His kind of theater defies gravity — among other things.
Spending the last five years as one of the comic design artists (specializing in clowns) with the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, Haves (pronounced “hayves”) returns to his 99-seat roots with a holiday show resembling his 2010 LA production Your Town Follies, which presented an array of variety show superstars performing everything from acrobatics to comedy acts to card tricks and tap dancing.
Wearing jeans and a sport coat, tennis shoes and a baseball cap, Haves walks through his budding creation with an eye on every detail. “The band goes there,” he points out. “The bar entrance over here. Put on some 3-D glasses and come this way — you’re gonna love this.”
Atomic Holiday sports a whimsical (PG, parental guidance suggested) storyline about the legend of how Cirque became a staple on the Vegas Strip via none other than aliens. Atomic pays homage to the 1960s Vegas scene — lounge acts, a little gambling and a weekend getaway to see Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — that has now been transformed into a group of circus spectaculars that draw international audiences.
Haves exudes the excitement of his self-proclaimed “nine-year-old alter ego.” But, with more than 25 years of circus craft, he also talks with skilled precision about his work. Among his Cirque du Soleil credits are the now touring KOOZA, the ill-fated Banana Shpeel, and teaching master classes for performers in the Las Vegas shows.
Where does a clown come from?
According to Haves, a clown should not be too young (too young is too needy, he explains). A clown must also be able to take risks in front of an audience while respecting boundaries so as not to appear reckless. But most important, a good clown can act out a story without being too caught up inside the story.
This quality has been a clown goal for centuries. But Haves describes a kind of new “North American Clown” that has emerged over the last few decades through the growing popularity of Cirque du Soleil and circus work in general. This North American Clown is tougher than usual, can talk and tends to break more rules than its European and Russian clown counterparts.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Haves began performing as an actor. He was particularly drawn to the improv scene and explored some physical comedy training. After spending time as an acting coach on sitcoms and a brief encounter with an MFA acting program, Haves finally made the bold move to Paris and pursued his true passion of physical performance.
In Paris, he met David Shiner — often considered the best clown of Haves’ generation. Immersing himself in commedia dell’arte and other forms of physical theater and performance, Haves appreciated the clear-cut standards in learning defined skills alongside craft.
“Either you can juggle or you can’t,” Haves lays it out. “It’s either funny, or it’s not. And it’s not even my opinion if it’s funny; it’s the opinion of the collective audience — the audience is the judge and jury.”
After further training with additional mentors/collaborators such as Philippe Gaulier (from the Lecoq School) and comedy veteran Bill Irwin, Haves developed his own growing expertise. He staged several shows in the LA area’s 99-seat theaters — The Cardigan Christmas Show (Zephyr Theatre, 1985-87), Camp and an adaptation of Jack London’s Call of the Wild (both were at the Powerhouse Theatre, between 1989 and 1993). His Moon Over Madness opened the season at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in 1994, and he worked with the Music Center education division in the late ’90s, performing his solo BackMan act.
Then Haves wrote and directed for the award-winning Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco, from 2000 to 2006. He collaborated with prestigious acrobats, clowns, and magicians as well as headliners such as Joan Baez, Thelma Houston and Liliane Montevecchi.
The schedule at ZinZanni often demanded creating a full show in as little as four days. “It’s all or nothing,” Haves notes. “It’s working without a net.”
Since then, as a comic act designer with Cirque du Soleil, Haves has worked directly with some of the Cirque clowns and other designers to create clown acts that fit into a pre-determined storyline. This creation of story makes Haves a kind of “physical playwright” while working with each individual performer’s skill set. He is also currently one of the casting partners for Cirque in North America and teaches master classes in clown technique to non-clown performers.
Describing himself as a “clown wrangler” rather than a clown teacher, he also instructs clown technique workshops while continuing to produce and direct live theater events.
Spending so much time as a creative collaborator and working within the larger stories of others, Atomic Holiday brings Haves back to LA’s 99-seat community, creating the work he loves on his own terms and with his own vision.
Los Angeles as a Cirque performer’s hub
“What’s great about LA is the caliber of variety artists that live here,” Haves states. Los Angeles is a practical home base for these artists, as their work is primarily international with abundant cross-over opportunities in Hollywood. Higher-paying work in other industries helps support their live theater work.
The result is that several top performers — masters of their craft — look for places to practice their skills or to try out new material with a local audience. This was how Haves gathered top performers for Your Town Follies, and he has the same plan in motion for Atomic Holiday.
The show is stacked with a rotating who’s who of circus and variety performers from physical comedy, aerialists, comedic jugglers and burlesque, and tap dancers. Performing based on availability, each night will feature different performers within the same structured storyline. A few of the performers already scheduled are Eric Newton (Believe, Cirque du Soleil), Kasey Wilson (Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil), The Quiddlers (MGM Grand) as well as Scot Nery, Michael Carbonaro, Godfrey Daniels and tap dancer Jason Rodgers. Choreographer Lindsley Allen is an Actors’ Gang veteran as well as one of the original Pussycat Dolls.
All the acts are carefully tied together with the detailed musical score of long-time collaborator and Emmy-nominated composer Philip Giffin. The design includes props by Carla Jo Bailey, costumes by Rosa Medina and special Scenic 3D Blacklight by Debi Cable (assisted by Elliott Shuffle).
With this collection of artists already local, Los Angeles audiences can experience what Haves calls one of the “most elite variety shows possible” without having to trek to Vegas or plunk down the cash for a Vegas-size ticket.
The Circus moves in at the Actors’ Gang
With a black-light, 3-D installation behind him and layers of Atomic Holiday décor covering the lobby, Haves is literally knee-deep in final tech. When asked about conceiving the show, he responds kinetically to the space. “When I come into a space,” his hand reaches out to an exposed brick wall, “The space talks to me.”
And nothing could speak louder than Culver City’s historic Ivy Substation, a 1906 train station featuring cathedral-like, vaulted ceilings and plenty of exposed infrastructure. Haves uses the entire space. And, as in many of his previous experiential projects, he takes the audience on a physical journey through the space as well as a narrative story.
“I wanted to create an event that I would personally want to experience with a group of people,” he explains, as he points out the traffic flow from onstage bar to a pathway that will take an audience all around the theater’s interior and back into their seats.
The Actors’ Gang actors, mostly trained in commedia dell’arte, were quickly folded into the final 90-minute production, which Haves hopes will feature the precision Cirque du Soleil is known for — but with added before- and after-parties (the latter complete with a DJ).
Haves gladly offers up Atomic Holiday as an appreciation of Cirque du Soleil and the many ways in which Cirque has raised the bar for audience appreciation of variety performers with the renewed energy of a “modern vaudeville.” But with Haves, of course, the emphasis is more focused on the clowning and the comedy.
“If an audience is gonna make the effort and come out to the theater,” Haves offers, returning to his excited, younger self, “I want them to leave happy. Really happy.”
Atomic Holiday Free Fall presented by the Actors’ Gang. Opens tonight. December 9, 10 and 14-22 at 8 pm. Bar opens at 7 pm with after party following each performance. Tickets: $35; children 9 and up $20. Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. www.theactorsgang.com. 310-838-4264.