Cirque du Soleil's Peters returns to Carson School
calendar icon14 Dec 2016 user iconBy Kathe Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--Mike Peters (M.F.A. 1999) returned to the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film on Dec. 8-9 to visit with students about his job as Assistant Head of Rigging for Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, along with Ben Stephenson, the head carpenter on “The Beatles LOVE.”
Peters has been with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas since 2003 and has been Assistant Head of Rigging since 2007. A theatrical rigging system, or fly system, is a system of lines, pulleys, counterweights and related devices within a theater that enables the stage crew to safely fly components, such as scenery and people.
“Rigging is dealing with everything held up above your head on stage,” Peters said. “It’s one of the more nerve-wracking positions.”
Peters likes the challenges that come up in his job.
“We’re always looking ahead,” he said. “Preventative maintenance is really important to us. We are trying to avoid fixing something because it went wrong. We’re always trying to prevent it and be proactive. I spend a lot of my time looking to the future and planning ahead.”
His crew includes 15 people, including himself.
“It takes 10 riggers to run the show, and then we have a small day crew for maintenance repairs during the day and also assisting the artists when they train,” he said. “And then a manager and I oversee everything.”
Safety is big concern for Cirque du Soleil.
“With a long-running show, you have to keep guys healthy and happy,” he said. “A lot of them have been there a long time. You have to make the right choices when you make changes to the show and keep everything safe. Safety is such a huge thing for us.”
Cirque du Soleil has been in the news recently for three recent incidents. Olivier Rochette, the son of one of the founders, was killed in an accident on the set of “Luzia” in San Francisco on Nov. 29. Acrobat Lisa Skinner was injured after falling during the “Kooza” show in Brisbane, Australia, on Nov. 27. And Cirque artist Weiliang Sky Wu fell on Nov. 30 during a performance of “Ovo,” but sustained only minor injuries.
“It’s tough,” Peters said. “And it’s always going to stand out [when something goes wrong]. You don’t necessarily get to see all the things we do right.”
After receiving his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Peters worked at the Lied Center for Performing Arts for a year, followed by three years working as an entertainment rigging specialist on cruise ships.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “The job was fantastic, and I loved the work. The chance to travel was fun. The lifestyle was tough. We were not passengers so we didn’t have the same food or the same amenities.”
He also traveled to Europe a couple of times to do installations of shows on new ships.
“I was in Holland for six weeks doing an install on a new ship,” he said. “A few years later, I went to Finland and did an install there. That was fun to work hard during the day and work on the ship, and then go into the town and see some of the culture at night.”
When he decided to leave the cruise ships, he traveled west to look for other work and landed in Las Vegas. He made some connections with Flying by Foy on the cruise ships, but they had no openings. But referred him to Cirque du Soleil, which was hiring for “O.”
“A lot of people were leaving ‘O’ at that time to work on ‘Ka,” the new show,” he said. “So they had some rigger positions open and a lead that left. Based on a recommendation from Foy, the head rigger interviewed me. We hit it off well and he offered me a lead position, so I was running the day crew.”
Peters has spent his entire Cirque du Soleil career working on “O.”
“This show is very unique with the water environment,” he said. “We have a stage that is a 1.5 million gallon swimming pool, so that adds a whole other element to it. It’s in this beautiful theatre with this big stage that can transform from a big, flat surface where people can run across it, and we have divers diving from 58 feet in the air down to 17-foot deep of water. It has some really exciting elements to it.”
He expects to stay with “O” for now.
“If an opportunity comes up where I can move up within the company, I’d probably take that,” he said. “But right now, I’m on a good show that’s going to run for a long time, I think. It’s the flagship show for Cirque. I’m at a great job that I love, so it would be hard to get me to budge without a good reason to.”
Peters was always drawn to technical theatre.
“I remember even in grade school being the guy who pulled the curtain backstage,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of artistic skills. I never wanted to be a performer or designer or anything like that. I wanted to work with my hands, but do something technical and interesting to me. Rigging seemed like this exciting area that was so specialized.”
Peters said he received a lot of hands-on training at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“I got to work with different departments, different people, different personalities,” he said. “So I developed a lot of my technical skills. As a technical director, we had to learn about budgeting and non-theatrical things like how to write properly and how to put proposals together. It gave me a diverse knowledge base.”
His visit was the first time he has returned to the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film since graduate school, and he is impressed with the changes made since the school has received funding from Johnny Carson and the Johnny Carson Foundation.
“It’s exciting. They have all these new technologies. I’m jealous. I wish I had some of these things to play with,” he said. “It’s so exciting that the new students get to come in and work with that kind of technology, and these endowments have given it to them. It’s just amazing.”
Assistant Professor of Practice Mitch Critel and Associate Professor of Theatre Laurel Shoemaker participated in a University Workshop that Cirque du Soleil hosts in Las Vegas, and the University of the Nebraska–Lincoln was one of a handful of educational institutions selected to participate in this event.
“During that time, we learned of all the opportunities our students could have with Cirque du Soleil, and how they believed the skills we were teaching our students at the Carson School fit directly into what they do every day,” Critel said. “I am sure it also helped to have two alumni with Cirque du Soleil in Vegas—Michael Peters with “O” and Kim Scott with “The Beatles LOVE.”
Critel took advantage of an opportunity to get Peters and Stephenson to campus.
“It was our hope that the students would connect directly with what they both did for Cirque, as well as their path to get there,” he said. “Both Michael and Ben are approachable guys. They love to talk about what they do, as well as look at what the students were doing. That is a level of engagement a lot of our students didn’t expect from a company the size of Cirque du Soleil.”
Peters’ advice to students is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
“Branch out, work hard at what you do and enjoy it,” he said. “It can be such a fun job, but keep other activities outside of theatre and other interests. If you can get on a long-term production like mine, you’re going to get bored, so it’s nice to have other things to do outside of theatre.”
Sometimes even the smallest opportunities can have big results.
“Taking an on-call position with a show can be that stepping stone to move up within the company,” he said. “A lot of the people we hire as on call move up to full time or later on as managers.”
His lasting memory of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is the time spent with colleagues on projects.
“I remember spending so much time in this Temple Building,” he said. “This was home for three years, spending some really long nights and days here on projects.”