to come down the pike since Roundup, and they don’t cause cancer or birth defects. Several counties around here use goats for weed mitigation. Goats prefer weeds over grass. Sic a goat herd on a patch of noxious weeds and they’ll stop that weed from growing again, since their stomach acid destroys the seeds. They’re relentless, and will even climb a cottonwood to get to a patch of leafy spurge. Not only do they eradicate weeds, their hooves aerate the land, and their poop fertilizes. A trifecta of goat goodness!

With my penchant for career choices involving llamas, goats, and writing, it’s probably a good thing I married a dude with an MBA. But a little daydreaming never hurt, right?

What are your pipe dreams?