“I had just turned the big 30 and I thought it was about time I did something with my life…”

Jean David

1982. I was working as an account executive for a Quebec advertising firm when I got a call from an old pal Robert Lagueux. He headed the High Heels Club, a non-profit troupe that did street theater on stilts. His group was putting on a festival of street performers in picturesque Baie-Saint-Paul, a charming little town about 60 kilometers from Quebec City and he wanted me to lend a hand. The event had drawn performers from around the world: about fifty of them in all. In between contracts, they were only too glad to earn a few bucks, especially since they could get together and renew old acquaintances. The festival offered free outdoor shows, public workshops on circus arts, as well as parades and indoor shows.

As it happened, my three-week vacation coincided with the festival: the Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul. As I also had some organization and logistics experience, I accepted his invitation. So there I was production manager of the event. The work was straight forward enough; it was even fun. I had to see everything ran smoothly, that the artists, technicians, stages and public showed up at the right place and the right time. But participating in a big event takes discipline and that isn’t exactly the street performers’ forte—they’re used to being their own bosses, plying their skills on busy street corners all over the world—they needed someone to install a little structure and organization. As everyone was looking forward to having a good time, my little job was very pleasant.

Mainly young street performers, the festival organizers had a hard time cobbling together an operating budget. For the most part the group consisted of people without a steady job, dropouts, the unemployed, occasional welfare recipients–in short, self-employed workers with little or no credit history. Barely two days after I arrived, the team asked me to make a little contribution to the cause. So I found myself at the bank co-signing a $5,000 loan! There were a few financial glitches, but the event was a huge success because it was entertaining, fun and original. 

The highlight of the first edition of the entertainers’ festival was the closing show. It was probably the precursor of the Cirque du Soleil. It was the first time we presented dozens of street artists, buskers and clowns. The result was an unforgettable finale. I acted as floor manager backstage with the artists. The excitement, the energy, the power and intensity generated by the artists together on one big stage created an electricity that was communicated to the audience. Little did we realize what impact that evening would have one day.

The Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul was repeated the following two years. I collaborated on the second edition. The work and the conditions were pretty well the same. But this time the festival drew even more street performers and a larger audience. It was an even bigger hit, and there were no financial woes. The Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul launched the young theater troupe on stilts; it opened the door to a world of possibilities and adventure. In 1984, the event served as a reference for an important contract that launched the Cirque du Soleil.

That year, the Quebec government wanted to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the arrival in Canada of Jacques Cartier, the first French citizen to set foot on North American soil. The government created the Commissariat général aux célébrations 1534-1984, an organization charged with putting on celebrations, and gave it a budget of about $12 million. Then Quebec show producers were invited to submit projects. The High Heels Club headed by Guy Laliberté and Robert Lagueux, jumped at the opportunity and submitted a project that was quite bold for the time. Our group took the Fête foraine model and turned it into a traveling show. We planned to stage the event in at least 11 towns around Quebec over a three-month period. For each town, we planned an organization (local jobs) in which we invited artists and crafts persons to take part. As much as possible, we integrated everything into the community.

I attended some of the meetings to prepare the project. Many people took a dim view of street performers. Gilles Loiselle, the head of the Commissariat général, was sympathetic to our project, but a bunch of buskers, clowns, jugglers, and fire-eaters hardly met the criteria of official culture. At the Quebec Cultural Affairs ministry, with Clément Richard at the helm, our stock wasn’t very high. And provincial coffers offered no subsidies for circuses, no money for the performers. Laliberté and Lagueux battled long and hard to convince the authorities they could trust a band of longhaired street performers, who were unemployed, with no official status, and worse still very young. Fortunately, Quebec prime minister René Lévesque took up our cause with the skeptics. He considered our proposal innovative and his interest never wavered. It’s thanks to his intervention that the project finally took shape.

At the time, I was self-employed, offering my services as a communications freelancer. I also did volunteer work in community radio. I was having fun. The previous fall, I had traveled to Paris with the Office franco-québécois pour la jeunesse for a three-week workshop on French advertising. And I was amazed at what I learned. Of course, the big French agencies hosting us had spared no effort to impress their North American cousins. That fall, when I returned to Quebec, it was quite a letdown to find myself operating within the constraints of the advertising agency. I decided to drop everything. All too often, my work as an advertising executive had led me into contradictions, choosing between what clients wanted me to do and what I believed should be done; I’d had enough.

In the spring of 1984, when the project got government approval, Guy Laliberté and Robert Lagueux offered to take me on as tour manager. I had just turned the big 30 and I thought it was about time I did something with my life… At any rate, the project was exciting and it was a magnificent opportunity to do something that had never been done. So, I accepted the offer. But, no sooner was I hired than I got fired! I was the first employee to get the sack at Cirque du Soleil.

The contract that I signed in April said I was supposed to start in June. Meanwhile, my friends hired Guy St-Amour, a “brilliant young” technical operations manager with vast event production experience. His first move was to refuse to work with me. He didn’t know me, he’d never even set eyes on me, but he convinced my “friends” that I lacked the experience for an event of this scope. At any rate, the work called for two people. And he just happened to know a couple of excellent stage managers and he preferred to work with them; my bosses “agreed.”

One morning, Guy Laliberté summoned me to his office and told me that he’d given the new technical director full authority. The last thing my “friends” wanted to do was to upset him. And just like that, they thanked me for my services. I was stunned, devastated. I’d been looking forward to the adventure, getting involved, spending a few months on the road with new friends. Besides, I had just declined a speaking engagement at the 3rd Festival de la radio FM, in La Rochelle, France. But their decision was final; there was no appeal. So, there I was with my first severance pay. At least it allowed me to fly to France just in time to give my talk.

A few weeks later, when I got back from Europe, Robert Lagueux contacted me to let me know that things weren’t going well. During Cirque du Soleil’s rehearsals in Sainte-Thérèse, a town north of Montreal, a violent storm had severely damaged the big top. The weight of the accumulated water had bent the masts, rendering the whole installation unusable. Nevertheless, the tour had got underway as scheduled in Gaspé. The show was performed in an improvised venue, a tent that the troupe had borrowed from the federal government, much to the displeasure of provincial government representatives. 

Lodging and logistics were a nightmare. A revolt was brewing in the troupe. To make matters worse, the stage managers hired to replace me had jumped ship during the night and St-Amour had fallen ill. Not a pretty picture! Robert pleaded with me to come back. They would rehire me on the spot. But I set my conditions: clear contract terms, a pay raise; I left nothing out. I was rehired; what’s more, I had carte blanche. The situation was completely reversed; it was even more than I had expected.

A few days later, I flew from Quebec City to Baie-Comeau, the next stop on the tour. My “mandate” mainly consisted of seeing that the organization respected its engagements to the government. Failure to do so would render the contract null and void and the entire operation would be at risk. From a technical standpoint, the shipyard in Rimouski manufacturing new masts for us promised they’d be ready when we visited the town three weeks later. Until we could use our big top again, we’d have to make do with whatever arenas we could rent. The situation was far from ideal, but, at least, we’d find shelter and the show could go on.

Clearly, there was a distinct lack of organization! I had to deal with strong willed personalities from diverse backgrounds. There were egos as huge as a big-top. To find out what was going on and get to know the employees, I interviewed every one of them. I assessed their experience, the skills they brought to the table, their job description. Above all, I listened to them. I picked their brains to find what was wrong and what should be done immediately to make things better.

After a few days, I had met all 40 members of the little company, and I had a good idea what had to be done. The employees needed support and reassurance in carrying out their tasks. Things needed to be clarified for everyone. Someone had to take charge of the operation. I scrutinized the job descriptions and proposed some team changes. There followed a brief period of considerable reflection!

The troupe was drawn from many nationalities. Inevitably, there were significant cultural differences among the group’s leadership. Soon their diametrically opposed points of view and widely differing attitudes emerged about some issues: after all, street performers march to the beat of their own drum. But one thing was crystal clear: this youthful management team needed to do the job as administrators and entrepreneurs. We had commitments: nothing and nobody in the world could stand in the way.

Rimouski—On the pier, a significant event in Cirque du Soleil’s first tour occurred. The replacement masts were delivered. Compared with the original delicate Italian structures, which had collapsed, these were enormous. The whole technical team was present. The new masts were placed on the ground and the canvas of the big top was in position. Everything was ready. We were about to proceed when our assembly foreman, Swiss big-top expert Gérard Bétant brought things to a halt. The new structure was too heavy, he claimed. It was a little weak; it could collapse. People could get hurt. So here was the expert in charge of assembling the big top suddenly refusing to do it.

But the shipyard engineer from Québec, standing beside him, would have none of it. He scoffed at the danger. The new structure would be ten times as solid as the original masts, he said. But the technicians were nervous. You could see the tension etched on their faces. After all, they had hoisted the tent only once since the tour began and that had been a fiasco. And the expert we’d hired didn’t want anything to do with the new masts. Then technical director Guy St-Amour rushed in, declaring that he sided with the assembly foreman. He and his men wouldn’t touch the structure. We had to find an alternative—some arena or other. Things were getting worse by the minute! The engineer from Quebec couldn’t believe it; neither could I. St-Amour vanished as quickly as he’d come! The poor chap had stomach cramps and had to go and rest in his room, leaving me to solve the problem. Guy Laliberté was there and, like me, he seemed not a little upset.

We had a commitment with the government and the big top represented a substantial portion of our budget. Not being able to use the big top for shows would be an obstacle that could endanger subsequent contract payments. Failure was not an option. So, I put my faith in the engineer. After all, he was the expert who had built the masts. I told Gérard Bétant in front of everyone that he was relieved of his functions, that I no longer needed him and I asked him to leave the premises! I also simply told the others I was going to see to it personally that the big top was assembled and that to do so, I just needed a few volunteers. No more bickering! Seeing my attitude, the whole group backed me and with the engineer advising us, we got down to work. We toiled away to the end of the day and enjoyed every minute of it. Finally the big top was up, magnificent, incredibly strong and solid, good for the whole tour.

Early in the evening, when St-Amour showed up, his stomach did back flips when he saw we’d mounted the big top. Like everyone else, he could see how robust the installation was, so he agreed to work on it. A little later, government representatives dropped by and were delighted to see that the masts had been delivered on time. The big top was in place and everything was running smoothly. The Cirque du Soleil project was finally shaping up as planned, and the first show under the big tent had a magical effect on the whole company. The objective had been fulfilled. The team spirit was extraordinary and everything was running like a charm! Ex-Tent Master Gérard Bétant was reassigned: as a chief usher, he was perfect…

Now, we could all contribute to the best of our abilities and I could sense a feeling of camaraderie infusing the team. Assembling and dismounting the tent was still a mighty task, but our pride and sense of accomplishment more than compensated for our efforts. As the tour traveled from town to town things got better and better. The whole operation was a huge success. I felt my job was done and I actually thought about leaving the troupe then. We were performing before sold-out audiences explained in part by the ticket prices: $2 for adults and $1 for children. The show met with unanimous audience approval; the public loved it. After every performance, many spectators were so moved by the experience that they were crying as they left the big top.

One of the significant aspects of the tour was the media response. We were met with enormous acclaim in the press. The show and the entire operation earned full-page reports in the big dailies and wide coverage in the electronic media. The media even quoted spectators who said that they were delighted to see that the government was finally investing their money wisely. What more could we ask for? The first tour was a real market study. No doubt about it, there was a demand for the product. And the extremely positive results encouraged us to pursue the adventure and define new objectives. I agreed to get even more involved in the project. It was the start of a new career!

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