Three Missouri Southern grads work behind the scenes for Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Zarkana’
Two clowns bumble their way across the theater, eliciting laughter as they climb – or, more accurately, stumble – over the seated audience members as they make their way toward the stage.
As the lights go down and the production begins, the characters and everyone else in the theater are transported to a circus that springs to life following the discovery of an abandoned theater. It’s a fantastical celebration of talented performers, backed by dazzling light, sound and music.
Wire walkers jump over one another as a flaming pendulum swings directly in their path.
Two performers gripping aerial straps fly across the stage and out over the audience as they execute complex maneuvers.
Others climb on, in and around the “Wheel of Death,” a giant spinning contraption that appears it could certainly live up to its name.
As the audience is transported into the world of Cirque du Soliel’s “Zarkana” at the Aria Resort and Casino, it would be easy to overlook that the magic happening on stage is only possible through the magic that takes place behind the scenes.
“It’s kind of like a symphony. Everybody plays a part, from on stage to off stage,” says Erina Parks, lead wardrobe attendant for “Zarkana” and a ’04 graduate of Missouri Southern’s theater department. “You have to know not only what your job is, but what other people are doing. There’s orchestration to everything, even backstage.
“It’s a crazy kind of game we play.”
Parks is one of three Missouri Southern alumni — along with Donald Leffert and his wife, Robyn Eddy, both ’04 graduates – who make the technical magic happen for the production. Their journey to the Vegas Strip is one that started while forging friendships and relationships as they learned their craft and made their mark during Southern Theatre productions.
FOCUSING THEIR TALENTS
Originally from Jefferson City, Donald Leffert remembers his high-school drama teacher pointing out a poster for scholarships available at Missouri Southern. He put a portfolio together and interviewed for a scholarship with the theater department.
“My emphasis was in lighting at the time, but because the department encouraged you to have a well-rounded degree, I started doing acting in children’s shows and directing here and there for the classroom.
“There was lots of hands-on work. It was ‘Here’s the classroom, here’s the theory, go practice, go play.’ It was a wonderful, safe place to make an error, learn from your mistakes and grow from there.”
Robyn Eddy transferred to Missouri Southern in 2002.
“I was really into student design at my pervious college, but most of our sets were designed by our technical director,” she says. “I met this really cool guy at summer stock who told me how most of the productions at Missouri Southern were student designed.
“I visited the campus, met the faculty and transferred that year. I participated in pretty much all the shows in some capacity, whether performing or back stage. It turns out I’m awful at set design, so I used my time at Southern to focus on my talents and figure out where best to put my energy.”
Parks transferred to Southern in 2001 as a communication major along with her cousin, who joined the women’s basketball team.
“When I started, I took theater as a prerequisite class,” she says. “I liked it, but as time went by, things changed. I stuck with the theater department to help out with shows and decided to change my major.”
The three became friends both in and out of the classroom, but their passion was always taking things to the next level when it came to staging productions.
“They were fun. They always wanted to go past what we did in the classroom and learn more,” says Sam Claussen, professor emeritus who served as a teacher and mentor to all three former students.
“Robyn was a performer back then, Erina was always working in the costume shop and Donald was all about doing the lights. They all wanted to learn more and more.”
THE ROAD TO CIRQUE
After graduating in 2004, Leffert was offered a job as technical director and production manager for a theater in Charlottesville, Va. While there, the idea of moving to Vegas and getting a job with Cirque du Soliel began to take hold.
Cirque, which got its start more than 30 years ago with a group of street performers, has become a global entertainment organization. It has performed shows for more than 155 million people in more than 40 countries, according to press materials.
“Cirque has an otherworldliness about it,” says Eddy. “They tend to be on the brink of new innovations … that to me is part of the ethos that drew me to it.”
Without a safety net beneath them, the couple made the move to Sin City and began applying for positions.
Leffert got his start in Vegas as a stagehand for a production at another hotel before being hired by Cirque as a part-time electrician for “O” at The Bellagio. The aquatic-based production meant that he had to be able to pass a swim test and complete training as a rescue diver.
Today, he serves as assistant head of lighting for “Zarkana,” a show which puts the spotlight on a variety of traditional circus performers.
“My job entails managing the crew, keeping the artistic vision of the show up and running and assisting the artistic side as changes are made to the show,” he says.
“A lot of the acrobats have specific things they need so they can focus on their routine, and the audience needs to be able to see them. There’s a lot of balance between what they need technically and what we can provide to make that work.”
Eddy initially joined the Cirque production “Kà” as a “gatekeeper” – which is best described as an usher/character – and continued there for three years before moving to the “Viva Elvis” production at the Aria to work in wardrobe. When “Zarkana” opened three years later, she moved to the props department and now serves as the show’s props lead.
“I’m the go-to person for the props department,” she says. “Anything an artist carries in their hands or a set piece that helps decorate the stage is considered a prop. We’re here to fix it, clean it, repair it, make it better, make it pretty.
“Just like it’s choreographed on stage, it’s choreographed back stage. We go through training to get the rhythm and timing of the different acts, so we can get our rhythm and timing down for where we need to be to support them as best we can.”
Parks began her Cirque experience nine years ago working for “The Beatles LOVE” at The Mirage before moving to the Aria for “Viva Elvis.”
“‘Zarkana’ moved in a short time later and Elvis left the building,” she says. “I did not leave the building.”
As the lead wardrobe attendant, Parks leads a team that handles dressing and costumes.
“We have a map for the artists and for every technical department that shows where people are going to be, where they’re coming from and who is dressing who. If there’s an emergency, I run to make sure the show’s integrity stays the same.”
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas … but it’s not an expression that refers to the ever-changing slate of shows and attractions in the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”
On April 30, “Zarkana” took its final bow at the Aria. Set pieces, props and other items went into storage. The Aria plans to demolish the theater to create a new convention center.
Leffert will move to Cirque’s “Michael Jackson ONE” production at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where he’ll serve as the show’s lead effects technician.
“Lasers, flames, pyro … all that stuff will fall under my umbrella,” he says. “I had to take a lot of classes to get certification for the laser operations. You have to continually learn your craft.”
Eddy is unsure of her next move, but Parks says her journey will take a different path when the show closes.
“My dad owns a food truck in Kentucky, so I’m going to spend time with him and learn his business,” she says. “It will be a nice break from what I normally do and a chance to learn about myself again.
“But I definitely want to come back and be a part of it … maybe work on a tour with Cirque or a Broadway company.”
Fifteen years after transferring to Missouri Southern, the “solid training” she received as a theater major has served her well in a city where she never imagined she would live and work. The lights, the glitz and glamour of the Strip … you just have to keep it in perspective, she says.
“For the people coming (to Vegas), it’s fascinating,” says Parks. “For us, it’s our passion but it’s also our job … making magic happen every single day.
“We’re not rocket scientists, we’re not here to save the world. We’re just here to entertain.”