Feature Vol. IV – 8

A Man-made Machine-centric Circus

How a BMX Bike Rider Founded a Circus

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In the late 1980s, Chris Lashua was one of the best known BMX freestyle bike riders in the world. He’d been featured in all the major BMX magazines, including several covers, as he toured the world doing shows and competing.

The freestyle scene in the Northeast in the mid ’80s revolved around a group of riders put together by Ron Stebenne called the Mountain Dew GT Trick Team. Ron organized freestyle events throughout New England, and soon spotted Chris. “I first met Chris at a contest when he was about fifteen years old. I could see he had drive, natural talent, confidence, charm, and was bright” said Stebenne.

Some years later, Lashua bought Stebenne out, and the trick riders became the Mountain Dew Freestyle Performance Team, continuing to perform around the country, and throughout the world. That performance-oriented lifestyle ultimately landed Lashua a gig with Cirque du Soleil.

In 1990 while he was a senior at Boston University trying to balance college and the competitive side of riding, Ron Stebenne called one day and connected him with Ringling’s Tim Holst who was looking for a bike act to bring to a festival in China. Most of the people in competitive freestyle had no interest in circus work. Full-time touring would’ve cut into training time, but Tim just wanted someone to go to China for two weeks. It was at that festival in China that Lashua met up with Gilles Ste-Croix of Cirque du Soleil. He asked him to put a bike act together for a touring show that was going to Japan the following summer. “I had never heard of them,” Lashua recalls, “but their show Nouvelle Experience was airing on HBO, so I checked it out and was blown away. I wanted to be part of that. The idea of taking freestyle and combining it with live music, theatrical lighting, and featuring it on a stage was something entirely new.”

After that summer Lashua tried to find a way to stay involved with Cirque du Soleil. He ended up following some of the cast of the Japanese show to Las Vegas where Cirque was setting up shop for a year at the Mirage. He worked for a year as a stage technician.  Then Fate took a hand in his future.  A friend showed him a picture of someone riding something called the German Wheel. “I built my own, and started training,” Lashua says.  “It is a German gymnastic discipline, but I blended my bike/street style with the technical wheel training and found my way back onto the stage as the opening act of Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Quidam, with which I toured for five years.   I didn’t know any of the proper technique for the first two years, which I think worked to my advantage in the long run. This allowed me to not be constrained to accepted technique.”

Lashua left Quidam in 2000 to continue working on new mechanical performance apparatus, which eventually led him to start his own company, Cirque Mechanics. “I had built a trolley device, which cradled the German wheel. To this trolley I affixed a gear, lever, cranks and a winch. By rotating in the wheel I could create lift for an aerialist on the other side of the stage. The trolley and something I called the ‘spin cycle’ were both built from bike parts picked up from the dumpster or off of old bikes in the garage. This interaction between acrobat and machine was a kind of extension of all those years with bikes, and became the central theme of Cirque Mechanics’ first show, Birdhouse Factory, which opened in San Francisco in 2004. Birdhouse Factory toured for four years, including runs in Montreal, off Broadway in New York, and overseas as far as Istanbul and Dubai. The company’s second show Boom Town opened at the Broadway Center for the Arts in Tacoma.”

Having had almost no theatrical experience other than performing before audiences. Lashua credits his experience with Cirque du Soleil as “really sparking my interest for theatre and the idea of mixing so many of these theatrical elements with the acrobatics. They really know how to take care of their people,” he adds. “They created a whole new art form, and made it possible for us at Cirque Mechanics to do what we do.”

Speaking backstage at the New Victory Theatre in New York City Lashua is somewhat non-plussed over the reaction to what other people in the business see as his company’s success.  “We still feel like the scrappy bunch of circus guys who are trying to figure it out, but people from all walks of circus were coming to us in Chicago when we did the Contemporary Circus Festival there, people who have the content but are still trying to figure out how do you do it.” “It,” in this case being putting together a successful tour.  “We’ve always felt like the underdog fighting for the scraps 7 Fingers didn’t take or for  Cirque Eloize’s  leftovers.  But People keep telling us we are the American version of the new circus.  It was a strange feeling.”

At the Brooklyn Bridge

At the Brooklyn Bridge

At a workshop he and the company hosted in Chicago during the festival, he explained that the show is just the tip of the iceberg.  That’s only about 20 percent of the business.  People had been predicting Pedal Punk would set the world on fire.  It has been very well received, but “We’re  still doing the same fifteen weeks we did when we did Birdhouse, and nobody knew who the heck we were.”

Birdhouse, the company’s first production, had been put together under the sponsorship of San Francisco’s Circus Center back in 2004, and ran for five weeks there.  The Circus Center is no longer doing that kind of production, and Lashua added, “There really aren’t that many outlets for this kind of show.  It’s tough out there doing the touring thing.  You have to be able  to survive doing a lot of one-nighters.  It can be done.  The gantry [the major scenic element of Pedal Punk] travels in six pieces.  We knew we had to build it that way.  Even established shows like Stomp and Blue Man which used to play two months in each venue now play ten days.”

After Birdhouse came Boom Town.  When the latter had run its course the company’s booking agent began urging them to put together something new.  The idea for a new show grew out of a mechanical piece Lashua had built for Birdhouse.  It was called the “spin cycle.” In essence it was a moving platform that was maneuvered by two people pedaling a pair of wheels.  It was capable of moving in all directions including in circles, hence its name.  Fortuitously “a friend told me he had a client who wanted to put a show on in a ballroom. A small show.  I had an idea of putting two spin cycles on either side of a connecting truss and driving that through the room.”

“For corporate events, sponsors will say ‘come in and do some circus.’  I suggested instead of doing it on a stage what if we found a way to do it throughout the room, on the floor.  Not just have a stilt walker going through the room, but an aerialist moving through the room.  I drew up a sketch with two spin cycles and an archway, not very high with a girl sitting in a trapeze.  The client didn’t go for it because they didn’t know if the hotel would approve of it, but I kept the idea in the back of my head.”

A bit later the programming director for Toronto’s street busking festival, a big, well funded affair approached Lashua. “She  came to see us in Boom Town, and loved the pedal driven crane we used in that show.  She was hooked on the machine.  She asked what we could do for an outdoor event.  Did we have any devices that could work in that environment? So I told her about this thing, that I wanted to build.  I thought it would be perfect for the festival because every year there is one big splash act.  I drew up a new sketch.  Sean Riley, my designer, suggested using rock and roll trusses and bolting them together.  So I drew this thing up and sent it to her, and she was like, ‘Let’s do it.’  The budget was tight.  I knew I was not going to make money on this thing, but I was going to get someone to build the gantry for me.”

“The contract was for $20,000 and a week of shows. I had to pay for artists to get there and truck the whole thing up to Canada,  but we got it built.  Working on the project turned out to be a true pleasure and just thinking about working on it  made it seem like even more fun.”  The gantry was a huge success in Toronto.  “It was amazing.”

But a single mechanical device, however spectacular it may be, does not a show make. Lashua next faced the problem of building a show out of a single scenic element.

Most people who do a lot of shows, Lashua observed, say the first time you do a show, you go for it and it does or doesn’t work.  “Birdhouse worked for us on some level, but when we went to do another show we didn’t know what there was about the original process that had worked and what didn’t.  What were the lucky breaks and what took hard work? There was no formula.  So we tried what we thought would work.  Some of it did and some of it didn’t.  It hasn’t been really until the third go around [with Pedal Punk] that we really identified the things in that process that worked and the things that maybe did not.  What it boiled down to was a  process of finding out who we were.”

Lashua says he and his group of long-time collaborators began thinking about what were the things  that made them who they are when they approached their third project.  “We are definitely about the mechanical devices and the relationship between the acrobats and the mechanical thing.  We knew we wanted to tell some kind of simple story,  not just make a cabaret kind of show.  We decided that if we were to take two or three of those things the new show would still feel like it was who we are.”

The year-long research and development period for Pedal Punk began about two years ago. The gantry already existed.  It had been built for the street fair in Toronto and been proven a winner.  “The first time we built it, and put it together in the suburb in Henderson, Nevada, we had it in the street and as we were driving along cars would stop to watch.  We encouraged them to go underneath, and Riley and I could already see that this was going to be amazing.  We knew pretty quickly that this was going to be something cool.”  That set them to thinking about putting an aerialist on the center truss.

In the process of thinking about how to use the gantry , Lashua worked with a lot of the people who have been with him for a long time.  Steve Ragatz once again conceived the show’s through line and the comedy.  “There’s great comfort in working with the same team, the same people.  Aloysia Gavre who would do the choreography as she had in the two previous shows, was also in on the initial discussions.  The technical team, however, was new.

The company’s booking agency was already on them about a new project so it was pretty obvious that the gantry show needed to become a reality. “The other devices were things I had wanted to build, like a smaller version of the spin cycle from Birdhouse.  It was mounted on a tricycle and can turn on a dime.  Then it became a matter of knitting these various pieces  together into a show.”

The devices always come before any of the specific acts are chosen, so once they were built the next step was deciding what kind of act to put on each piece. When it came to the climbing bike, the lifting device,  “we were excited about using that with something aerial, as a counter-weight system.”

The first major decision that set the show’s course was the idea of having the action take place inside a bicycle shop. The creative team did not settle of the bike show right away, however.  “I went back and forth with Steve on that quite a bit.  This is the first show that Steve and I have worked on that Steve didn’t end up being in the show.  It was a bit of a transition for him and a bit of a difficult one at that.  He understood why we wanted to do something that looked and felt very different from the first two shows.  So I felt we needed another character which turned out to be Jan (Damm).  It was a new thing for Steve to be writing material for somebody else and not being the guy who would perform it.”

One thing they all knew was that they wanted to keep it simple. “I think we over shot in Boom Town.  We tried to tell a bunch of stories.  Circus is non-verbal and we’re not actors.  So we made some choices that would make life less difficult.  We decided not to do something too obvious or literal.  A gantry is a device that goes over ships in a harbor, but we didn’t want to do a ship in a harbor, as Boom Town was literally a wild west town.  Instead I suggested we try to use it as a kind of wacky mechanical device to support this other stuff and let the magic be the thing itself.  That was both liberating and scary because it came with no obvious era or environment.  “The question was ‘Where is this one to be set?’  That layer of 19th century costumes came later because we still considered going other ways.  We could have gone futuristic.  There’s a certain look and flavor we are comfortable with.  Once we decided we were going into the bike shop we said okay, we needed bikes.”

The production was already deep into creation when the idea for an old-fashioned bicycle called a penny farthing came along.  “A week before the girls showed up I was speaking with Aloysia and said that since we have all the other pieces,  we needed a bicycle act in the air.   I asked for her ideas.  I made some sketches that I sent to her.”  One of them was for the penny farthing with its small rear wheel rotating around the front wheel on which the girls would work.  The girls were a little leery about it at first, afraid that the little wheel that was spinning around them could cause an accident.  The choreography was worked out to avoid such a disaster.

When it came to casting Lashua wanted to use people he knew and had worked with before. For instance he had worked with Jan Damm before in Europe.  He wanted his rola bola act in the show.

From that point it became a matter of using the building blocks and putting the show together. The trampoline came in at the last minute.  Sean Riley, the set and machine designer, drew up all the elements, and “we decided we needed a little exclamation point at the end.  We began thinking about how to use a small trampoline.  Tramps,  like flying trapeze nets, are a pain to deal with,  so we decided to do a small one.  I couldn’t promise Wes (Hatfield) a job at that point, but I began talking to him about how to use the tramp. Could we use it like a wall tramp, in profile running along the truss?  I asked him how small I could make the tramp.  I knew where it had to fit so it could be no more than 12 feet long and 7 feet wide.  Wes was hired, and we only started working on that act three months before opening.  We wanted to have everything in it, not just the bouncing.”

As for the gantry itself, we knew it would be an amazing piece to put on a stage because, it really makes touring easier. The first question was how big could it be.  “I would have liked to build it bigger so I could have it closer to the audience and bring the acts that happen under it closer to the audience,” Lashua explains.  “ The challenge, however, is when you go bigger lengthwise, when you turn you hit the walls.  So we had to find that happy middle ground, wide enough so you can have an aerial act inside of it and not too narrow that you don’t use the whole stage.

Since the gantry carries its own truss system, hanging the show has been enormously simplified and the show can play almost any venue, on a stage, a parking lot, Times Square, and it could go up in just four hours. “From a production standpoint that really frees us up.  We don’t have to worry about guy wires,  which is nice from a lighting perspective, because we don’t have to worry about what is already up there over the stage.”

In the course of preparing the show, somewhere along the line, the phrase “steampunk” came up. “People would say ‘you guys are so steampunk,’” Lashua recalls.  “We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing without knowing it was steampunk.  Now it’s trendy, and an easier sell, but it’s not what we set out to be.  We wanted to be mechanical circus.  It turns out that everything we have is steampunk, and hip by now, which kind of frightened us because we thought if we go down the path of steampunk in a year or so it could be  passe. You have to be aware of what’s going on around you, and we decided to go a little away from that.  Let’s go lighter on that.  19th Century, but not kooky steampunk.    We went along that route with the costumes.”

So here is Cirque Mechanics sitting in New York City’s New Victory Theatre in the heart of the entertainment district on 42nd St, enjoying a five week run in the most desirable slot in the New Vic  season.  But for all that and the perceived notion that the company has got it all figured out, Lashua reveals that a full season for the company  is about 15 weeks.  “That’s what we get.  Our season runs from September to April.”

The company now has two full gantries. Their agent books all their theatrical or public gigs and Lashua books all the private or corporate stuff.  “They are what pays the bills.  That’s how I built a lot of the stuff that’s on the stage.  It’s not like we have a lot of money sitting around or people are giving us money to build shows.  It’s not happening.  The prices I quote people for a corporate event are pretty much what it costs to build the show.”

A somewhat abbreviated season and a split one at that increases the difficulty of getting and keeping a cast together. “We have  been able to do that because we are able to commit to that season far enough in advance. If you lock someone in for eight weeks, and you go beyond that time frame you may be in trouble, so we know our schedule well in advance.  The agency will give me a kind of ghost route, which I will get in the next month or two.  So this crew is with us until April.  That’s how everybody is signed and committed to the full season.  That’s why the longer engagements like here and Tohu in Montreal and London next season are so important because if you have five weeks you give the dates to the cast in advance, and when you’re doing the kind of work people like to be involved with they sign on.  And we have no shortage of people who are interested in doing the work.  That’s in part because we’ve been around a while and we’re reliable and interesting and cool.  And also there’s not that much out there.  There are not as many entities that are able to be out on the road.”

At the present time, Cirque Mechanics is strictly a for profit organization. Another of the things they are still trying to figure out is how to have two entities—for-profit and not-for- profit—as do the most successful circus companies, like Cirque du Soleil (which started it all) and 7 Finger (which learned it from their mentors at Cirque du Soleil).  It isn’t that Cirque Mechanics would not qualify for non-profit status.  “We do lots of work that puts us into that realm.  We do education outreach stuff, workshops with kids.”   In this dual set-up, the not-for-profit gets the grants and then builds the shows which it leases to the for-profit arm.  It’s legal and everybody does it.  “We’re not everybody because we haven’t figured it out yet.   But that’s what they tell us,”  Lashua says rather ruefully.

In Washington Sq. Park

In City Hall Park

Lashua and the people at 7 Fingers, share a connection to Cirque du Soleil, which has sometimes worked to their advantage. He and many of the people at 7 Fingers began their professional careers in one of the Soleil shows.  “So we are definitely looking into that kind of financial setup, but it’s daunting, because it’s just myself and a small group.  We are at a growth stage and need to find a way to expand what we are doing both in terms of the public shows, and the educational. But I can’t be in three places at one time.”    What he needs to build next is a machine that will enable him to do that as well.