Operations Director In Paradise: Jamie Sullivan’s Journey to JOYÀ
In one of the most exotic of places on Earth, the Riviera Maya on the outskirts of Cancun, Mexico, Jamie Sullivan works as the Operations Director for JOYÀ. A joint venture between Cirque du Soleil’s 45 DEGREES and luxury resort Vidanta, JOYÀ is Mexico’s must-see-spectacular. Jamie began her journey with JOYÀ as the General Stage Manager in 2015 and in a short period of time was promoted to run the entire operation. Jamie joined me on a casual day off Sunday under a luxury cabana to share her journey from growing up in Las Vegas, moving to Mexico to join JOYÀ, and her personal and professional growth along the way.
“I was actually on my way to start school as a musical theatre actress after I finished high school,” Jamie began. “I was putting myself through college, so I wanted to live at home during my first two years at school to get all of the core classes done. During this time, I was working two jobs and taking 21 credits. When the first play auditions were posted at my community college, I auditioned but unfortunately, was too young compared to the rest of the cast. The director, one of my professors, said that he still wanted me to be involved in the play even though I couldn’t be cast. He asked, “Why don’t you be an assistant stage manager for the production?” I said,”ok!”
“We did the play and then when the next show came along six months later, I asked if I could be the assistant stage manager again. This time, my director told me that I must audition for an acting role. So, I auditioned and he handed me a part, but I didn’t want it. I told him that I wanted to participate as a stage manager again.
After that, seeing that my interest had changed, my director, who had a link to a Southern Utah University in Cedar City, helped me get a scholarship. I was able to get a degree in Stage Management in 2003 and began to work for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which is in the top ten for regional theatre in the United States.”
Jamie worked with the Utah Shakespeare Festival on and off for seven years and upon her return to Las Vegas, she landed a job as an on-call stage manager for Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in 2007. Shortly after, Jamie was hired as a full-time assistant stage manager (ASM) at Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère.
“I was an ASM at Mystère for seven years and then promoted from ASM to stage manager. At times, I acted as the interim general stage manager (GSM). From there, I took a leap of faith and applied for the GSM role at JOYÀ. In March 2015, I got the job. In January of 2017, we were doing a restructure at the show and my boss, our show director, recommended that I apply for the role of Operations Director. They decided to take a chance on me and here I am!”
From Left to Right: Jamie Sullivan and Israel Gutierrez at Mystère Cirque du Soleil
JOYÀ, the first Cirque du Soleil resident show in Mexico, combines culinary and performing arts in an intimate theater setting to engage the audience’s five senses. Drawing on Mexico’s history and heritage, JOYÀ tells the story of an alchemist and his granddaughter embarking on a quest to uncover the secrets of life. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste extraordinary dishes and live an unforgettable night exclusively at the Cirque du Soleil Theater at Vidanta Riviera Maya. JOYÀ is a thrilling and whimsical show in which joy, courage and friendship conquer all!
Jamie’s normal day can vary greatly when she enters the JOYÀ theater between 1:30-2:00 pm each day. However, her stage management training allows her to keep a calm head and roll with changes as they occur.
“I’m always available and check my phone just to see if any messages are coming through, but in general the rule is that I give myself at least one hour in the morning to myself. I quickly check my phone where I can see the previews of emails and messages. If nothing seems urgent, I take a cup of coffee and read a book or do whatever personal errands I need to do,” she explains.
“Then I’ll take about one hour in the morning and start returning emails. Sometimes I find it to be more efficient to take time in the quiet and serenity of my own room in my own space without being interrupted. I mostly do that so that once I arrive at the theater, I’m available all the time to take conversations, to take meetings and just be available to hear and listen to everybody and get the vibe of how the day is happening. In general, I will work until 10:30 pm to midnight depending on if it’s a one or two show day. Our partners work Monday through Friday so I must navigate that schedule sometimes. I have learned the importance of keeping a work/life balance and taking time away from work,” she concludes.
As a busy Operations Director on such a large production, Jamie must constantly change direction, pivoting to solve problems and troubleshoot issues with her team.
“My best skill is adapting. It’s so important as a manager because things change so quickly and you have to adapt and trust everybody to help you make decisions to keep the show going forward. Also, with new team members joining the show, you always have to adapt to different personalities and new situations. If a purchase comes in wrong or if an act has to go into a show that you weren’t expecting, you are constantly adapting to new situations,” Jamie shares.
Managing a staff of over 100 people is a grand task, but Jamie makes time to understand what her staff is navigating on a daily basis.
“Connection is important to me. Most people feel comfortable when they come to speak with me and at least know that they are being heard. I will take the time out and even if I am not available, they know that eventually, when I do have the time, that they will have the opportunity to speak with me. I will always follow up as well to make sure that they are doing ok if there was a problem.”
Cirque du Soleil as a production company is very unique and roles vary greatly from typical Broadway or West End theater. Jamie enlightened us on the differences in roles for stage managers at Cirque du Soleil.
“There is only one difference between an ASM and SM at Cirque du Soleil and it involves calling the show. Other than that, on all shows, the stage management department acts as a team. They rely on each other and everyone does all of the work with the tiny difference of calling the show.”
After a successful tenure working with Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, Jamie was in line for a GSM position in the Residential Shows Division of the company, but instead Jamie took a leap of faith and decided to move to Mexico.
“I was filling into the role of Interim GSM when my GSM was on sabbatical or during unfortunate times of illness. At Cirque du Soleil resident shows, based in Las Vegas, when all of the dominos will fall into place staff wise at shows, it makes things very stable for two, three, or even four years at a time. While this is good for the shows, it makes advancement within the company a challenge when you want to grow. Sometimes, there are just not any openings. Each production has generally identified “General Stage Manager in Waiting” so even when a GSM job posting is listed, there is a good chance that there is already someone who is already prepped and primed to take the role. Like me, at Mystère. So, you hit a point professionally where you are ready to take a chance and it’s time to try something new. Plus, I had always wanted to live outside of the United States and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to have the familiarity of a company that I knew and trusted to bridge into and it was also a great opportunity to be recognized outside of Cirque du Soleil Resident Shows Division and have International Headquarters know who I am. Surprisingly, it took leaving the company and working for one of their independent partnerships that helped everyone get to know me and watch me grow.”
Originally, Jamie’s leap of faith to move to Mexico was to take over the role of General Stage Manager but just two years later, she was overseeing the entire production.
“When I came to the show three years ago, our previous GSM and I had a two week overlap to train and at the time the project was still quite new. It was a very young show with only one backstage manager and GSM. I learned to call the show in just three days and this included operating a visual art act with a remote control. Then the previous GSM left after training me for nine days. That’s how I took over. Our previous GSM had been with the show since the beginning of creation and now, the world was open for me to fix and develop. I now had the opportunity to create the stage management team I wanted to run post creation in operational shows.”
JOYÀ is unique in the world of Cirque du Soleil affiliated productions since it is a partnership with Vidanta, the luxury resort and 45 DEGREES.
“When I started at JOYÀ, the management team had one person at the top, Joël Bergeron who was our show director, technical director and the GSM. We created a pyramid. After running this way for a while, creating many changes and developing our system here, Joël decided to resign from the company to move forward with other projects. He gave a very lengthy resignation of nine months and during this time, our two partners decided that Joël’s position would need to be expanded into two positions being Artistic Director and Operations Director. Around this time, I decided to apply for the Operations Director position but I didn’t tell anyone and just continued on my merry way,” Jamie shares. “The reason I felt qualified for this position was unique to my situation of working here, under the direction of Joël.”
“He knew that I was capable of taking charge and would continue forward. He would also give me PR events to allow me to take performances to gala on behalf of him and take interviews alone. He was really prepping me and giving me as much knowledge as he could. And like I said, I’m not sure if he knew he was doing it or not, but he definitely was preparing me to take over into this position,” she says.
In Spring of 2017, Jamie was promoted from the role of GSM at JOYÀ to Operations Director.
“It’s funny, when I first took the position, I started doing one-on-one meetings with everyone at the show. I asked them what they expect from the Operations Director since it was a brand-new position in the restructure of management. What I gathered from everybody’s feedback was that, I get the information and I give the information. I get the information from the partnership and I give the information to everyone working at JOYÀ, in the same respect, I get the information from JOYÀ and give the information to the partner. I bridge the gap. I make sure communication is open and make sure everything is being handled, I serve to monitor that the artistic quality and integrity of what Cirque du Soleil and 45 DEGREES are looking for in the project is happening, that the business side of the partner is being achieved – we are continuing to be profitable, and that we continue to instill Cirque values.”
Managing operations requires analyzing risk and preparing for emergencies.
Cirque du Soleil spends a lot of time preparing its teams for potential emergencies and accidents that can occur during rehearsals and performances including staff becoming certified in CPR, AED use, and emergency preparedness. Levels of emergency preparedness can vary depending on the scale of productions.
“I think a show’s level of preparedness depends on the length of time that you have to work together. If you have a show that’s running permanently and has no chance of closing, then once you’re up and running it’s the time to prepare for the worst and then rehearse your conditions. You think of the crazy things that could possibly go wrong and create a basic language with your crew. You create contingencies and rehearse because with emergency procedures, no matter how prepared you are, you still must react in the moment.”
“The more you have a language and a script that you repeat over and over again, the more comfortable you will feel during a real-life scenario. In the case that you can’t open a file or in case you can’t find the script or in case it’s not something you’ve ever done before, you’ve had enough practice with each other and comfort with your team. When you rehearse emergency scenarios, you’ve created an atmosphere that allows you to thrive and to do the proper things. It’s really important to do this because in an actual emergency, adrenaline will kick in and put you on edge so preparation takes a little bit of stress away,” she continues.
Running a long-term production can be an all-encompassing project over the years even on the Mayan Riviera surrounded by great beauty. Jamie seems to be taking the responsibility and growth in stride.
“I find inspiration here in Cancun and listening, listening to the staff, and hearing from them personally as to what they’re looking for out of this experience. I also seek new podcasts and books about leadership and how to be a better leader, how to be adaptable- not so much self-help, but about looking forward and how to create better organizations. I’m always trying to find the best ways to keep people motivated and realizing that it’s not always about the money or about the work, but that sometimes people just need small motivations. For example, during periods where there are a lot of shows, I start a Bingo game. Every night the stage manager will call out a word and that creates the Bingo game. I try to come up with fun ideas that help us to get to know each other,” Jamie shares.
“I also try to get off of the resort on my weekends as much as possible, to create a healthy work/life balance. I must find time for myself in the mornings. I try taking a couple hours of time out for me, time where I turn my phone off, read a book or connect with my family. You can begin to feel secluded after living on a resort for a long period of time, so you have to search out activities and slowly make friends with people here and there. You make friends through their friends and I’m growing my network that way,” she continues.
JOYÀ is a long-term production that may continue for many years. Now, as Jamie reaches her eleventh year with Cirque du Soleil, what does 10 or 20 years in the future look like in life and career?
“I hope I’m still happy. Whatever I’m doing, as long as I’m happy, that’s the most important thing to me. In career, I would like to keep growing in this area. Perhaps I might be a general manager for a sports team or music venue or with a company, arena, or theater. There are many possibilities, especially with the way the entertainment industry is changing with the shows getting bigger and companies getting larger and with more recognition,” Jamie says.
Self-reflection is very important to Jamie. She has come so far in her career but also continues to grow. If she could share her wisdom with her 18-year-old self, what would she say?
“I would encourage my younger self to keep your eyes open and take chances. Soak in as much as you can and educate yourself on everything because you have no idea where your life is going to take you and what it’s going to bring you. So just have a goal, but also be open to goals changing.”