Cirque du Soleil and Childlike Disbelief

by Ross Jackson
Dean Curosmith is a Stage Manager on Cirque du Soleil's Kooza.
Dean Curosmith is a Stage Manager on Cirque du Soleil's Kooza.

An Interview with Dean Curosmith, Cirque Stage Manager

Dean Curosmith is a Stage Manager with Cirque du Soleil.  He was born and raised in Las Vegas, NV and is currently traveling Australia with the Cirque production of Kooza.  Dean has been with Cirque du Soleil since January of 2013; has worked on four different productions; and with them he has traveled and worked in Japan, Chile, and now Australia.  Before his time with Cirque, he earned his Bachelor of Theatre Arts from Pepperdine University in 2007, and his Master of Fine Arts from University of California, Irvine in 2013.  Dean is of mixed heritage, but the largest contribution to his ethnic background is Japanese on his mother’s side.

Stage-Directions: How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?

Dean Curosmith: Honestly, I am not sure it has had much bearing on my career.  The thing about my racial identity is that I am pretty nondescript.  I know the single largest contributing factor to my biological makeup is Japanese ancestry (25% to be exact), but I don’t believe I look like what many people would consider “Japanese.”  But I also don’t look white.  So while I was growing up, I never really felt like I looked like any particular group of people.  And I found that [to be], in a way, beautiful. 

Because race and ethnicity wasn’t a distinguishing factor in my life during my formative years, I never put much stock into labeling myself or others.  I didn’t worry about stereotypes or pre-conceived notions of what Japanese people “do” or what Asian-Americans are “supposed to be like.”  I wasn’t bound or restricted to the whims of others.  And because of this, I gave the same courtesy to everyone else.  In my mind, no one should be prejudged or limited to what society says they are.  More than anything else, I feel like my childhood lack of racial identity has helped me be able to work with different kinds of people in the performing arts. 

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?

Because I saw myself as an island unto myself with no genuine ethnic identity, I always wanted to connect to individuals.  It began as a desire to act and perform onstage – to exist in a way that people would see my tangible worth.  But as I grew and realized I didn’t like scrutinizing my own capabilities (spoiler alert: I wasn’t a very good actor), I fell in love with the technical side of live theatre. 

In growing up being blissfully ignorant of the notion of “racial identity,” all I knew was that I wanted to help people and provide support.  I saw so much life and value in so many different people, and I wanted to help draw that out of them.  Acting wasn’t for me, but helping the scenic designer communicate with the director was something I was good at.  Getting a lighting designer’s vision fully realized on stage gave me satisfaction.  And solving an artist’s dilemma backstage so that they could be present onstage came naturally.  I enjoyed, and still enjoy to this day, aiding others so that their lives in the theatre are easier and more fulfilling.

What would you like people of color considering - or in the early stages of - a theatre career to know?  

I would like them to know that there is a beauty in not defining themselves.  Seeing the media and the current events in the world take place, it is easy to get distracted by separating you and yours from others.  It feels like there are more divisions than ever before – ideological divisions, racial divisions, political divisions, socio-economic divisions, sexual identity and sexual preference divisions.  I recognize that it is unimaginably important for a person to know that they belong somewhere and that there is a group of people that can empathize with one’s struggles, but it isn’t the most important thing in life.  At least to me it isn’t.  The more I limit myself and confine myself to a box, the less I get to see of life and the less I interact with the world. 

This is not to say people shouldn’t identify themselves as belonging to a particular group, only that they shouldn’t define themselves as that singular trait.  In the same way I find it important to call myself a Stage Manager, I find it more important to let it be known that I am an artist and only one component of a full show. Simply put, my advice would be: don’t let yourself or others define you as only one thing.  Keep reaching past that and find what unifies us all rather than what separates us.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?

My former boss Chris Digsby at Zumanity (a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas) is who I continually strive to be like.  He had the perfect blend of being professional, personable, meticulous, and free-flowing.  He had all the answers but still acknowledged he didn’t know everything.  He knew when an answer was needed, and he knew when to let things play our organically.  He was very upfront and genuine, so if you asked for his opinion on anything, you could trust his honest thoughts were honest. He pushed me to be the Stage Manager I am today, and I know without his guidance I wouldn’t have the career I have now.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?

Well, because I never identified as an Asian-American or as Japanese growing up (like I probably “should” have), I guess my biggest support for pursuing the arts was my mom.  She didn’t necessarily say, “Go out in the world and be a beacon to all people who identify as 25% Japanese, 75% who knows,” but she did support my desire to take acting classes, to go to college for theatre, and to travel for my craft.  She never placed doubt in my mind and she would always look out for opportunities for me.  My choice never felt like a burden to her, and her acceptance of my line of work allowed me to continue on without fear of failure.

Dean with colleague Carolanne Morgan at Cirque
Dean with colleague Carolanne Morgan at Cirque's OVO.

Keeping with the list trend. Can you give me three reasons you love working in the theater?

  1. I love working in a place that accepts everyone.  That hears all voices.  That has all types of people enter on equal footing.  It is a place that brings societal issues to the forefront and expects thought and engagement.  Not all theatre has to be Chekov, August Wilson, or Arthur Miller, but all theatre is inviting and requires you to engage with what is happening onstage.  My current production may not be Shakespeare, but it still draws the audience in to wonder and delight at what the human body and mind are capable of.
  2. I love that the theatre invites critique, challenge, and skepticism.  Not every job exists with the desire to incite thought and discussion, but theatre does.  Theatre actively encourages a participant to ask questions and think about the issues that are being presented.
  3. Lastly, I love collaborating with a group of artists that all have uniquely different strengths and skillsets.  This is true in any job, each person has a different function, but perhaps it is because the theatre is so raw and deals with human emotion that it feels more heightened.  Most companies are organized with leaders and bosses overseeing many, many others.  In a theatrical production a director will lead others, but my ideal production is the one where all input is valid and collaboration can take place naturally.

What would you say is one of the most important qualities a Stage Manager can exhibit?

For me, the most important quality a Stage Manager can have is a lack of ego.  I have found people that have too much ego are less likely to admit their faults, take responsibility, and take constructive criticism.  They are also more likely to escalate problems, blame others, and create non-collaborative environments.  Those who can let go of ego easily are more receptive to change, they are more willing to work with others to find solutions to problems, and they discover more because their worldview isn’t set in stone.  No one wants to get into a pissing contest on a constant basis at work.  The need to be right all the time slows the process down and makes that person’s judgement suspect.  Knowing when to take a step back is such a crucial skill to learn, and the best Stage Managers I have worked with have all had this quality.

Dean preps to call a show at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival in Irvine, CA.
Dean preps to call a show at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival in Irvine, CA.

How is being a Stage Manager for Cirque specific from the more traditional form we see in the regional theater?

My role is different in that, usually, there is no end date.  In traditional theatre, there is pre-production, taping out a rehearsal space, rehearsals, design meetings, production meetings, tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals, performances, a closing weekend, and then strike.  Here, except for when a show is initially being created, we have trainings and shows.  There are no design meetings because there is nothing left to design.  No dress rehearsals because the costumes have been around for years.  For Kooza, we play one city for 7 – 12 weeks and then move to the next.  I guess somewhat similar to traditional theatre, we have a week of setup (aka “tech”) at each new location and a weekend of teardown (aka “strike”) at the end of each city, but those are more about getting our show out of containers and into a tent.

Also different from traditional theatre is how the show operates.  In a normal theatrical production, each character is performed by a specific actor/actress.  And Act I always precedes Act II which, likewise, always precedes Act III. In a Cirque performance, because a show is made up of individual acrobatic acts with a thematic through-line, the show order can be (and has been) changed in emergency situations. And because most acrobatic acts are made up of many different artists, if we are missing one or two or three people in a particular act, images are altered, tricks are changed, and other people fill in where needed to make the act happen.  My job as the Stage Manager is to know who has trained in which positions and how moving them around in the show affects other acrobatic acts.  That type of mental gymnastics while a show is going on doesn’t happen often in a proscenium play.

Lastly, most Stage Managers would say safety is their primary concern.  This holds doubly true at Cirque du Soleil.  Because there is a greater chance of injury with a Cirque performance (based solely on the nature of our acts), we have regular safety trainings every few weeks and there are rigorous daily inspections to make sure equipment is functional. 

So far, where have you traveled with work? Of the places you’ve gone, where would you go back to on your time and why?

  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Osaka, Japan
  • Nagoya, Japan
  • Fukuoka, Japan
  • Sendai, Japan
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Sydney, Australia
  • Brisbane, Australia
  • Montreal, Canada

Of the places I would like to return to on my own time, Nagoya and Fukuoka in Japan top the list.  There was something very peaceful about where we stayed in those two cities.  In Fukuoka we were surrounded by water, and in Nagoya we were in the middle of the city, but it wasn’t noisy or busy like Los Angeles.  Apart from the beauty of the locales, I personally felt like I was tapping into my roots more.  Also, everything was so clean and the locals were extremely friendly and courteous even though I didn’t speak the language.

We always talk about how the theater can both reflect life and change lives. How do the exhilarating performances by Cirque to the same for the average audience?

I have seen children leave our shows with wide eyes and wonder in their hearts.  Even at my age there are some feats of athleticism that leave me with childlike disbelief.  For just under two hours, audience members get to be immersed in magical worlds with gorgeous lighting, stunning acts, live music, family-friendly comedy, and just the right amount of heart.  Like I said before, it isn’t Shakespeare, but not everything has to be Shakespeare.  Sometimes it is nice to go to a show and get enveloped with beauty, where you don’t have to sit there analyzing the villain’s motivations or deconstruct the ending’s meaning. Cirque du Soleil just has so much charm and heart. 

I will never forget walking to the subway at the end of a matinee performance in Nagoya, Japan and seeing a small girl pretend to walk on a tightrope on the sidewalk.  Obviously she wasn’t on a tightrope, but she had her hands out wide and maintained an upright stiff posture as she walked along the sidewalk’s crack.  As I walked by, the artist who performed the act earlier walked next to me and said something along the lines of, “That’s how it was for me.  That’s how I got started.  Seeing something like this and wanting to do it too.”  In that moment, I knew that that little girl would probably cherish this memory for years to come.  And I am willing to bet, there are hundreds of stories like that every day for patrons seeing one of our shows.