“We had a childhood mostly without television, and our parents encouraged us to try anything that interested us,” says Cirque du Soleil performer Steven Bishop.
One of three brothers, Steven grew up flying model aeroplanes, making pottery and sailing. The multilingual Australian, who graduated with a Bachelor of Dental Science from The University of Queensland in 1984, has been performing in Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai for the past 13 years.
“After a uni holiday trekking in Nepal and surfing in Southeast Asia, I decided it was time to focus on one hobby, or at least just a few,” says Steven.
“I set the parameters: it had to be creative, and it had to be physical.”
Steven soon discovered the art of mime. He participated in La Boite Theatre Company’s Friday-night La Bamba shows before travelling to London to study the theatrical medium. From there, he went on to the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris to learn the art of physical theatre.
Steven continued to pick up unique theatrical skills along the way, including comedy, ventriloquism, escapology, and stilt performing. His stunt work saw him earn the position of the Lunar Ghost and Rowan Atkinson’s stunt double in the 2002 film Scooby-Doo.
Steven first became aware of Cirque du Soleil through a VHS of Nouvelle Experience, an early show featuring the clown David Shiner.
“David’s style really appealed to me and [the show] spoke to me in the theatrical language I had learned at École Jacques Lecoq,” he says.
The former dentist was performing at the Las Vegas Ventriloquist Festival in 2001 when a friend (who was performing in Cirque du Soleil’s O) encouraged Steven to send an audition video to the Cirque du Soleil casting department.
Steven remembers his Cirque audition as being like Survivor. “After every exercise, I’d come back into the [audition] room and there were [fewer] people.”
Surprisingly, however, Steven says the most difficult part of the audition process was not the physicality.
“I had to fill in my personal details – marital status and number of children – and there wasn’t enough space on the form to include all four of my children.”
Steven jokes that he considered leaving one of his children off the form until Casting Director Michel Laprise (now one of Cirque’s proclaimed show directors) saw Steven’s frustration. Laprise provided extra paper and assured the hopeful performer that even big families were welcome at the company.
Steven was cast as the clown in Director Dominic Champagne’s Varekai. The story follows on from the Greek myth of Icarus, telling the story of what might have happened after he flew too close to the sun.
Cirque du Soleil’s show sees Icarus (rather than drowning in the sea below) crash into the volcanic and mysterious forest of Varekai.
When life with Varekai began, Steven’s four kids were aged two, six, eight and 10. The performer admits that the adjustment to apartment living and regular relocation was difficult, but says the positives have easily outweighed the harder times.
“There were many adjustments required. But as a result, I am proud to say we are a very close family. The kids are multilingual, adaptable and confident, and are taking on the world in their own right,” says Steven.
“[My wife] gave up her career to [steer] the boat through the variable seas. She did an exemplary job of raising exceptional humans.”
Creating a sense of home in various itinerant environments and keeping their children’s English up to the standard of their Australian peers were just some of the challenges Steven and his wife faced during life on the road. However, this left-of-field lifestyle eventually become the norm for the Australian family of six.
“We made sure that we always ate dinner as a family and always ensured that there was a consistent supply of Vegemite,” Steven jokes.
The Varekai cast member also makes particular mention of the challenge of maintaining regular dental check-ups, and not losing children on the New York and Moscow subways.
When asked whether he was able to pinpoint a particular career highlight, Steven answered with ease: “Performing Varekai at Royal Albert Hall. It is such an amazing historical space – one feels like a true thespian playing there.”
The former dentist admits he has considered a return to his previous profession, but after looking into re-registering, Steven found that new administrative requirements had been introduced.
“It was going to be much more difficult than making people laugh,” he says.
Steven has recently returned to Varekai after a two-month sabbatical performing in Palazzo Hamburg.
This performing experience was very different for the Cirque du Soleil clown. “[It’s exciting] to perform in such an intimate space, where you can see into the eyes of each of the 370 German guests,” he says.
If jumping back on tour with Varekai isn’t enough, Steven has also been working on a clown show with a Basque clown director, is writing a lecture series in hopes of inspiring Australian school-leavers, and is currently designing a permaculture project in Ecuador with his wife, Cathryn Luckmann.
It’s safe to say he’s not clowning around.
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