Feature Article Vol. VIII, No 2

Cirque Mechanics Thrives on Gadgetry and Shared Passion

Chris Lashua (rirght) with Chase Jarvis

Chris Lashua has always been fascinated by wheels and things that go around. Growing up he spent most of his spare time on BMX bikes, which eventually led to his winning a contract with Cirque du Soleil, and eventually his creating the company’s first German wheel  act in Quidam.  His fascination with circus gadgetry eventually led him to form his own company Cirque Mechanics.  The thing that sets his company apart from most other circus companies is his continuing interest in creating and using innovative mechanical apparatus upon which the acrobats, dancers, contortionists and aerialist of his casts are invited to explore new and interesting ways of presenting their work.

The company, which grew out of Lashua’s collaborative efforts on the first iteration of Birdhouse Factory, is currently touring its fifth production 42ft. The critically acclaimed show that started it all, Birdhouse Factory has run on and off for ten years.

Most of his original collaborators have also been with him for all that time: Aloysia Gavre, his choreographer and co-director, Sean Riley, his rigging designer, Steve Ragatz, his writer and Janeen Johnson, his company manager and production stage manager.  Another person who has been around all that time is Wes Hatfield, who besides performing in the current cast, is the rigger on tour and truck loader.  The closest he came to having a prominent role in any show was when he played a character in Boom Town. His work day goes from 8 or 9 in the morning until midnight when the show is downloaded, packed and sent on to the next venue.

So what is it, he was asked, that keeps him and all these other creative types continually involved in the work produced by Cirque Mechanics.

Wes Hatfield

“What has kept me with the company,” Hatfield says, “is that there is a lot of passion behind it. The spirit of the company is really strong, and it feels good to be a part of it. “  We can assume he speaks for the other members of the team when he adds, “They love the tradition of circus and the community of circus and having it live on, and Chris Lashua is interested in helping people find jobs in the circus. His vision for a circus company and how it operates is very appealing.  He likes to hire people who get along well, are good for the company, and like to do this sort of work, people who don’t just see it as a job but enjoy  being in this kind of environment.  Most people don’t get into circus just because they need a job.  It’s a passion.  The one thing I really appreciate is how Chris really instills that spirit and energy being on the road.  It’s nice to be around. I would say that most of our shows and the people who have come through have had a really good experience and a fun time doing the shows and being on the road.“

That passion and spirit manifests itself during each production’s creative process. “The creative aspect is also an important part of my wanting to be involved,” affirms Hatfield.  “The process of creating shows like this is a lot of fun to be a part of.  Especially in Chris’s company everybody feels as if they are involved and have a piece of it for themselves.  With the bigger shows there is usually one person telling everybody what to do.  Here it feels very much as if everyone is involved and it makes them feel like they own a piece of it.  So it feels like it’s your baby, too.  Not just somebody else’s baby.  You’ve put so much time and energy into this you want it to be done right. “

Before anything or anyone else is involved, a new show’s concept if formed by Lashua. Once he has conceptualized the new show Lashua  starts talking to his key players, his rigger, his company manager assistant director,and  choreographer.  In these early discussions he gets everyone up to speed on his ideas for the show.  Through these discussions the concept will develop and more and more players are involved as they talk about acts and how to best represent Lashua’s idea.  Then he starts searching for the people and acts and skills,  and it starts to come together.  When all the pieces and people in place  a four week rehearsal period begins and the show comes fully together.   “In those four weeks,” Hatfield explains, “ we meet each other, learn our different roles, which develop as we go through rehearsals, and we learn to work together and learn to play on the new pieces of equipment that Chris has designed.”  The last week is devoted to technical rehearsals  during which time the show its put on stage for the first time with all the lights and sound and all the various technical equipment. 42ft was teched  in Las Vegas at the college theatre of UNLV, the first time this facility was used .

Chris Lashua on phone with tech crew checking notes

Lashua’s personal workshop has been located in Henderson, LV for the past twenty years, so staying in Las Vegas for the final rehearsals was a plus. In addition to using the university facility for rehearsals, the new show also debuted there, a rarity for the company but a welcome one in that it allowed many friends who also work in and around Las Vegas to get to see the show.

One of the unique pieces Lashua has dreamed up for the current show is a structure they call the carrousel. It was created in collaboration with Sean Riley who works out of San Francisco and serves as the company’s rigging designer and engineer, and whose job it is to see that the piece will function as needed. Once it has been built in Lashua’s shop Riley will visit to make sure it will work properly on the road.

Birdhouse, the show that started it all, was built and created in San Francisco and also had input from the Pickle Circus and what was then Gypsy Snide’s still nascent company.  Cirque Mechanics’ second production Boom Town, which was totally Cirque Mechanics  own creation, came together in Tacoma, Washington thanks to a deal Lashua struck with a theatre company there, allowing it to build and rehearse the show before premiering there. In another deal Pedal Punk was given a week in Beaver Creek, Colorado to be built and teched.   Obviously there is a lot more to keeping a circus company alive and growing than dreaming up a new show and casting it.  Lashua is always alert to finding performers as well as creating business opportunities.

The tours are handled by various booking agents, but before they hit the road, Lashua and his network must find and strike the deals that will get the productions on their feet.  He builds relationship with theaters where the company has appeared previously, and he maintains these so the company  can be invited back.  Cirque Mechanic has built a reputation such that when they do have a new show, the theatres where they have worked in the past want to put it on their schedule.

But even once the show hits the road the performance is in constant evolution with the challenges faced along the road. “In a way it’s the same show,” Hatfield says, “ but it’s never the same show because things change.  The size of the stage or some of the performers may change.  It is always challenging.  It keeps you on your toes and it is never boring.  But we can always make it work.  We can fit into any theater.  For the most part we are a very self-sufficient company.  Everybody on crew can handle everything that we might need and what we might need to ask of the venue to help us out.  I don’t think I would ever get tired of doing this.”

Lashua giving notes. Hatfield is on the floor.

In addition to the inevitable changes needed to accommodate changes in theatres and cast members, Lashua is never done thinking about how he can improve the show. With only a month’s creation time when the show is first built, the company has not yet  really gotten tapped into what the show really could become,” Hatfield points out.  “So on the road we are always fixing things.  Chris will come in and talk about how he wants to change things.  It may be some of the character work to help make it make more sense, or  add more depth to it. When he is with us he does his best to give us the changes he wants before he has to go back to Vegas for family and other work that needs to be done. Every chance he gets he comes back on tour to help further the evolution of the production. “

The tour for 42ft is six weeks, during which time the company will give twenty-seven performances and various kinds of workshops at the various venues its plays, most often for a single day.  There are fourteen people on tour, twelve of them being cast members who usually stay in nearby hotels.  The total comes to fifteen when Lashua is along. Six hundred  miles is the maximum distance between engagements. Usually the show will hit a different theater every  day or every other day and play one show at each venue.  Booking the show  for one day or a week is the same price per performance.

Although it is not a part of the current offering, a distinctive feature for all of Cirque Mechanics’ shows has been the wall trampoline or trampoline wall. In that respect Cirque Mechanics may be partly responsible for its current popularity in circus shows of all kinds. It has been a part of every sizeable circus company that I have seen in the last few years.  It is also how Wes Hatfield came to be a member of the company over a dozen years ago.

The first iteration of what came to be the wall trampoline appeared in Cirque du Soleil’s production of La Nuba in Florida in 1995.  It has now gotten to the point where some people are even trying to turn it into a competitive extreme sport.  It was not long before Lashua became interested in putting it into a version of Birdhouse Factory that he took over and made fully a part of Cirque Mechanics.  Hatfield was not yet twenty years old at the time and a member of a group of young acrobats when Lashua discovered them performing a version of a wall trampoline.  He hired them for a gig he had in Las Vegas.   When that ended Lashua began to envision the act in different costumes, and it became the finale of the new Birdhouse.  Ever since the wall trampoline became a part of Birdhouse Factory it has been used in all of Cirque Mechanics  shows up into now.   In Boom Town, whose setting was a western mining town,  the trampolines were put in ore carts that rolled along a set of tracks from the mine’s entrance, which Hatfield and his friends helped design.

The wall trampoline is not however in 42Ft. Instead there is a Russian swing for the first time.  At first Lashua had  wanted a teeterboard in the show,  but there are a lot of shows out there nowadays doing teeterboard so Lashua changed his mind.  “Chris likes to try to do something different,” Hatfileld says. “So  we thought of Russian swing, and we went down the road of conceptualizing how to build a Russian swing for our show that could travel and was the right dimensions because some theaters we go to have very limited space or we have a problem with heights.  So we probably have the smallest Russian swing out there. “  One of the biggest injury rates involved in the Russian swing is fliers falling in the path of the swing.

Lashua’s is so small you can’t lay under it and let it pass over you, so in true Cirque Mechanics fashion Lashua made a swing with motorcycle breaks on the bearings that help slow it down and allows it to stop if someone is in the path of the swing.

Wes Hatfield’s personal story and his relationship with Chris Lashua is pretty much the story of Cirque Mechanics in general. “Chris has been a mentor to me and a good friend, and I’ve learned a lot of skill set in the company.  I came on board as a trampolinist, gymnast  and performer and over all the years,  I was surrounded by veterans in the industry.  I got to learn from some incredible people especially at such a young age.  Even with my being brand new to the industry I developed a very good relationship with everyone, and they were like my family—a  circus family and that was one of my favorite things about being on this show, learning about this world and growing up with those people.”