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Julie McInnes – Musician: Being Bold Matters

By Anna Robb

The extremely talented Julie McInnes has spent her life immersed in performance. An accomplished musician, actress, and singer, she has had a long career from expressing herself creatively for Circus Oz to playing a lead character on tour to delivering the daily grind of resident shows in Las Vegas. Julies shares with TheatreArtLife insight into her life, career, and thoughts on the theatre industry and her path within it.

Julie, How did you begin your career? What were the steps that led you to leave Australia?

Julie McInnes: I started young and the learning kept building. I was singing at 7 and making up plays and asking my friends to play in them. I started on guitar at 9, cello at 11, saxophone at 22, bass guitar at 28; I took a lot of classes and workshops; played in all sorts of bands; made music for theatre, film, and TV.

I made huge sculptures; worked in front and behind the camera in film; a lot of different jobs. The work in music started to funnel to the fore and grew around me because people asked me to be in their “thing” and I said “yes”. I joined Circus Oz at age 28 and sometime around 1996 the sound designer for Cirque du Soleil, Jonathon Deans, saw me performing with Circus Oz. He made the first contact, which led to Benoit Jutras’ (composer) and Cirque’s invitation, and eventually to my acceptance (at age 38). They put out a strong welcoming arm and I guess I felt it was time to let other people have a go in my shoes at Circus Oz and, for me, to go and see what Julie McInnes could invent somewhere else.

“O” was an extraordinary and fabulous introduction to Cirque du Soleil.

You left Australia many years ago. Is there any part of Australia that you miss or is it no longer home for you? Where does feel home for you? If this is not a place, what feels like home for you?

Julie McInnes: I miss Australia a lot, although I moved from there a third of my life ago. The beauty of Australia is so vast and varied – physically, culturally, artistically and more…. I have a wish to spend some more of my life there.  Melbourne was my base from age 19, and it’s a city that “has it all”.

Currently, my heart is in my home with my partner in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Montréal is also a culturally diverse and artistic city and I have made wonderful friends here.  It’s also the home of Cirque du Soleil (CDS), the company that supported me and gave me amazing roles and work for over 15 years. I have taken part in 5 big productions created here and, as a result, it’s become my North American home, with the added spice of feeling very European. Something in my nature has often sought to leave my home country and take a look elsewhere and as a resident of my third country, I know that big moves across continents can take a toll.

I think I can say my once idealised notion of being a “gypsy” and the wanderlust has now been grounded. I still love to travel but I always love to come home.

It is a common belief that working in the arts is a lifestyle and not a job. Would you agree and if so, how has working in the arts defined other aspects of your life?

Julie McInnes: It’s a job. Being a musician is implicitly poetic but step inside a job as one and there are real stresses – physical and mental. We have to put ourselves “on the line”, we are exposed and the measures of “success” are often intangible.

It’s true that artists will often make art, whether they’re paid for it or not, and it is a lifestyle as well. I feel very fortunate that I have had great stimulating and fun work, doing what I love: to create music for theatre, to sing and play music, lots of instruments and lots of different styles…

I know people envy paid artists because it looks like fun and not like a job at all. It is. I have no clue what else I might have been good at. At times, I berated myself for not doing something that actually saved anyone or really altered their life for the better but I was forgetting that good art does that all the time!

Working in the arts has meant that I have a global community and many great friends who give generously of their bodies, their hands, and their minds. We do well with a sense of humour, as in any place. How dry and dull it all gets without a bit of bold foolery. “Let’s just DO IT – for shits and giggles”.

Most artists are refined observers of people and the world around them. They’re mirroring it back. They expand our view on life and awaken a connection to each other.

Look at any place where there is an absence of art and notice how sad and violent it is. Small-mindedness doesn’t survive in the arts.

You have worked on the Cirque du Soleil productions of O and Ka in Las Vegas for a number of years. What are the challenges working on a resident show week after week, year after year?

Julie McInnes: Working for four years on O and over seven years on KA, 10 shows a week, was financially and artistically rewarding but very tough on the spirit and tough physically. My cello thumb conked out about 10 years ago. I’m trying to repair it now. The repetition is super demanding.  The security can also be very attractive and many people from all over the world have made Vegas their home, working in either of these shows or in the other 5 that now exist there. I started with the creation of O in 1998, and I know many people who are still on the show 18 years later. They have made families there.

It is possible to have a life outside of the resident shows; we musicians usually go to work at 5 pm and are off at 11:15 pm.

When I joined the Cirque du Soleil’s 2012 touring show Amaluna, I discovered how much less personal and home time I suddenly had. The touring shows require a lot more hours, we no longer had the luxury of what is fixed and organised in our homes, because obviously, we had given them up.

Instead, we were in hotels and moving all the time. I loved touring but I eventually missed having my own home. Any of these CDS shows are built to be repeated many times. Luckily, the shows have been fabulous and my musical and performing roles pretty varied: using voice, cello, some saxophone, guitar and tiplé.  Once the curtain opens, I become completely involved. Some people can play and read a magazine at the same time.

When I am performing, something essential to me is let loose. It’s a place I feel safe in.

Without performing, I can get a bit strange, … actually, I start to feel out of place.

Did you like living in Las Vegas? What did you like and dislike about the city?

Julie McInnes: I struggled a lot with living in Las Vegas, although it is in many ways an easy city to live in. Sometimes I couldn’t find the beauty outside of our show and that made me feel unwell. After 4 years of O,  I moved back to Australia and then turned around within a year as I was invited to be in Celine Dion’s Vegas production A New Day. This was too many big moves and changes in 1 year: to leave the security of job, country and relationship, in my early 40’s! Don’t try this at home, in your backyard … or anywhere.

It’s not Vegas’ fault, but I put my blinkers on when inside a casino, and just head for the theatre or home. However, to go driving in any direction out of Vegas brings you to astounding country:  Red Rock State Park, Mt. Charleston, Valley of Fire, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree … that’s what I did, and it saved me. I still own a beautiful home there, visit often, and the city has become a lot more cosmopolitan.

You have had a long successful performance/musical career. What has been your most favourite role/job? Why?

Julie McInnes: My favourite roles? Firstly, my time in Australia’s Circus Oz (from 1987-1998) because it used all of me creatively. As the musical director, I was writing so much music for things that move, directing other members of the troupe whose musicianship was secondary to their being acrobats or performers and I was playing on many instruments.

This company maintains strong values, including a policy of 50% men and 50% women. I was also performing in physical and theatrical acts. Everybody did a lot of everything and I was lucky they found me. It was all about collaborating within an innovative contemporary theatrical circus company. We had to devise our own material, create and build every part of the show, and then we got to travel the wide world, from big tops to quaint old theatres.

One month we were flying in an old DC-3 war plane and performing in the outback to aboriginal communities and the next we were in Edinburgh, Dublin, Jerusalem, Munich, Sao Paolo, New York, New Delhi, Osaka. You name it. I was surrounded by all kinds of intelligent fools and we had to trust and depend on each other or the centre would not hold.  Most of my really cool stuff came from there: the cello-on-the-wheel, the 4-armed duet on 1 cello, playing in the up-side down band on the roof, the inventing of strange and intriguing sounds, a lot of good music tied to the rhythm of the actions and the nature of the characters. I was inside the action and I blossomed as an artist in Circus Oz.

In 2011, along came another favourite role which was “Prospera” in Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna. Inspired in part by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set on an island of women, with a central wish to highlight our many strengths.

This role was a gift because it not only used my strengths as a singer and cellist, it also put me under the spotlight as a lead character.

This was an artistic muscle that I had missed. After 2 great roles in O and KA, just when I thought I should be finding a new profession or find a way to step off the treadmill and out of the pit, I received this wonderful gift of a role.  It literally lifted me up. I got to rock out on cello while flying high in the big top inside a moon shaped disc. Thrilling.

I am not saying I am a highly-trained actress but I do know how to get inside a role and enjoy interpreting and playing with it.  A “Prospera” in the theatre would use text, whereas my text was more in my singing and cello playing. She was on stage almost all the time, so something had to be “going on” inside.  I was trusted and respected by the director, Diane Paulus, and the creators, and I cannot overstate what a difference that makes. Musically, I was given room to bring my own style, including some vocal percussive things I like to do, and even playing tenor sax again. This role had “gravitas”, the ferocity, wisdom and love of a sorceress, queen, and mother. I had hit my 50’s and decided to enjoy the fun, unapologetic bold version. “Prospera” offered some gutsy terrain.

Having been in the circus arena for a long time, do you think there has been an evolution in circus arts? Do you think that circus performances are getting better, more innovative and more creative?  Yes or No. Please explain.

Julie McInnes: The arts and entertainment world has increasingly focused on circus arts, and there are so many versions of this growth. Humans love to explore their limits, take risks, fly and flip like their superior friends, the birds and monkeys, and we invent endless ways to explore beyond our limits. The range is wide, from traditional to the hundreds of contemporary: big productions like Cirque du Soleil and small groups that roll into your town in one bus, to make you gasp and laugh. There are circuses that have societal and survival focus as their primary agenda: street kids, women from violent homes, people in poverty …a Circus Oz troupe member returned to her home in Ethiopia and started her own fabulous ever-growing circus.

They are many and varied all over the world.  I don’t think there is a better art form for quickly building confidence and always with something you can take home, or do on your own. Where there is no acro-mat, there might be an old mattress. Circus arts rely on trust – of yourself, with your fellow cast members, with your rigger and it’s made up of a lot of slow but accessible steps under the guidance of good teachers.

It is no wonder that circus attracts unique and imaginative people interested in all things peculiar and uplifting.

You transitioned from resident shows to touring with Cirque du Soleil. What was that transition like, to go back on the move after staying in one place for so long?

Julie McInnes: I had missed traveling, so I loved getting to move around and see places I hadn’t seen before. A touring show has a premiere in each new city and is less repetitive in nature simply because it’s broken by set ups and tear downs, and can rarely afford to blow its performers out with 10 shows a week (like a resident show).

However, I did miss my home in Vegas and just going to my home with familiar surroundings and the time to be in my own personal life.

I understand you have left Cirque du Soleil. Where are you located now? What are your plans for 2017?

Julie McInnes: I am living in Montréal, learning French, upgrading some artistic pleasures I left neglected in all that roller-coaster ride. That includes trying to learn the 21st century way of composing, with computer programming.

I have been exercising my musical performing self in new ways. Nathalie Claude and I made a physical and musical duo called Reditum Lux. We are currently working on staging it again, here and abroad. I have had a very good time with Momentum, a fabulous Montreal theater company made up of extremely talented, versatile and passionate performers. A show we created was a Dada event for the opening of the Phénomena Festival. Apart from making some pretty unique music in a 2-piece band with artistic director Jean-Frederic Messier, I created a solo performance piece. I played with my journey from Australia to Montreal, from bizarre birds and childhood songs to “I was there, now I’m here” … arrived to the testing loopiness of the French language and much more. My lunatic side needed to be let out. I found creating the solo came easily, it got a great response and I want to do more in this vein.

Do you have a favourite song to sing/play? What makes that song significant?

Julie McInnes: I love Nature Boy by Eden Ahbez. It’s a poetic portrait, very beautiful and very simple in its theme:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved, in return.”

Where is your favourite place to be? Tell us why?

Julie McInnes: I love to be in a place that has space and light, preferably by or in the water.

I adore the Pacific Ocean: Big Sur and Sea Ranch (California) and the whole east coast of Australia. I grew up on the River Murray, SA, and I can conjure up the smell of eucalyptus and dried mud with great pleasure. I am enjoying exploring the bountiful lakes in Quebec. I am attracted to beauty and colour and a good view. I don’t like noisy or crowded places.  I like cultures that are open, generous and gestural. I love Italy, Melbourne and my friend’s places.

What does Julie do when she is not performing/playing an instrument/singing?

Julie McInnes: She paints and wants to do it more often. She loves to make and share a good meal, read a book she can’t put down.

Julie loves a good project, collaborating with passionate and able others. She loves galleries, museums and seeing many different shows: theatre, dance, music, cabaret, circus.

Who are the most inspiring people you have met in your life and why? 

Julie McInnes: I have been inspired by many great generous teachers. I believe I have always had great people around me and they are the inspiration and reason for anything that’s good about me. Often a kind intelligent friend has told me a truth, or given me their window to look through, and it has stopped me in my tracks and caused me to start over with more clarity.

I am inspired by their independent minds, their courage and will to stand up for themselves and others with whatever language they’ve crafted as their own. I admire my witches and magicians who keep carving out a changing life with great imagination.

I had a nice talk with Yoyo Ma once, met lots of famous people, but they were passing figures. To name a few names in my closer sphere: Victoria Marles, Liz Sadler, Tim Coldwell, Georgine Clarsen, Nicci Wilks, Teresa Blake, Anni Davey, Deb Batton, Kathryn Bird, Gail Gilbert, all members of BETTY, Gloria Steinem, Carole Pope, Meredith Caron, Diane Paulus, Gabriel Pinkstone, Krista Monson, Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, Rachael Wood, Céline Bonnier, Jean-Fred Messier and my love and partner Nathalie Claude.

What was the last show/event/concert that you saw that was not associated with your own work? How was it?

Julie McInnes: I recently saw Christine and the Queens. It was a show that was great in every aspect – the dance, the music, the lights…it was sexy and she is a mighty force.

If you would give advice to aspiring singers/musicians trying to break into the industry, what would it be?

Julie McInnes: Find what attracts you, give it a go, keep looking and learning…and know when to move on. Good taste matters, being bold matters, and listening is essential.

Other Interviews on TheatreArtLife:

Tara Young: From Broadway To Dubai

Theatrical Automation With Robert Pooley

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