All about Cirque du Soleil

Erica Crist

From props to puppets: The life of a technician

Kent State graduate Michelle Bisbee, who works as a props and puppets technician for the Cirque du Soleil show, works to create elaborate scenes, including forests and battle grounds and detailed costumes.

Credit: Ben Breier

Credit: Ben Breier

When college seems too much to handle, dropping out, running away and joining the circus are no longer options. According to Michelle Bisbee, even the circus now requires a degree.

Bisbee, who graduated from Kent State in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in technical theatre, is now a props and puppets technician working on the Cirque du Soleil “KA_” show in Las Vegas.

Born and raised in Mayfield Heights, Bisbee said she decided to go to college at Kent State because it was close to home, and she heard it had a good art program. Although she was interested in art, Bisbee didn’t always know she wanted to design sets for theatrical productions.

“I entered Kent as a zoology major, and I was going to minor in art,” she said. “But I didn’t even make it one week as a zoology major. I ended up deciding that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I chose fine and professional arts as my major.”

Changing to theater

Bisbee said she ended up going from fine arts to theater because she liked doing everything. She liked painting, building, electrical work and lighting work, and props included all of those things.

“In the art department they were trying to get me to find a focus, and they were looking at things like graphic design,” she said. “But I didn’t want to do that. So a girl who lived on my floor said, ‘You should take some theater classes because we do a lot of painting and sculpting, which you already know how to do.'”

It was then that Bisbee discovered she wanted to be a theater technician. However, making the jump from fine arts to theater isn’t easy. Bisbee said she got the most motivation and support from Raynette Smith, an associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance.

She said the best advice Smith gave her was “stay with it because you love it.” Theater is a rough world, and if you don’t have a passion for it then it won’t work out, she said.

Joining the real world

Bisbee said she missed the friendly people at Kent State the most after graduating. She said she felt like the university was a very social place, and she never experienced any hatred on campus. Although leaving the atmosphere of a university can be scary, it is an eye-opening experience that will make you a better person, she said.

The transition from a student in college to an adult in the real world can be intimidating, but it’s not impossible. You need to take your strengths from college and develop them, she said.

“Go after what you want and never stop learning because that’s the only way you’re going to get to where you want to be,” Bisbee said.

Her desire to continue learning after graduation is what helped Bisbee land her job. She started off by posting her resume online and applying on the Cirque du Soleil Web site. When the skills listed in her Cirque du Soleil profile matched a job opening, the interview process began.

“It’s very beneficial to post a resume online,” Bisbee said. “Even if you don’t get a lot of call-backs or job offers, the thing is that your name is out there and people are seeing it. You want them to remember your name.”

After securing her job with Cirque du Soleil, Bisbee made the move to Las Vegas. Although she grew up and went to college in Ohio, the move wasn’t a big culture shock for her.

“It’s a little overwhelming at first,” she said. “There are a lot of lights, but once you get away from the strip it’s just another city.”

Once she settled down, living alone in a studio apartment, Bisbee began her work with the “KA_” show. The show is revolutionary and the first of its kind, she said.

Behind the scenes

“We have a lot of technology in this show,” she said. “It has traditional theater elements as well as modern advancements. We incorporate several different styles and talents into it.”

Although there aren’t a lot of women who are technicians, Bisbee has never been intimidated in her field.

“It pushes me farther and harder,” she said. “It makes me want to try harder and push myself because there is a stigma. There is not a stigma where I work, but it exists.”

The “KA_” show is an epic tale told through four scenes that incorporate the elements of water, air, earth and fire. It follows the lives of a set of twins who are trying to find each other after being separated by war. The show’s underlying theme of duality is represented by the power of fire to both create and destroy.

The Props and Puppet Department is responsible for more than 500 individual props, 10 larger-than-life puppets, 21 mini puppets and six butterflies in the “KA_” show. The workers put in long hours perfecting these props.

“There is a lot of intricacy and detail involved in theater,” Bisbee said. “There is a sight distance, as far as detail goes, that you have to play give-and-take with. All the departments take special care in details so that when it is photographed from a distance, or when an artist runs past an audience member close-up, it still looks good.”

The show must go on

The show runs five nights a week, twice each night, at the MGM Grand. A normal day at work differs for Bisbee, depending on if she is assigned to work the day crew, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or the show crew, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., that week.

The day crew’s job involves maintaining and prototyping different props, she said. There is also research and development of prop-function issues that weren’t discovered during the creation process.

“We do experiments to look for better materials or more durable materials, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the show,” Bisbee said.

Experiments can include things like heat treatments and testing the weights of possible alternative materials, she said. Between maintaining the props and documenting everything they do, an entire shift goes by quickly. It’s important to keep a detailed document so that the company knows what has been tried, what is being tried right now and why something did or didn’t work, she said.

At 5 p.m. there is a meeting for the day crew and the show crew to discuss what props have been worked on and what has been done to them, she said.

Then the show crew begins to preset, which means setting up everything to start the show, she said. The crew takes a break for dinner, and then at 7:30 p.m. the show begins.

“You run the first show, doing whatever track you’re assigned to, or whatever your duty is that night,” Bisbee said. “Then we get a short break after we do the presetting for the next show, because there are two shows a night. Then it all happens again.”

The prop technicians never stop moving during the one-and-a-half-hour show that uses a seven-level theater.

“The whole show is beautifully choreographed in and of itself,” Bisbee said. “There are so many technicians that it takes to pull off a show … In one given area at any point in time you can have up to 30 technicians.”

Bisbee said she doesn’t prefer being on the day crew or the show crew more than the other.

“I like both of them for what they are,” she said. “I personally really like the creation process.”

Of course, it’s not only the props that make the “KA_” show a success. There are so many other aspects, like lights, scenery and sounds that evoke emotions from the audience, Bisbee said.

Bisbee said she can’t see herself ever leaving theater. She said the size of the company or the type of the show means nothing to her. As long as she’s in theater, then she will be happy because she is doing what she loves.

“When I have actually sat in the audience and watched, I can say about 50 percent of the time I’m not watching the show, I’m watching the audience,” Bisbee said. “I’m watching their reactions and looking at the awe in their faces. It’s that moment seeing them enjoy it as much as you enjoyed creating it. That’s the most rewarding part – knowing that you have done a good job.”

Contact ALL correspondent Erica Crist at [email protected].