Feature Vol. II, No. 2

The Mastermind Backstage at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival

To fully appreciate the size and scope of the Monte Carlo International Festival of Circus, consider these few, simple statistics.  The 37th edition of the festival featured twenty eight different acts, presented by over 150 artists in two completely different programs.  But the truly impressive thing about the festival is that each of the acts is fully staged with lighting designed specifically for them, their musical accompaniment provided either by recordings they themselves provide or by a live orchestra.  The ring’s surface may be covered by a scarlet carpet or it may be a natural surface made up of a combination of earth and sawdust.  Each act’s props are placed exactly to their specifications and struck by a ring crew made up of at least a dozen hard-working men.   All of this adds up to a total of eight hours of beautifully produced circus.

To put such an enormous undertaking together takes a great deal of effort by many people who work behind the scenes.  Each year the festival will begin receiving videos of the participating acts at a month or two in advance of their showing up for rehearsals, which occupy a full week of concentrated effort.  These videos are then forwarded to the various technical departments so they can assess each act’s needs and how best to present them.

Out of this comes a lighting plot that is extremely versatile, being able to provide not just illumination, but atmosphere and all sorts of special effects.  Once the individual acts arrive in Monte Carlo they are shown what the lighting department has devised for them and this is adjusted (within reason) as requested by the artists.  So there are some limitations.

The Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, when I saw it last in China, had a very complex lighting plot that included a number of specials. For the people at Monte Carlo to have duplicated that presentation it would have required an inordinate amount of technical rehearsals, to say nothing of running the act with music.  “We didn’t get to do everything that they asked,” technical director Enrico Caroli admits.  “That would have taken one whole day just devoted to them, and we don’t have that much time to give one act,  just for the lights.  Because every cue was a different light, in a different position.  If we were to give each act a whole day we would have to start rehearsals in the month of July.”

Some acts send along their specific lighting plot in advance, and when they arrive they give the lighting department their cues, “and if it is really nicely done, then it fits perfect, and you don’t lose so much time anymore,” Caroli points out.

Before technical rehearsals can be held an act’s rigging must also be hung, and the more equipment they have, like the trapeze acts, the sooner they get to Monte Carlo the better, so that there is time to get it right.  “When it’s a little dog act or whatever, then it’s easy,” Caroli adds.  “If they get here in the morning, we can work in the evening, and it’s no problem.”

Most of the acts work from the music on the CDs they provide the festival.   Part of the reason for that is because today most of the circuses don’t always have an orchestra anymore.  So the festival gets more and more CDs or USBs, and today the number of people who show up with orchestral scores is very rare.  “It’s better with the orchestra of course,” Caroli insists, “but you need a little more time to rehearse with the orchestra.  That is an advantage for the show and the performer as well.  But on the other hand with the CD you win a lot of time because the artists are used to working with that music, so they get in there and you just have to push a button and then that’s it.”

Since the Monte Carlo festival has made it a policy to include as many animal acts as possible in their programs, their special needs must be taken into consideration.  The animals have more rehearsal time because they have to get used to the place because even though they do the same thing every day, as soon as there is some change in the environment, the lighting or music, they tend to panic.  “So you need one or two times to get the animals inside, even if it is not for practice, just to leave them inside a little bit so they get used to the place, the way it looks, then slowly work on the lights and the music and props,  all that has to be rehearsed.”

An act without animals will have three or four practice sessions by themselves, just to get used to the space or the floor and footing, especially if they are used to working on a stage with a wood floor.  “Here the floor is a mix of earth and sawdust so even if we try to make it even with a carpet, it is not always level everywhere.”

The show’s running order is set by Princess Stephanie and Urs Pils, the general director, but sometimes the running order they devise may cause a problem for the technical people or the ring crew, in which case the technical director may offer a suggestion for a way the lineup would work better, and if they agree, it may be changed.

Since the artists are sometimes booked a year in advance the required videos may turn up long before work begins on the light plot.  Other performers are contracted only a month or two before the start of the festival.  This may happen because the Princess or Pils sees something that captures their imagination and perhaps an act, for some reason or another has to drop out and be replaced.  So no matter how far in advance the tech people try to get organized there is always a last minute problem to attend to.

One advantage the tech crews have here is that the entire lighting grid can be lowered to ground level so that instruments and rigging can be hung without having to climb to the top of the tent.   All the aerial acts are attached to the grid as well.  That is a big advantage.  “For the people who come here before the start of rehearsals, we can wait until Sunday the day before tech rehearsals begin, before we take the grid up.  Thereafter we have to go up and that can be dangerous and takes a lot more time.  Sometimes the program will have so many aerial acts hanging it becomes very complicated.  “My biggest nightmare is the aerial rigging,” Caroli says, “because when there are so many aerial acts together, you always have to see that one doesn’t get in the way of the other.  The problem is that when you have so much cabling everywhere, you don’t even know anymore which is which or whose. You start to get mixed up, and you have to put different colored tapes on the cables to distinguish one from the other.  Sometimes we have to strike rigging between shows or even at intermission because there is so much.  Sometimes we have had two trapeze acts on the same show.  We take one down and put the other up in the middle of the same show.”

In this year’s show the big trampoline act took a long time to strike, so it was scheduled just before the interval so that the ring crew had sufficient the time to get it out.    So, obviously, sometimes the placement of acts is dependent on the technical requirements of getting it on or off.

Technical director Enrico Caroli is descended from a family that has been in the circus for many generations, and he is the product of two great circus families, the Carolis on his father’s side and the Bougliones on his mother’s side.  Between them they have done everything there is to do in the circus like bareback riding, acrobatics on horse, clowning, and comedy.  Enrico himself grew up doing acrobatics and comedy on horses.  So he draws on an enormous reserve of experience in his position in Monte Carlo.  In addition he also works as a performer and, being multi-lingual, as announcer for Circus Knie in Switzerland for eighteen years.  He is also the director for the famed Christmas circus at the Carre Theatre in Amsterdam. He last worked with horses in 1997, and has been associated with the festival in Monte Carlo for the past dozen years or so.

During the festival performances he can be seen, dressed in a tuxedo, directing the ring crew and cuing the people running the lights when the ring is ready for the next act.

During rehearsals he is the principal problem solver of matters technical, and in dealing with various artists who speaks many different languages he must also be something of a diplomat, attempting to keep the various artists as well as the trainers, coaches and directors who come in tow with the big acts from the communist countries happy, no simple task considered the amount of time spent waiting around for the tech people to produce the desired effects and write their cues.

The one time all the artists are involved at the same time is during the staging of the opening number. This will require them to learn new blocking and timing, and therefore it takes a lot of people pushing other people around.  There were at least four or five opinions being expressed and as many people moving the artists into place, and getting them to hold their flags just so.  The ultimate opinion, however, seemed to be that of Urs Pils who never seemed to be directly involved but was quick to have the stagers correct anything he observed that was not to his liking.

By the opening performance everything was running like clockwork, all the advance preparation paying off with a perfectly run performance.