I’M WORKING ON A BIG ERECTION 2007
The circus has come to Perth – Cirque Du Soleil.
I have a job working on the erection of the circus tents. The analogy of working on an old sailing ship comes to mind: a crew of thirty or so men (with a sprinkling of women) all working together hauling acres of heavy canvas (plasticized in this case), miles of cordage, heavy steel cables, pulleys, blocks, winches, and much Yo Heave Ho-ing . . . “All together now, one, two, threeeee . . . and again . . .one, two, threeeeeeeeeee . . . “.
This work is an improvement on when I last worked with them. That time I was dismantling the sewage system – before being promoted to tent breakdown. Then, as now, I was called Joh.
The second day was even more analogous of being at sea. We worked all day in the rain. The show must go on, as they say. It just pissed down. There was no wind and the cloud sat over us all day. Every man jack was soaked to the skin. By the end of the day, on the bus coming home, I was chilled to the marrow. I fully empathise with those old time sailors now. By the way you wise-asses, wet weather gear (which was not provided) is far too restrictive to work in. It works well, and looks great, if you are standing at the helm/wheel of that sailing ship at sea. Not much good for vigorous movement though.
My lovely finger nails were ruined after the first 10 minutes of hauling that canvas. It was about then that I realised what I had let myself in for: hard, heavy work. It got heavier and harder each day. I manned long winch levers raising the tent structures at the masts: back and forth, back and forth ‘till I thought my lungs would burst. I had one eye on the younger bloke manning an adjacent one, noticing with relief that he was also feeling the strain. There was constant pressure to get the total of 6 tents up and laced. Huge, weighty steel stringers for the seating had to be hefted up into place and linked with supports. We are the donkeys.
It is a vast enterprise with innumerable construction components. There are heating/airflow systems for the larger tents: kit set giant masts, miles of heavy electrical cable, sewage hoses snaking hither and thither, acres of heavy wooden flooring, drink dispensing machines, the list goes on. A lot of what is being installed inside the big top looks mysterious: hanging wires, cables, poles, an ‘eccentric’ staircase which looks like one you’d make out of match sticks, lights hung, racked and strung everywhere, props and ramps. But the public attending the performances will not have even a hint of what is involved in this set-up. Nor will they care.
There’s 150 tons of equipment from 72 extra-long shipping containers landed on site. The whole shebang starts with a designated park area (in this case a downtown riverside park block) being surfaced in tarmac. It gets re-laid in grass after the circus has left.
There is a hard core tent and construction crew who fly in-fly out before and after the actual circus performances. They work with the circus throughout Australasia and are all involved with the monumental task of “set up”, and finally, the “break down” or de-construction. A small maintenance gang remains throughout. This “set up” is an event in itself for the crew, never mind the upcoming performance.
The circus creates one helluva lot of employment. Plumbers, Roadies, Technicians, Electricians, Lighting experts, Sound experts, Tarmac layers, Riggers, Flooring experts, ‘Events’ Specialists, Marketers, Merchandisers, Minders, Security, Physiotherapists, Publishers, Printers, Ushers, Cooks, Prep cooks, Dishwashers, Dining room attendants, Janitors, Providores – and prior, after the tarmac is laid, another sort of expert marks out the places for the heavy steel plates to be pegged into the ground with their 1.5metre steel pegs. These plates act as anchors for all the steel cables, and some are bases for the huge steel masts.
I am intrigued by the scale of the planning. Someone has actually designed all the bits, all the shapes, even the bizarre shaped tents. Everything fits together. There’s a place for everything, and everything has its place. The planning involved is mind boggling. Awesome.
There is a commercial kitchen which has to cater for hundreds of attached crew and performers. Of course, the food must be of a standard which the star circus performers will accept too. This kitchen is kitset also. Two long sea containers are spaced apart and the kitchen unfolds between them, with a dining tent attached.
There are many casuals like myself attached to labour hire companies, some hired for the Australia wide leg and therefore in a clique of their own. And then there’s the “international set” that are part of the actual CdS business. They are the elite of the “set up” crews.
These guys – and the few women – seem to be quite interesting characters and I recognise quite a few faces again from my previous experience with Cirque. They would be mostly single and partying is a nightly occupation. Each morning as they grunt and shout their orders they wear that familiar appearance – of recovering from excessive consumption. Probably it is largely alcohol. There is the perennial rumour that the females amongst them are all lesbians, though I suspect there is some masculine embitterment behind that rumour. Or perhaps the ladies foster the rumour to keep the numerically superior males at arms length. “On tour” could definitely get messy otherwise.
Many of the male tent crew have very long hair giving them a Bohemian appearance. Amongst the casual workforce there is even more long hair, Mohawk cuts, bright colours and dread locks. There are many studs (and even golf tees) piercing odd parts of the head and anatomy. Tattoos abound of course. While English is spoken, there are many heavy accents. I am told there is a three-word, international, never-fail pick-up line . . . “I’m on tour”.
To get continued work with the circus I opted to work in the kitchen cleaning dishes: better for my nails . . . and my hands are sooooo soft now. I refused to come in to work the first day because I was suffering from the “flu”. There’s no doubt I was made vulnerable from working that day in the rain, and therein caught myself a good one. It took a few days to shake it too. One of the perks here is that on my breaks I can eat what I like. The problem is – what to choose. There is every conceivable hot and cold comestible available.
Washing dishes doesn’t faze me either (though I may grumble about doing it at home). Here there is busyness. A continual flow of dirty dishes, chefs’ equipment, bowls, trays and tools. Then tea towels, aprons and jackets to be laundered in the adjacent commercial set-up laundry (in that same area there are well kept showers and toilets). When required, I have to peel potatoes, carrots or onions. Or change the rubbish bags. There’s not much let up, but this kitchen really ROCKS. Endless rock music CDs are played at mega volume by the Canadian cooks. It’s fantastic. Sometimes I reflect as I bang the pots and pans about – all this music, all this free food . . . and I’m being paid for it? Hallelujah!
The high pressure water rinser, which hangs from a sprung cable above the two deep sinks, is a great toy. I think every household should have one installed: if not in their kitchen, then in the bathroom. Great fun. I’ve always loved playing with hoses and water. The performers wander in and out of the dining tent; very exotic looking women – and men, frequently wearing their bizarre stage face makeup. I have always been fascinated by what circus performers are able to do with their bodies. It often appeals to me on an erotic level. Some of them even say hello. Sigh . . . There are five Chinese children performers, all about 10 years old. They are so cute. And in their face make up they are just gorgeous.
So as I stuff my face once again on my well earned break, staring barefaced at the bizarre faced characters coming and going, I reflect on what Chairman Mao said of the need for everyman to turn his hand to the most humbling manual work and how it makes for a more well-rounded character. Well, I am getting more rounded. Lovely grub. But I think Mao was referring to younger folk. At my age I am struggling with the hardness of some of this work.
I have work right up to the 2nd week of October, when I will be involved with the dismantling of the kitchen unit, rather than the tents. The rosters I have been given are very manageable: nothing too late, too early, or too long. All in all a comfortable way to earn some pocket money. Oooh, and superannuation too, which because of my advanced age I can access now.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL – More benefits
As a “kitchen pig” (dish washer), I worked alongside a French Canadian guy Michel. Smaller in stature than me, he was hard working and we got on well. His wife Brigitte, small, rotund and ever jovial, is a musician in the show and in the process of being trained up for band master. She generously offered Rachel and I the following opportunity and, I confess, we both felt immensely privileged. Read on
With Brigitte’s two Free Passes, we saw the Varekai show last night from the orchestra “pit”. While it was a signal honour for us, it is, apparently, a pleasure for them to introduce friends backstage and to their fellow musicians. We were made to feel very welcome. Wearing headphones and dark, hooded robes, (the latter attire is traditional in theatre and hints of your non existence) we were listening to the chat between musicians and also the “conductor” or bandmaster giving the ‘1-2-3-4’ lead timing, and ‘a-a-a-a-a-and . . . sustain . . . . . . a-a-a-a-and . . . cut.’ etc., all very interesting and instructive for us musically. There is a very chummy and fun atmosphere between the musicians and many of the performers too. They ham it up a lot of the time.
There are 2 separate percussionists: one with a full drum kit and the other with an eclectic selection of interesting percussion instruments. There are two separate keyboard players (one of whom is Brigitte, our friend) with multi layered keyboard synthesisers and a violinist with electric violin. The male and female vocalists were spectacular. A wind instrument player managed to do things with a simple recorder which had me amazed, and also played an array of medieval instruments. She even made use of a jaw – jews? harp. The bass player used both an electric double bass and the standard modern electric bass. All are very talented musician, doubtlessly classically trained, and the music – integral to the whole performance – is fantastically well written. It drives the whole show and the audience, building up to crescendos of expectation, cutting, pausing and generally holding the audience in its thrall. It was a-fucking-a-fantastique! And, of course we saw a whole lot more of the performance, more intimately.
But before we went in, we had to wait in the performers’ tent. This was the warm up tent, through the door of which I had previously caught such tantalising glimpses of the troupe while I went about my menial duties. And we spent more time there at interval and after the show. Wow! What an experience for us. Close up and personal. We chatted with the Brazilian clown (who prefers to call himself a ‘character’). This may well be the most special thing we have experienced for many years. And all from my labouring as a dirty dishwasher.
Ah, and get this: the contortioniste wasn’t performing . . . because she had put her back out! But all those other beautiful bodies, both male and female, were enough of a feast for our eyes. Christ, what talent.