Author(s): Ron Cote, Jean Francois Simard. Published on July 1, 2016.

A Fabulous Balance

To achieve life safety compliance for its spectacle-packed big-top touring productions, Cirque Du Soleil must execute a fine-tuned choreography with a host of local authorities, including fire marshals and building officials


In May, when Cirque du Soleil’s new “KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities” touring show arrived in Boston, it was the culmination of months of planning, collaboration, and effort. That work took place not just among the various units of Cirque du Soleil responsible for producing the company’s big-top touring show, but also between Cirque du Soleil and local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs), including building inspectors, fire marshals, accessibility and health officials, and others. The cooperation necessary between the show and local AHJs is no less precise than the breathtaking displays of acrobatics that wow audiences at “KURIOS.”

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This year, Cirque du Soleil, the largest artistic entertainment producer in the world, will present 19 different shows to more than 15 million patrons around the world. Shows are spectacle-filled blends of theater and circus arts and are presented in resident theaters, arenas, and, like the “KURIOS” touring show, under big-top-style tents. The big-top shows present the greatest challenges for Cirque du Soleil as well as for local AHJs; the logistics of relocating temporary structures designed with a permanent layout—including the infrastructure for a mobile village that tours with each show—can be enormously complex due to varying building, fire, and life safety codes, as well as the interpretations by the AHJs enforcing those codes, in the jurisdictions and countries where Cirque du Soleil performs.

Safety concerns extend to every aspect of a traveling Cirque du Soleil show. Securing AHJ approval for the tent canvas, for example, can involve careful negotiation and an array of standards. The material test standards include NFPA 701, Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films, and comparable European standards. Before receiving approval for a show last year in California, the office of the state fire marshal had to certify that the Cirque du Soleil tent canvas met the minimum flame resistance for products identified by the California Health and Safety Code, since the state had concerns related to the use of flame-retardant chemicals. The flame-resistant tent canvas shrinks away from flame to allow a fire’s smoke and gases to vent to the outdoors. Further, high-velocity fans in the big top’s rooftop cupola provide smoke exhaust.

Other local requirements, as enforced by AHJs, are addressed as they arise. Reasonable requests are met as needed by Cirque du Soleil, and even overly conservative requests are sometimes met if there isn’t enough time for negotiation. In one European location, the AHJ required that sprinklers be installed outside in freezing temperatures above portions of the Cirque du Soleil tent, even though it was doubtful whether the heat-actuated sprinkler system would operate in case of fire. With opening night fast approaching, Cirque du Soleil went ahead and installed the sprinklers.

Effective communications and advance planning go a long way toward preventing situations where Cirque du Soleil code advisors must satisfy AHJs’ overly conservative demands. At times, flexibility in equipment design allows the show to meet conflicting demands among the AHJs. For example, some AHJs require horizontal handrail extensions at the top of ramps to accessible toilets; other AHJs prohibit the extensions, as they can interfere with wheelchair turning space for accessing the toilet stall. Cirque du Soleil’s ramps include the extensions, but they can be unbolted, removed, and stored.

At another show, the AHJ responsible for accessibility required seating platform floors along an accessible route to be equipped with tactile ground surface indicators. The floor sections were grooved to accept the indicator material, but the local consultant responsible for the structure refused to certify the floor because of potential weakness caused by the grooving. The floor sections were replaced with standard panels, and the AHJ’s concern for accessibility was allayed through Cirque du Soleil’s standard risk assessment. Structural integrity concerns prevailed.

On opening night of the “KURIOS” show in Boston, the fire marshal with responsibility for the show sat in the audience with the Cirque du Soleil codes advisor. By intermission, the fire marshal had determined that the operation was being conducted with all of the agreed-upon safety features in place. The advance work, detailed discussions, and proper permitting procedures had set the scene for a safe and successful run of the show.

Raising the big top: preparation and construction

A great deal of advance work occurs before the Cirque du Soleil big top can be raised, starting with site selection and preparation. Once a city is judged to be attractive based on the economic capacity of its population, a Cirque du Soleil site analyst is dispatched to find appropriate sites. The site can be a public space or private land providing a clear area, preferably flat, of at least 325 feet by 650 feet (100 meters by 200 meters). Contact is made with site owners at least one year prior to the show premiere, and owners are asked for permission to survey the sites. Site analysts also contact local authorities to evaluate the feasibility of the project from the standpoint of zoning, noise, environmental issues, and specific regulation of the occupancy.

Next, a survey team of two or three Cirque du Soleil specialists visits the potential site. The size of the site is confirmed as meeting the needs of the mobile city that will be erected. Areas are identified that will require filling to create the level area needed for tent installation. The location of underground utilities is precisely noted, as is access to water and sewer connections. Cirque du Soleil is prepared to run water and sewer lines up to half a mile (0.8 kilometers) to connect to local systems, but a less distant connection is preferred. An assessment of the available power sources is conducted. The three-tent performance venue requires specific soil conditions for structural support, so soil testing is performed. Cirque du Soleil never adapts the structural needs of its equipment to the soil conditions present on a site. Rather, the site soil conditions must meet, or be capable of being adapted to meet, the structural requirements of the show’s equipment, including the staking for tent supports.

Once a site is selected to host a touring show, Cirque du Soleil’s code advisor identifies local requirements specific to the site and a Cirque du Soleil site analyst meets with the applicable AHJs. All detailed documentation, including drawings, calculations, and certifications, are submitted to the jurisdiction for approval. The site analyst discusses with the AHJ any requirements that are specific to the jurisdiction. In some cases, Cirque du Soleil’s code advisor and local professional consultants are brought in to negotiate an equivalency or variance based on international safety codes, like those published by NFPA, as well as on experiential knowledge from previous shows in other locations. Discussions are documented in writing, and permitting requirements and equivalencies or variances are registered. All stakeholders work with the knowledge that the event is temporary rather than permanent to the site.

The work of the construction and marking teams takes about a week. The construction team, comprised of two or three Cirque du Soleil employees, travels to the performance site to prepare the land for the tent installation. Fencing is erected for security and site access control. Filling or cutting is conducted where necessary to grade the site to the contour needed for tent installation. Vast areas often need to be paved over with asphalt to provide consistent walking surfaces and water-resistant bases for the erection of seating units and the positioning of other equipment. The marking team, also comprised of two or three Cirque du Soleil employees, follows the construction team. Areas are marked for tent locations and placement of steel support plates and stakes. Curbs are installed to prevent groundwater or rain runoff from infiltrating the tent installation area. Ramps are installed to provide safe pedestrian travel and equipment movement over the curbing. More than 250 steel plates used to secure the tent masts and cables are installed by driving 1,200 stakes, each 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, into the ground.

The main big-top tent prior to raising

The main big top tent prior to raising. Erecting the tents and the "mobile village" takes anywhere from a week to 10 days. Photograph: Carl Tremblay

Cirquadors raise the edge of the big top under the direction of a Cirque de Soleil tent master.

Cirquadors raise the edge of the big top under the direction of a Cirque du Soleil tent master. Photograph: Carl Tremblay

The big top raising as a work in progress

The big top raising as a work in progress. Photograph: Carl Tremblay

Set-up of the big-top tents and the mobile village takes a week to 10 days. It begins with the choreographed delivery of equipment to prevent overcrowding the site with trucks. (The “KURIOS” show is transported from venue to venue by 65 trucks bearing 2,000 tons of equipment.) All equipment is put into place so as not to interfere with any other activity, and traffic is managed under a plan approved by the AHJ. Site set-up is conducted by a 50-member team, including a site manager and a tent master. All team members are Cirque du Soleil employees who travel with the touring group. The team erects the tents and installs all equipment, including the stage, tiered patron seating, lighting, and the comfort and safety features that will be used during the run of the show. Throughout the set-up process, a team composed of the site analyst, code advisor, site manager, and, in some jurisdictions, a local consultant, ensures that the installation is at the right point to be inspected by the appropriate AHJ. The tents are assembled, typically beginning with the artistic tent that houses costumes, dressing rooms, a training area, and a physio-therapy room.

The skills of the tent master and other Cirque du Soleil employees are utilized to raise the big-top roof, a dramatic moment in the preparation of each show. First, four main masts supporting the big top, each 82 feet (25 meters) tall, are raised. The prominent cupola, which houses equipment including smoke removal fans, is raised by four motors, one mounted to each of the main masts. Much of the tent roof is raised via a hand-operated winch system. The perimeter edge of the roof fabric is supported by 120 posts, each 16 feet (4.29 meters) high. Using brute force, a group of 80 cirquadors—local laborers under the direction of the tent master—push the posts, 20 at a time, into place, raising the corresponding section of roof fabric with each concerted attack. The whole process takes a little less than two hours. Fabric wall panels are secured to complete the tent envelope.

The elevated stage and associated ramps used by performers to enter and exit the stage are installed, followed by the show’s structural elements and stage sets. Each Cirque du Soleil production utilizes unique and visually compelling sets and structures that support the theme of the show. For “KURIOS,” which melds the Renaissance-era “cabinet of wonders” idea with an Edwardian steampunk aesthetic, 426 props are utilized, more than in any production in Cirque du Soleil’s history. Among the props is a large mechanical hand measuring 15 feet by 7 feet (4.6 meters by 2.1 meters) and weighing 750 pounds (340 kilograms). Among other purposes, the prop serves as a separate stage for a memorable acrobatic routine.

Under the big top: Designing for life safety

Inside the tent, Cirque du Soleil and AHJs must work cooperatively to ensure the highest possible level of life safety through elements including audience seating, egress plans, fire alarms, and many other features.

One premise on which Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows’ success has been built is that three tents—the entrance tent, the artistic tent, and le grand chapiteau (“the big top”)—work together as a functioning whole. Patrons access the big top, where the performance takes place, via the entrance tent that houses concessions and merchandise sales. The show’s cast members access the big top via the artistic tent that houses costumes and wardrobe, dressing rooms, and training areas. Some AHJs have asked that the tents be separated by minimum distance criteria, perhaps more out of property conservation considerations than patron and staff safety concerns. Cirque du Soleil’s code advisor has often had to explain that the siting of the tents in close proximity to each other is necessary to the intended function, that patron and staff safety is adequately addressed by other features and guidelines to which Cirque du Soleil strictly adheres, and that the tent is expendable in case of fire.

Take a 360 degree tour of the KURIOS tent during rehearsal

Audience seating inside the big top is installed in tiered sections similar to those in permanent theaters. The seating platforms are assembled to provide structural stability and necessary load bearing. Cirque du Soleil’s code advisor has encountered AHJs who have attempted to regulate the seating by the traditional requirements for grandstands and bleachers that arbitrarily limit the number of seats between aisles. In consultation with the code advisor, AHJs have agreed to permit the number of seats between aisles to comply with aisle accessway and aisle provisions, like those in NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, applied to permanent theaters. Self-rising seats are used and the aisle accessways are sized in excess of code requirements so as to permit easy patron movement within the seating rows while the seats are occupied.

Cirque du Soleil’s touring big-top shows offer family-oriented entertainment, and foam booster seats are provided for smaller children. To limit the introduction of combustible materials, the booster cushions are hollowed out to meet Cirque du Soleil’s self-imposed design criterion of not more than 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of expanded foamed plastic material per booster seat.

The entrance tent and the big top are wheelchair accessible, and patrons are able to reserve wheelchair-accessible seating spaces in advance of Cirque du Soleil shows. Regular seating units, specially outfitted with casters, are removed from audience seating rows to provide spaces for persons in wheelchairs and those who accompany them. Wheelchair-accessible washrooms are located on-site. Accessible parking spaces are located as close as possible to the main entrance. Additionally, persons with reduced mobility may be dropped off at the entrance before the vehicle is parked.

Stairway and ramp entrance into big top

Metal ramp makes accessing restrooms possible for patrons with disabilities

Every element of the touring show is transported via 65 tractor-trailers, including, from top, stairway sections and handrails and life-safety elements designed for audience members with special needs. Photographs: Carl Tremblay

Occupant egress routes from the big top are provided by four ramps, four stairs, and two ground-level walks. The stairs are positioned near the top of the stepped aisles serving the seating sections, and the ramps are accessed from a major cross aisle at the mid-level height of the tiered seating. Based on the remoteness of the ramps, stairs, and walks, they function as 10 exits. Six discharge directly to the outside perimeter of the big top, and four discharge within the entrance tent. Staff is trained to direct patrons back toward the main entrance when it is safe to travel in that direction. Staff is also trained to direct patrons, as needed, away from the main entrance to gates in the site perimeter security fencing.

In some locations, the AHJ has asked that the big top provide exits, in size and number, as dictated for a hypothetical tent installation per the local fire code, which would result in fewer exits, but each would be required to be wider. Using egress modeling, Cirque du Soleil’s code advisor has been able to show that the 10 exits discharge patrons more directly and efficiently from their seating section to the outdoors. The code advisor’s goal is to provide proper life safety, often to a degree higher than that required by the host jurisdiction, and to do so in a way that best utilizes the design of the mobile village, without costly and time-consuming adaptations that are sometimes requested by host cities. With that goal in mind, Cirque du Soleil recently created a presentation using a three-dimensional model through which the effective egress of the big top can be demonstrated to local officials. This is typically done as part of the initial negotiation on codes and practices to be employed during Cirque du Soleil’s residence.

Exit stairs, complete with guards and handrails, provide a consistent riser height and tread depth. The leading edges of each tread are marked in safety yellow. The handrails provide continuous graspability, a feature often lacking in permanent theater and arena installations. The handrails are assembled, disassembled, and shipped from site to site as part of the mobile village.

The touring show is equipped to provide its own electrical power via five 500-kilowatt generators: two for show equipment, two for site operation, and one for back-up. The big top, the entrance tent, and the artistic tent are climate controlled. In the event of failure of normal lighting, emergency lighting is provided in all tents.

The show’s emergency plan centers around a five-person security team and a constantly attended security station. The security team directs the efforts of 22 ushers—local residents brought in to work the shows—who serve dedicated areas and door openings within the seating area. Employees, including the artists and ushers, are trained at each show location on their duties in the execution of the emergency plan. Language barriers that might otherwise result in communicating with local workers are rare, as the Cirque du Soleil employees on site speak a host of languages.

Audiences access the complex through the entrance tent, in foreground, which includes ticketing, food and merchandise functions

Audiences access the complex through the entrance tent, in foreground, which includes ticketing, food, and merchandise functions. Photograph: Carl Tremblay

A Cirque de Soleil employee briefs locally hired ushers on safety procedures prior to a show.

A Cirque du Soleil employee briefs locally hired ushers on safety procedures prior to a show. Photograph: Carl Tremblay

Historically, local requirements for a big-top fire alarm system have been satisfied via an equivalency provided by a detailed emergency plan that is executed by trained personnel who provide a fire watch. Where a fire alarm system has been required as a condition of permitting, these systems have been installed with fire-resistant flexible cable. More recently, it has become common to provide a fire alarm system using wireless technology, especially within the United Kingdom. In other parts of Europe and in Asia, a deterrent to acceptance of wireless systems has been the lack of synchronization of the flashing of the strobe appliances and the inability to provide sufficient stored power for three hours of autonomous operability of the free-standing horn and strobe units.

Where the wireless systems are used, heat and smoke detectors are positioned beneath the seating tiers. Alarm stations consisting of manual fire alarm boxes, strobes, and horns are positioned throughout the big top. The fire alarm control panel resides at the attended security station. Evacuation signals for fire are supplemented by voice communication. Evacuation instructions for events other than fire, such as high winds, are presented only by voice message.

Wind, in fact, is a condition that can impact the stability of the tent installation. Wind speed is monitored at the top of one of the four main support masts and recorded at a monitored indoor location. At a show in South America, the big top was evacuated when wind conditions reached 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour). Wind conditions increased to 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour) and the tent held without damage.

Cirque du Soleil meticulously maintains the property through vigilant housekeeping practices. Any trash that drops to the space below the audience seating tiers is removed daily. The potential fire hazard posed by trash buildup has been well-documented; a 1985 fire at a soccer stadium in England killed 56 and injured 265 when a lit cigarette ignited rubbish and paper that had collected over many events.

At the end of a show’s run, tear-down and pack-up takes three days. The time required for site restoration depends on the scope of the work. In many locations, the property owner asks that the asphalt paving remain.

Each Cirque du Soleil employee with responsibility for equipment has a maintenance log book in which testing results and frequencies are recorded. Within the Americas, equipment is typically returned to Cirque du Soleil’s home base in Montreal, Québec, every six years for major consolidation. Structural welding inspections are performed on site every two years. Replacement parts are shipped from the home base to the site as needed.

All of these practices are intended to mitigate the hazards associated with putting on a complex show in a temporary space. In collaboration with local AHJs, it is Cirque du Soleil’s goal to create an experience that allows audience members to focus on the production rather than their own safety concerns. Cirque du Soleil employees know they’ve accomplished that mission when patrons leave at the end of a show, enthusiastically recollecting the amazing artistic feats they’ve just witnessed.

RON COTÉ, P.E., is lead engineer, life safety, for NFPA. JEAN-FRANÇIOS SIMARD, P.Eng., is international code advisor for Cirque du Soleil. Photography by Carl Tremblay