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First Day

By Michael Cassera

I started working for Cirque du Soleil on August 23rd, 1993, almost 24 years ago. The day before, I was working as an on-call followspot at The Mirage, next door, for Siegfried and Roy. I had only been at The Mirage for seven months, and the change was a risk. Siegfried and Roy was the biggest show in town, and I was taking a job with a fairly unknown French Canadian company that was trying something new. Mystere was to be their first permanent-resident show.

I was told to report, ready to work, downstage left. The theatre was in the middle of construction. The basic shape was there; I could see the proscenium arch. The house was raked, but no carpeting or seats had been installed yet, and there was a hole in the stage where the stage lifts would be floated.

It was exciting to walk into a new theatre as it was being born.

The first person I met on the lighting crew, besides Jeanette, the Lighting Director, was Eric. It was awkward in that self-introduction kind of way. I said something along the lines of, “Hi, My name is Michael. I’m in the lighting department.” He responded in a somewhat deadpan way with, “Oh yeah, so am I. I’m Eric.”

The rest of the crew showed up sporadically over the next few minutes. Jeanette took us up to what would eventually become the training room. At the moment, it was a two-story tall, concrete and steel staging area of theatrical equipment waiting for installation. We sat around and on Clay Paky Superscan crates and introduced ourselves. I still remember everybody’s name: Tommy, Kelly, Christian, Kirk, Andre, Sean, and, of course, Jeanette and Eric.

There were nine of us on the lighting crew for Mystere, six followspot operators and three board ops. There was no maintenance crew allocated for lighting. It was up to us to maintain and run the show. Two of us came from Siegfried and Roy, three from The Golden Nugget, two from other hotels in Las Vegas, one from a large outdoor show in California, and another from outside the industry.

We were all young and installing Mystere was like the Wild West compared to how things are done today.

In the lighting department, for example, the only way that you might have a harness was if you purchased your own, and a handrail was a perfectly acceptable clip-in point. Back then, we simply didn’t know any better.

Our control console was a Colortran Gold Medallion. There were very few made, as they never really worked correctly. This lighting desk used IBM OS2 as the operating system and boasted a tracking backup, which was built into the console. We never had any luck getting it to work. The Gold Medallion also did not have fixtures with parameters. Our brand new Wybron Coloram scrollers had to be patched 900 channels above the channel that controlled the fixture’s dimmer. At the time, it was all very hi-tech! But, I digress as I tend to do when I start talking about the technical aspects of my job.

After the work call, we all got together at Mad Dogs and Englishmen, a British pub that is no longer there, for a drink. This turned out to be the first day of my 24-year (and counting) career with Cirque du Soleil. Seven of us went on to be department heads. And, I still work with Eric, who has now been, for decades, one of my closest friends.

Back home, out East, the longest-running show I had ever worked on was a musical that ran for a couple of weeks per venue during the summer season. Like many technicians from the greater New York City area, working on the bounce had been the norm, but on that first day with Cirque du Soleil in Nevada, I think we all felt that we were starting something special. None of us, however, had any idea that this then yet-to-be-known circus production would enjoy this level of longevity. Although I currently work at a different Cirque show, Mystere just celebrated their 11,000th performance. (My current show has celebrated 5,000.) Over the past 24 years, my colleagues’ kids, who were not yet born, have grown up and gone off to college. As a company, we’ve gone through about half a dozen generations of lighting desks. And, I’ve now lived half my life in this neon city of Las Vegas.

 

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