O My – Transformative Experiences

Every Cirque du Soleil show is a miniature master class in experience design. These are my insights from watching O last night:


You enter through the Richard MacDonald art gallery, a meandering hall flanked by bronze bodies extended and twisted and curved in stunning composition. Human figures, human forms, unfamiliar but beautiful : psychological priming for the evening's entertainment. Attendants wear tailed tuxedos reminiscent of old time three ring circuses - a nod to tradition and a nostalgia trigger. You smell water immediately, chlorine and wet that makes you wonder what's behind the enormous, somehow (magically?) bulbous main curtain. Its red bounce light fills the auditorium with rosy saturation, the only relief an irregular aqua ceiling with a swirling neon chandelier. Even in its initial architecture, the theme arises: we will break pattern and expectation.

Transformative Experiences

We expect pattern. Our default is pattern. Most of the textures we see, every day, form patterns. Not just visual but auditory, behavioral, speech patterns, collective habit. The strongest experiences are those that transform us. They break those patterns and in breaking the patterns draw attention to the pattern itself. By disrupting or taking something apart, we can see in new clarity what it was before. This transformational moment can trigger many different things, from mild intrigue and curiosity to awe and wonder. It can make us uncomfortable as it tosses wrenches in our mental models and plays with boundaries and expectations. Transformation is how we grow.

Breaking Boundaries

Fifteen minutes before the show, the clowns appear: haggard and incompetent sailors that sally up into the audience. Breaking boundaries. Stages are for stiffs. A drip, drip, drip noise begins in the theatre, but it isn't until the clowns call attention to it, with a wave of their cup, that the audience realizes the theatre is leaking - water is dripping down from the ceiling, right in the middle of one of the aisleways. The clowns offer hole-filled umbrellas to those around them, hardly enough to protect them from the spray. They are walking, gesturing delight machines. This is the invitation to play, the hint that you aren't simply observer but a part of this experience. That safe circle that keeps everyone up on stage is gone, and you may, with or without your consent, be touched by the magic. That particular boundary they toy with consistently. They pull a man from the audience up to the billowing curtain, force him to read the no smoking or photography card, and then, when you think he's being told to return to his seats, he is suddenly jerked up, up, up into the air, into the folds of the red curtain as if by the hand of god. He does not reappear. It pulls on our childhood play strings. It makes us wonder if we could be next, even while our adult joykiller says 'plant!' like it's some cool thing to be able to dismantle the magic. They continue to blur the division between participant and audience. Dripping swimmers run up and down the aisles, tossing their hair and misting those near the walkways. Another man is pulled on stage as he attempts to return to his seat, encouraged to climb a dizzying ladder before being pushed four stories into the vast, vast pool that is the stage. But just in case you thought it was water, the host begins to walk across it, stepping atop the surface like some god-touched messenger. He floats across our preconceptions and scatters them in the air with his toes.


They toy with gender and clown the race off all the performers. People become divisible by outfit, makeup. Our white-wig-wearing assistants suddenly become spectacle performers. The stately men twist on the trapeze, revealing black garters as their coat skirts billow up and leaving the audience to wonder how they're supposed to feel about that. Masculine meets feminine meets androgyn. They use motion, gesture, and gaze with such intentionality that it demands attention. Every person on stage moves with complete mindfulness and awareness. One cannot help but be spellbound - look where they look, trace their lines. Perhaps my favorite moment was when the floor rose up through the water, bringing with it a dozen of the completely black-decked scuba divers whose invisible presence enables all of the incredible aquatic acrobatics. Beached on the suddenly solid stage, they kicked their flippers like stranded whales, both part of the show and the means to the show, a secret you perhaps weren't supposed to see. Of course everything Cirque du Soleil is known for impressed: the acrobatics, the contortionists, the clowns, but the detail of showmanship goes above and beyond. That is what separates Cirque du Soleil from other circuses, their capacity to transform you, to fill you with awe and wonder, to take what you think you know and defy, challenge, twist, and shatter it. They can make you walk on water.