Jason Brass, head of wardrobe, KOOZA
That’s one of the things I love about Cirque – I’m 39 years old and they still want me to play! To have a company that wants you to keep playing is incredible.
Cirque du Soleil is one of the biggest names in circus for good reason – few circus companies manage to blend mind-blowing displays of athleticism, vibrant set design, a sense of magical wonder and pitch-perfect music with as much panache. Beyond the death-defying stunts and hilarious comedy is an entire team backstage that works tirelessly to ensure that the show is perfect. A lot of that pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of Jason Brass. Jason is head of wardrobe for Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA, which is currently wowing Brisbane audiences over at Skygate Brisbane Airport. Responsible for not only fixing general wear and tear of the intricate costumes, Jason also must maintain the creative vision of the show throughout its touring run. We caught Jason in a rare free moment in the middle of a hectic day to chat everything KOOZA and what it’s like to actually run away and join the circus.
Congratulations on KOOZA so far – it’s an amazing show! Before we talk about the show itself, I was wondering if you could take me back to your first encounter with the world of theatre. What was it that piqued your interest and hooked you?
I actually started at a small theatre company in St. Petersburg in Florida – where I was born and raised – I was working for them from the age of 14. I also was in a performing arts high school for theatre and that’s where I really fell into the passion surrounding costumes and theatre management instead of the on-stage component.
So, what was it about costuming and the behind-the-scenes aspects that connected with you personally?
Growing up I was always tinkering with things and making things with my hands. My grandmother taught me how to sew and it just became a passion of mine. For me it was an easy transition – it was almost a calling for me. I couldn’t believe I would do anything else besides theatre arts.
People talk about running away and joining the circus, but you actually did it! How did you first come to be involved with Cirque du Soleil?
I never thought I would ever be able to work for such a prestigious company. I’ve been with the company with 17 years now, but back when I started there were very few people that were working for Cirque. A friend of mine came into a costume shop I was working at and we hadn’t seen each other in a decade – she told me she got a job at La Nouba in Orlando in the creation department. Soon thereafter she called me an offered to help guide me into getting into Cirque du Soleil.
What was the first role you had with the company?
I was the swing costume technician. So my job at La Nouba was to know everyone in wardrobe’s track. If a dresser got sick or if somebody was on vacation I would help out, and I also maintained all the wigs and had my own line of work to do, but I had to know every single department’s position. So I would step in and fill in when needed.
You’ve had a variety of roles during your career at Cirque du Soleil – what other sort areas did you work in?
Oh, well one thing that I find fascinating about Cirque is that all of our shoes are custom made. I had been a leather worker for a lot of theatre companies but I never had experienced the world of shoemaking. Eventually I went to KÀ in Las Vegas to do creation and when I got there they asked me to move over and help the girl that was doing shoes. I ended up running the department doing shoemaking!
So there is a lot of support for learning on the fly and gaining skills in different areas?
Oh, absolutely! The way we do things at Cirque is different than most companies throughout the world for theatre. In theatre we build things and the construction technique is different and here at Cirque we are more couture. We are always learning – the staff in Montreal are so gracious in giving us knowledge, showing us the way to do something and guiding us.
So tell us about your current role in KOOZA! What sort of work does Head of Wardrobe entail?
My job is to maintain the artistic integrity of the show, so basically I am the designer’s eyes. I have two permanent staff that travel with me – one specialising in sewing and the other focusing on shoes and crafts. I also hire four local staff members per city to help us in different capacities. Mostly it’s a managerial role, but every day I’m also sewing and styling wigs and touching up people’s make up, so it’s still a hands-on position.
The whole production looks absolutely amazing on stage, but what was your reaction when you saw the designs, the concepts and the costumes up close for the first time?
To me it was fascinating because KOOZA is a very rich and colourful show. Unlike a lot of our other shows that use a lot of spandex, KOOZA has tailored suits and military–style garments. We’ve got more fibres in the show that are non stretch than other Cirque du Soleil shows. To me it was fascinating to see how we were going to put the show together and make these costumes functional for the performers doing the tricks. Of course, we do alterations for the performers but we ensure that we are staying in the world of the design, but execute it for the comfort and safety of the artist.
What can you tell us about the conceptual influences behind the costuming?
We have a lot of concepts in KOOZA. The designer Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, the makeup designer Florence Cornet and the director David Shiner looked at different worlds to see what they could bring as inspiration into KOOZA. We have a lot of Indian influences, Mad Max, rock and roll, the painter Klimt, we pay homage to Wizard of Oz – there’s a lot of different elements in the show that they pulled inspiration from.
What’s your favourite ensemble in the collection to get hands-on with?
It’s really hard to say because we have so many beautiful designs in the shpw. I would say that one of my favourite pieces in the show is the high wire ensemble. The high wire artists come out in these regal, long velvet coats that are embroidered to an inch of their life, but unfortunately we only see them for about 30 seconds before they are removed to reveal this bright, stark white outfit. They create such a powerful visual, which is why it’s one of my favourite costumes.
How much wear and tear would a costume undergo throughout a visit to, say, Brisbane?
Some of our costumes are built like little tanks while some others don’t last that long! I carry 3,500 costume pieces with me on the tour and you’ll see about 1,200 pieces per show so we are always in constant maintenance. The majority of our costumes are looked over every single day to make sure that they are wearing well and that everything is securely fastened for the safety of the artist. I have garments that have been in the show almost two years and I have some that last six weeks. All of the costumes are very complex in KOOZA – we use approximately 23,000 products in the show as a whole.
Aside from the fantastic costumes, what is it about KOOZA that you think engages audiences?
The journey that we take you on is so magical – with the death-defying artistry and the beautiful set and lighting – it’s really a joyous show to watch. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed with the show for so long is because it’s got it’s own uniqueness and beauty to it.
KOOZA follows the journey of an innocent through a world of magic and wonder – is there any parallel between that and you joining a storied and magical company such as Cirque?
Oh, absolutely! That’s one of the things I love about Cirque – I’m 39 years old and they still want me to play! To have a company that wants you to keep playing is incredible.
Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA is currently being staged underneath the blue and yellow big-top tent situated at Skygate Brisbane Airport. Make sure to catch the show before it leaves town on Sunday January 8.