John Gilkey is the glue that cements Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam" together. This postmodern jester hails from San Francisco, acting as a kind of magical guide for the central character, a little girl in search of wonder. He mocks the serious acrobatic acts with just the right sardonic wit.
"In general, one of my roles in 'Quidam' is to provide a levity to what can be a dark, somber, and even pretentious show," says Gilkey. "It is for me and my sidekick Carl to provide the wink. Yeah, we take ourselves pretty seriously out there - as anybody should take their work seriously. And we are trying to create art with a capital 'A.' But that can be off-putting if it becomes precious. The wink gives balance to the show."
When Gilkey follows one of the amazing acts with a parody of it, he mocks not only the act, but himself as well. It is the clown who stands in for the audience.
"It is old circus tradition to do the recap - the clown comes out and gives a John Doe interpretation of the act," he says. "What would the act be like if you off the street were to try it? It's part of my character to be a conduit between the performer and the audience."
It was in European circus theater companies that he learned what he calls his "stylized artsy" antics. With his background in the United States and Europe as a juggler, circus performer, and actor, he fit right into the Cirque du Soleil style. "In circus theater," he says, "we tend to create by improvising together. I came with circus-type routines, a character I had been performing, and a look [including a shaved head with a single tuft of hair at the front]. The directors liked all of that and integrated it into the show.... Circus theater is everything you'd want in a performance - acrobatics, music, story, dance, comedy, drama - I can't imagine a more complete form. We have the ultimate art form; we have such a large vocabulary to draw on."
But it is difficult on the road, with 10 demanding shows a week and close quarters for all. It's hard to achieve a balance between work and a personal life. Also, the circus life tends to make one highly introspective; there is a lot of downtime in which to rest and think about one's life.
"I'm a work-driven person, and I make sacrifices for my work," he says. "After I've been on tour for a while, I begin to think about relationships. I go from one extreme to another - you're working or you're not working. And there can be long periods of each. You can have a total shift of values in that time. Now I'm working like a dog and it's great, but I'm lacking certain things. Then I'll be out of work again. And when I'm out of work, I'm thinking about it or rehearsing or feeling guilty."
But he finds this show particularly fulfilling, he says, because "one of the nice things about the show is its different levels - you get out of it as much as you wish. You can be amazed by just the first level. Everyone has done a cartwheel, a somersault; everyone has tried to juggle. So there is the element of play. But it is really a performance art with elements from commedia dell'arte to modern dance. So you can go into the emotional, and then into the more intellectual levels - and it works.... I think it's the natural evolution of theater. There is a lot of experimental theater in this vein."