For our inaugural interview, Women & Circus sat down with Stacy Clark, Talent Scout for Cirque du Soleil, to talk about her career, her experiences in circus, and how she sees the art form evolving. Stacy is a former competitive gymnast who left the corporate world and a job in marketing and communications to become a circus performer. Stacy created the duo performance group High Strung in 2002 and began working as a Talent Scout for Cirque du Soleil (CDS) in 2007. In 2011 she joined Cirque du Soleil’s show Amaluna as an Acrobatic Coach and spent the next two years working closely with the mostly female cast. She returned to the casting department in the fall of 2013, and is now headquartered in Montreal. In addition to her full-time work for CDS, she is co-owner, Program Director, and circus coach for FirePower Kids, a community fitness program for youth.
W&C: We’re excited about talking to women who have had unique and successful careers in circus, and we’re grateful for your willingness to share your insight and experience. I know that you started as competitive gymnast. What brought you to that transition between gymnastics and circus?
SC: I had a long hiatus, relatively speaking, between my gymnastics career and my circus career. Over a slow period of a few years I was just recreationally having some fun, I then started training more seriously, and before long, I was actually changing careers. Someone who eventually became my performance partner (Robin Szuch) was training with me in Toronto, and a friend of ours who was a street performer suggested that we take our work into the street. The first summer I took a leave of absence from my job, as did Robin, and we just took off. It was fantastic. We created a show, we designed and built a freestanding aerial rig and we just jumped right in. We had so much fun, and we found our niche quite quickly: we were female, we were offering something that nobody else was doing, and we were really accessible. We were creating a nice little package on the street that people hadn’t seen before. So, we decided to jump ship. I had a fabulous boss, who had been a musician, and he supported me entirely in this new direction. My experience as a street performer taught me that there is no more honest way to make a living; if people put money in your hat it’s because they really like what you do.
W&C: What challenged you about performing? As a talent scout and acrobatic coach for CDS, how has your previous performance experience informed your interaction with acrobats and artists auditioning for CDS?
SC: Robin has a background in dance and a degree in theater, and we complemented each other really well in that regard. I think from a technical and a performance standpoint with my athletic background, I was able to bring that to her and to our company, whereas she brought out my artistic side and challenged me to become more at ease with how it is I wanted to express myself. So that fusion really was the foundation of our partnership and why we lasted so long together in a happy place.
The artistic side is something that I address a lot with the artists that I recruit who come from sport. It’s just finding that part of yourself that’s willing to go a little further, be a little more silly, take the kind of risk that makes you a little more vulnerable at first, at least. Even if it doesn’t actually make you physically vulnerable, it certainly makes you feel vulnerable, and that’s what helps the audience connect with you most strongly. My favorite thing in my job is holding auditions. I speak very candidly with my candidates in auditions because I know how they feel and I know where they’ve been and where they’re coming from. I feel that I have just enough empathy but also enough professional experience at this point to push them, to try to get them to that edge of feeling the most at ease as they can because I’m not just looking for that perfect technical skill, I’m looking for how it is that their body expresses it, and how they make me feel. Having been there and having gone through that entire journey, I think it gives me some insight, and it’s so much fun to try to be able work with them in that capacity and try to pull a little more out.
W&C: A few years ago you worked as the acrobatic coach for Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, a predominantly female show. You have spoken about how, even though circus as a whole has a lot of opportunities for both male and female artists, there do seem to be certain types of acts that are predominately male, such as the really high-level acrobatic numbers. You were involved in the creation of the uneven bars act, the Amazon Act, which was all women. How was it different working with a group of female performers in that capacity versus what might normally have been a male group?
SC: We made a very definitive choice to cast women of different shapes and sizes who would best represent the Amazons as women and also deliver a high-level acrobatic act. There were absolutely some concerns in the early days that such an act would be able to be held up against some of the big group acrobatic numbers that CSD has become known for. So, we were very selective in our casting. We wanted that diversity, we wanted strength and power and beauty through movement, and I found all of that in the collection of girls who ultimately were the original base of what became the Amazon act. We did a couple of things quite pointedly as well, for instance, we elected at that time to look for principally English-speaking women so that we had as strong of a cultural assimilation as possible. There are occasions when that works for and against, but in this instance I knew that I wanted to have as many of these women coming from the same kind of background as possible so that they would be able to bolster the act and themselves within it.
Now we’re talking eight women, and that’s eight times eight potentially complicated relationships, friendships, just all the sorts of emotional drivers that women are more known for, you might say. We were really sensitive to that. I knew with the girls in particular who were coming from a college gymnastics background, that they would be instrumental in steering the culture of this group. It was very, very team oriented, very loving, very supportive, the kind of strong, empowered women who become stronger by supporting the people around rather than by stripping others in order to build self. That was sort of implicit in the culture of this group from the very beginning. They really are outstanding. There have been very minor changes in these last three years in that troupe, which I think is a testament to how strong they are and how well they have bonded, and how attached they are to this act that they created.
W&C: Given the success of Amaluna for CDS, how do you think it might change the approach for including women differently in shows that aren’t necessarily designed to have that same conversation about women or without the same kind of overarching theme?
SC: Well, it’s sort of a two-fold answer because really, I can tell you that there’s never distinctly an effort to seek out a male over a female anyway. But you did hit on the simple point that historically, and even now, maybe a little bit less in modern and contemporary circus, the very high acrobatic numbers have been male driven. It’s a fact. That said, I think that every creative team really approaches their casting from the standpoint of how they’re going to represent their story through the profiles, whether male or female.
I am so thrilled by the direction that contemporary circus is going for women. We’re seeing flexible powerhouses who are embracing their best features, both flexibility and strength and power, and putting them into phenomenal rope, corde de lisse, acts, or cyr wheel, another historically male act that is now becoming far more popular for women. They are rocking it because they are poetic and lyrical and have beautiful lines, but they are equally strong and equally powerful in the delivery of such an act. I think that the lines are becoming more and more blurred. I think that circus schools are doing a fantastic job of not relegating the skinny, bendy women just to cerceau, but rather they are letting a male with atypical attributes showcase his flexibility, and a female can showcase her strength. Moving forward, I just hope that we can just have gender be absolutely story-driven and not have to do with acrobatic level.
Towards the end of the interview, Stacy gave us a few insights when it comes to her life philosophy that we’ll leave you with now. When it comes to the life lessons that circus teaches, ones that can be applied to every avenue of life, she says, “It is about perseverance and practice and hard work and the light at the end of the tunnel: ‘I just did a new trick’”. On what has allowed her to transition seamlessly and successfully from competitive gymnastics, to advertising and onto circus performing and talent scouting, Stacy suggests it comes down to one thing: “Love what you do. Every time that I’ve made some kind of change, I’ve been passionate about what it is that I’m doing.”
Interview by Zoe Irvine, Women & Circus team member.
Next month, W& C will be releasing a database of relevant articles, websites and associations. Please feel free to email us any suggestions you would like to see added to Carly@circusnow.org.
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