Editor’s note: Columnist John Katsilometes and photographer Leila Navidi have been granted exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the development of Cirque du Soleil’s charity show “One Night for One Drop,” scheduled for March 22 at Bellagio’s O Theatre. Today: a backstage visit with members of the prop department and video team at “Ka,” who are donating their time and skills to “One Drop.”
Behind all of these inanimate objects designed to spring to life are animated individuals.
JanNelle Rivers is one of those craftspeople who bring the props in Cirque du Soleil shows to the stage. Her full-time assignment is “Ka” at MGM Grand, where she is the head of props and puppets (a uniquely Cirque-ian job title). Rivers’ other assignment, part-time and as a volunteer, is “One Night for One Drop,” the one-and-done charity show set for March 22 at Bellagio’s O Theatre.
The event, set for World Water Day, benefits Cirque’s water charity organization, One Drop, which is dedicated to developing water-conservation projects around the world. The show has been referred to as Cirque’s ninth production (counting “Michael Jackson ONE,” set to open this summer at Mandalay Bay).
Rivers is holding what, to the uninitiated or maybe those who are familiar with Old West artifacts, looks like a silver spittoon. It’s actually a prop modeled after an ancient African water vessel. Made of hardened plastic foam and deceptively lightweight, it’s to be used in a scene titled, “Walk for Water,” in which a group of performers pay tribute to the process of retrieving water in Africa.
“We’ve made 18 of these,” Rivers said, holding one of the props in her right palm. “They need to be light but look sturdy.”
Rivers, Gary Wong (the assistant head of props at “Ka”) and Antonio Franco (the show’s prop technician) are working on the dozens of set pieces to be used in “One Night for One Drop.” Jagged, hard-foam icebergs painted white with blue tips are the brainchild of this team. So is a piece that is to bloom as a Lunaria flower. This idea started as an egg and blossomed into a flower.
“You can imagine, this is a chaotic concept,” says Rivers, who has worked on “Ka” since it opened in 2004. “It’s takes an extraordinary amount of commitment to put this show together. I’d compare it to an athlete who starts exercising different muscles, in that we are not tied to any specific idea.
Rivers was introduced to Cirque when she lived in Biloxi, Miss., and the show “Alegria” visited the city. She’d worked in community theater as a lighting technician, set painter, decorator, designer, prop maker, stage manager, bookkeeper, administrative director and grant writer. All as a volunteer before she landed a job in the “Alegria” production. She was assigned to “Ka” four years later.
“When I’m given a task, and I think this is for everyone involved in the show, we put all of our blood into it,” she said. “It takes a dozen people to make this happen.”
And that is just to make the props for the show. Rivers and her team spent almost all of their free time in January designing and building pieces.
The influence of “Ka” is also felt in the video technology used in “One Drop.” Davin Gaddy, who has spent the past five years working as the lead projectionist in the MGM Grand show, has adapted to the nuanced confines of O Theatre.
Nuanced, in the sense that “O” uses no video projection.
“It’s definitely a challenge because there is no video and no infrastructure for video,” said Gaddy, who is surrounded by 16 video screens in his office enclave overlooking the Ka Theatre. “I’m taking up part of the lighting booth and the guest seating area. I’m finding a way to make it work.
Gaddy is using the mesh walls that conceal the musicians and white projection screens on either side of the O stage as the show’s video panels, which has never been attempted. Robotic cameras will capture performance artist David Garibaldi, a painter who will create artwork during the show.
“We are trying to make the cameras as unobtrusive as possible, and have the images narrate the show and add ambience to what is being performed onstage,” Gaddy said. “It is really a challenge because I have always worked with electricity, and I’m now we’re building a show around water. It’s all new and it’s something I’ve never gone through before.”
To keep himself energized, Gaddy often bolts from his perch in the theater.
“I go walk around the theater,” he says, “to get the blood flowing.”
Helping keep everyone’s blood flowing is Yago Pita, the operations manager at “Ka” who also worked at “O” as that show’s technical director.
His job title for “One Drop”?
“I am the catalyst!” he says.
Pita serves as a creative conduit among the many shows working on “One Drop,” relaying information and ideas between various theaters and keeping in contact with show director Krista Monson.
This is one team, but there is creative competition forming, too. The Cirque shows contributing to “One Drop” operate in the same city but rarely work together.
“A lot of us never thought we’d be pulling our talent and our resources together in what is really the same company, and you’re seeing a lot of pride coming out in that process,” he said. “Everybody is putting up their ‘A’ game, and that’s exciting to watch. It can be tiring, but it really is exciting.”