CU Boulder theater instructor Jordan Feeler learned how to troubleshoot sparkly homages to Michael Jackson and illuminated magician props while working with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas
The bulk of the shop’s business was producing parts for the aerospace industry, but Feeler figured it couldn’t hurt to ask: “Hey, I designed this thing to make a remote-controlled, sparkly, sequined Michael Jackson glove drive around a stage. Can you machine parts for it?”
Fortunately, they said yes and were excited about the challenge, and Feeler got a much-improved mobile glove. It was a memorable but by no means extraordinary day in props for one of the most well-known shows in not only Las Vegas, but worldwide thanks to touring productions.
Feeler, an instructor in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Theatre and Dance, teaches courses in props, hand drafting, advanced woodworking, stage machinery and others—skills that he honed over six years with Cirque du Soleil and more than 15 years in theatrical production.
The touring Cirque du Soleil: Kooza is at Denver’s Ball Arena through Aug. 13, and while certain props needs vary between touring and residency shows, like Michael Jackson ONE in Las Vegas, there are many fundamental similarities: The props must be sturdy and safe, they must meet performers’ needs, they must hew to the show’s initial designs, and they must be eye-catching but not distracting from the performance as a whole.
We recently spoke with Feeler about the world of props for a show as well-known and spectacular as Cirque du Soleil.
How did you get into props?
Feeler: I was never really interested in being onstage as a performer, but I always loved the technical aspects of theater—how it involves creativity and design and engineering skills, and then really practical things like sewing and carpentry.
So, I studied technical direction at Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts and kind of hopped around doing different jobs after I graduated. I was working as a scenic painter in St. Louis and then in Sacramento, and I figured I was already out that way, I might as well pop down to Las Vegas. I’d tried applying online, but I heard it was a lot easier to get your foot in the door if you’re actually there, so I just moved to Las Vegas and applied everywhere.
At one point, there were something like seven Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas, so I applied to pretty much all of them and got hired on to Michael Jackson ONE in February 2013 before it opened in June that year.
Props is one of many teams in Cirque du Soleil; what was your team’s role as the show prepared to open?
Feeler: To start with, the director and directing team basically envisions the entire show—what they want it to look like, and they started at least a year in advance of when I came on. They went through and storyboarded the show, then different design teams, which were all based out of Montreal, started designing everything from props to costumes to rigging and lighting.
There was a props design team of three or four specialists who were heading that design work up and prototyping all the props, and then our Las Vegas props crew of about 10. The props design team were prototyping by October 2012, working with artists there in Montreal to figure out the needs of the performers, and then things began coming our way, a lot that weren’t finished.
For Michael Jackson ONE, there were a ton of props to build. There was a bench that had to light up and have a performer inside of it for some magic acts, there was a little remote-control car, there was a Michael Jackson sparkly glove that had to drive around stage and have its wrist lift and fingers actuate. It was so creative, things I’d never worked on before.
How are performers’ needs incorporated into prop design and construction?
Feeler: When you’re working with performers of that caliber—artists from all over the world who are so amazing at what they do—it’s so important to always be communicating with them to make sure that everything is just right for them. There was a magician in the show, and just the slightest thing would throw their performance off, so we were always checking in and making sure the props were doing exactly what they needed, making sure things were safe.
We were constantly getting input from not only performers, but other departments—rigging and lighting, carpentry, costumes. It’s all completely intertwined because you also have to be thinking that it needs to look seamless to the audience.
How did working in props with Cirque du Soleil differ from your previous theater work?
Feeler: I think probably the biggest difference was the depth we could get into and the time we had. For what we would call “normal” theater, the tech process can be as short as two days—you do a few rehearsals and within a week the show is up. In that situation, in props, you have to be so fast—you’re constantly thinking on the fly, just immediately problem-solving and sometimes with Band-Aid fixes. With Cirque du Soleil, that process happened over months, and then there was a month-long preview period before the show officially opened.
But there are certain similarities in props that you see across all theater. Where something like rigging is really specialized and more aligns with engineering and certain, specific skills, props is so broad. There’s sewing, painting, molding and casting, metalwork, electronics, there are all these different things, and you acquire skills in all of them as you go along.
The nice thing about Cirque du Soleil was there were specialists in pretty much everything, so I could go to a lighting specialist and say, “I want to do this,” rather than having to figure it out myself. It’s pretty common in the industry to have that interdepartmental collaboration, but in Cirque it’s magnified by 10.
Another thing that was nice about Cirque du Soleil was time was certainly on our side. We had months to develop and test things, we had a lot of time to think things through. We were able to create a binder full of contingency plans where we asked, “If this happens, how do we respond?” We had time to sit down and play out every little distinct scenario that could go wrong.
When I made the shift to props maintenance, there was even more opportunity to go through and play with things and experiment and replicate what was going wrong when something happened. The crew would give us notes from the previous night’s show, and then we could make the adjustments and changes, or in some cases redesign a prop entirely and make it more functional. With a show like Michael Jackson ONE, which just hit its 10-year anniversary in Las Vegas, we were thinking about what would make the props more durable and consistent with the original designs.
Once the show opened, then we focused on maintaining functionality and appearance while incorporating notes from performers and stage managers. That became the fun part. For example, there was this mechanical hand, this Michael Jackson glove, that was designed and built by a brilliant engineer. It has so much going on in such a small package, but it kept malfunctioning where it would be driving down and then spinning out, which wasn’t supposed to happen. We weren’t sure what was going on, but I was able to figure out that the frame was sort of tweaked and if we could go through and reinforce frame, that would fix it.
So, during what we call darks, which is a week out of year when they shut the show down and everyone does maintenance, my boss was like, “Hey, you’re going to redesign this.” So, I did, and then found a machine shop that mostly made aerospace parts, but they were excited to do it. Who doesn’t want to make weird stuff for the circus?
What advice do you give students interested in pursuing a theater career in props?
Feeler: One of the most important things I can tell students is to approach people, ask questions and then listen. If you’re a decent person and you’re a hard worker, if you have some skills, you’ll find work and you can make a good living.
With my students, it seems that everybody wants to learn how to weld, there are a lot who enjoy carpentry and painting, and the more tools you have in your tool bag, the more marketable you are in this industry. I tell them to always be learning new skills.
I mean, I’m horrible at sewing but I can do it if I have to. I spend way too much time on YouTube just learning about how things are made, which is a really fun aspect of this field—it’s challenging, but it’s something new every day. There’s not really a book that can tell me how to make an 8-foot-tall Poseidon head that moves and its eyes blink. That’s something I just had to figure out.
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