Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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Clowning around encouraged for Cirque du Soleil's 'Kooza'

David Shiner is a consummate clown. So, naturally, clowns are prominent in Kooza, the Cirque du Soleil show he directed. It comes to the Tampa Bay area in November.

Before directing Kooza, which premiered in 2007, Shiner was featured in Nouvelle Experience, one of the Montreal-based company's early successes. He is also known for his partnership with fellow clown Bill Irwin, with whom he created and starred in Fool Moon, their two-man, wordless show that had several successful Broadway engagements. Shiner and Irwin are working on a sequel, with music by singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, scheduled to play New York's Signature Theatre in February and March.

In 2010, Shiner and Cirque had a rare flop in a vaudeville-themed show he directed, Banana Shpeel, which closed quickly in New York.

Shiner, 58, who was born in Boston and lives in Germany, spoke with me about Kooza and other things in June. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Do you think it's necessary for a Cirque show to have a story?

It depends on what kind of artists you have. Narrative is a tricky thing. Circus is not theater. You're working with circus acts — great acrobatics, clowning, juggling, whatever. It doesn't really call for too specific of a narrative. You need to keep things simple. Simpler is better.

How did you come up with ideas for Kooza?

I would plaster tons of photos and drawings and designs on my walls and just start to ruminate about possibilities. It's not like you go into your office every day and write something down. It's different with a Cirque show. Some ideas I had years in advance, some ideas came to me in the rehearsal process. I knew I wanted the show to look like a kingdom of sorts with the king and his fools.

Are there other Cirque shows that inspire you?

Quidam is my favorite. The music is so haunting and beautiful and moving.

You've said that clowns keep us in touch with the sacred part of ourselves. What do you mean?

If you look at Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, all the great early film clowns, they're the characters that don't really fit in. They're the characters that are searching for themselves and a place in life. I see that in spiritual terms: The search for meaning, the search for transcendence. The clown is helping us laugh at those parts of ourselves that we're most frightened of, or feel embarrassed about. The clown is making jest of those things. I think there's something sacred about taking those things that are so intimate and so deeply part of who we are and creating laughter. It's a very healing thing to laugh at your foibles and fears.

Do you have a favorite act in Kooza?

I think the one that gets people jumping out of their skin is the Wheel of Death.

Why do you think Banana Shpeel didn't work?

That show was a tough one. It was a different direction for Cirque. People came in expecting circus acts, and it was more of a vaudeville show.

Did you learn any particular lesson from that experience?

I learned a lot about humility. You can't always hit a home run.

•••

Ruth Eckerd Hall filled in a few blanks this week in its 2012-13 Broadway series. Catch Me If You Can, based on the Steven Spielberg movie and with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman (whose credits include Hairspray and the TV series Smash), was added to the schedule. Including previously announced shows, here's the entire season: Rock of Ages, Oct. 6; Agatha Christie's BBC Murders, Nov. 13-18 (at the Capitol Theatre); Nunset Boulevard: The Nunsense Hollywood Bowl Show, Dec. 2; Catch Me If You Can, Dec. 8; Billy Elliot the Musical, Jan. 29-30; A Chorus Line, Feb. 26-27; Hair, April 4-6; West Side Story, June 21-23. Pre-show dinners for $15-$25 are available. Single tickets go on sale to Ruth Eckerd Hall members Sept. 17 and the general public in October. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerdhall.com.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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