Photo credit to Samuel Laliberté
Krista Monson has worn many hats during her artistic career. She started out as a professional dancer and moved on to being a talent scout and a casting director among other creative positions, but she says lately she is most in her skin when she is in the role of creator. From 2004 to 2012 Krista worked for Cirque du Soleil as an artistic director for O and as a casting director staffing all resident shows worldwide. Now she is a freelance circus writer and director working on some overseas projects that are still under wraps.
For a long time, nearly every artist at Cirque du Soleil came through her casting department. Although she has moved in to writing and directing shows, she is grateful for the tremendous insight in to artists she has gained over the years working in the world of talent scouting and casting. Krista knows how to compile a talented team and she was happy to share the secrets of circus talent scouts and casting departments—from the qualities they seek, to the challenges they face—during our interview.
Of all your positions in the circus industry, which do you enjoy the most? Choreographer, talent scout, casting director, artistic director, writer, director?
I would say right now I really enjoy writing and conceptualizing things. I love the research part of it. Like looking at a water scene; it’s exciting to go from hardcore research to sensory immersion, because you are looking for ways to create emotion in people as a concept, but it still needs a basis and foundation. At the end of the day, you don’t want the audience to think about it, you just want them to sit back and feel it. Throughout my whole career I loved losing myself in a project. I loved contributing to something that is great and meaningful. That has taken on different forms for me. And when I was a casting director that was great! I loved it and felt in my skin then too.
What did you look for in a casting team?
What I looked for in a talent scout was that strange paradoxical dichotomy of expertise and openness at the same time. The scouts and advisors have to understand what the artistic director needs. They may need a trapeze flyer of a certain height and weight—but they also need to read between the lines–to understand what that artist might need to do besides the trapeze. They may need to do dance, do transitional things or character work. Or the director of a new creation might say ‘I’m not sure what I want. I just want something different and wild.’ The scout and advisor’s view of their own expertise can never be so black and white that they are wearing blinders to another type of talent—they need to be able to react with openness or instinct. So expertise and openness are really critical attributes to working in the casting department.
What is the biggest quality you seek in a performer?
It’s hard to sum that up between an accordion player and a base in an acrobatic act, but what they both need to have in common is technical and artistic excellence. Technical excellence is being very skilled at a very high level. Still, there are some guys who are phenomenal who’ve grown up on the streets. They’ve never done the Olympics, it’s not part of their voyage to do that, but they’re very good at a certain skill. The artistic excellence is where the interpretation comes in. Someone who finished a career as an athlete may not have an interpreter background (like acting, for example) but what we can do is recognize a willingness to go beyond their technique. That’s where the artistic excellence is…because it’s that layer that is going to touch people. And they both go hand in hand.
What types of places do scouts go?
There is no formula. In circus, there are tentacles touching the entire planet. There is no rule that scouts only go here or there. It depends on what is needed at the time. Definitely Eastern Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Africa, Australia, everywhere! A scout used to be on the plane 200 days a year out in the field because that is where they could get a sense of who each artist is. That is still the best type of encounter, but now with technology we are able to virtual scout. If you have a camera on your iPhone and you are in a remote little village somewhere, you can go to the casting department. So its two ways now.
What do circus artists always worry about (in an audition or scouting situation) that isn’t really important?
Artists try to assume what the casting department is looking for, thinking ‘Ok they are probably looking for this, so I’ll do it this way.’ But it’s really important to remove that worry and just to be and maximize everything that you do within the process of an audition or scouting situation. You never know what the need is, so it’s an unnecessary worry that can detract from you maximizing your full performance.
What should circus artists be more concerned about?
Just showing us who they are, and that means technically showing what their skill is, but it also means challenging themselves to go a little bit deeper and go beyond their comfort zone, because in an audition it is so normal to think ‘I don’t want to show what I am weak at.’ They want to show their strengths. But when I was a casting director, I found that it is that vulnerability that can actually be very precious and very important because you can see how open the artist is to being directed and they’re willing to cross that line between what they’re good at, trained at, confident at, and yet share that vulnerability. It is only by trusting yourself in that moment about what is being asked and instead of asking questions, just doing it and showing us who you are. If you feel uncomfortable than you are probably doing something right.
Do you give artists feedback or advice even when you don’t hire them?
Yes, I try to. I value that exchange a lot, but sometimes it’s just not possible if there are hundreds of people. But I try to whenever possible.
How many languages do you speak? How important is it to speak multiple languages in your field?
I speak French and English. French is related to Spanish and Italian so it helps. It is very helpful to speak more than one language. In auditions, a casting department usually facilitates a process that is as open and as comfortable as possible for an artist. Even though there is a high degree of expectation, usually there are translators or there is someone else in the room who happens to speak Japanese or whatever. But it’s not always necessary, because we use other techniques. We have music and physical direction and things like that…but it definitely helps.
Talent scouts love it when…an artist is not self-conscious. When they go beyond their comfort zone.
Anything else you’d like to tell circus artists?
Be present and maximize every moment of the situation. It’s really important that you don’t assume anything– just really go for it and don’t leave with any regrets. We all second guess what we could have or should have done in the moment. It’s normal. But you face one of two things. Either you face fear or you face regret. I think it’s a lot easier to face your fear than regrets.
As Krista Monson mentioned, the casting now starts online for artists who share their skills, accomplishments and background. Nowadays, it is much easier and more direct for you to put yourself out there than to wait for a talent scout to come to you.
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Bio & links:
Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Gapers Block, where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter, Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles .
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