Q&A: The people who make “the show go on” at Disneyland Paris
Disneyland Paris is on its way to pre-pandemic normalcy as numerous shows return. Isaure Bourgeois and Caroline Mimpontel are the flyman and stagehand who help make that happen.
Their jobs may not be as well-known as the cast of Disneyland Paris’s shows, but without them the show could not go on. Isaure and Caroline took the time to talk about what their jobs entail, and how they keep performers safe and efficient.
What does the stagehand and flyman profession entail?
Isaure: This is a multifaceted profession. Our role consists of managing the assembly and disassembly of scenery and stage structures at the Parks and during events. It also consists of moving scenery and props during performances, and of maintaining all machinery elements, whether around stages or in fly lofts (space above the stage, where a part of the scenery is handled). This is what the name of our profession is based on.
Caroline: We also deal with all elements related to the safety of performers, while making sure to comply with operational procedures.
How did you hear about this unusual profession?
Isaure: We both have very different career paths. As far as I am concerned, I heard about it by completing a training course in a high school that delivered that kind of training program. Thereafter, I obtained my Diplôme de Technicien des Métiers du Spectacle [Vocational Diploma for Careers in the Performing Arts Industry] with a specialization in stagehanding and set construction, along with a CAP (Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle [Certificate of Vocational Aptitude]) for the Prop Specialist profession. Afterward, I worked in various theaters in Paris, while freelancing for Disneyland Paris for eight years, and I got hired under a permanent contract (CDI) three years ago.
Caroline: As for me, I started working in this field a little later. I pursued classical studies until I obtained my bac [high school diploma]. I then studied English. I tried out many different jobs, as I did not have a well-defined career plan. At some point, I wanted to do something I really was interested in and I looked for training programs that would lead to a manual occupation, since I wanted to work with my hands. That’s how I found out about the CFPTS, the Center of Vocational Training in Performing Arts Techniques and went on a six-month personal training leave to learn about set construction, a profession that involves woodworking. I then freelanced for some time before I came across a job advertisement stating that Disneyland Paris was looking for a stagehand. I did not have any particular experience in this field, but the job description really made me feel like applying. That’s how I applied and got hired. This was 11 years ago.
Very few women work as stagehands. As such, how was your integration into the team at Disneyland Paris?
Caroline: I must say that my coworkers welcomed me warmly. When I arrived, we were only three women working as stagehands under a permanent contract (CDI). Since then, things have changed significantly. Over time, an increasing number of women have started practicing this profession at Disneyland Paris, including in our department.
Isaure: Our leaders also do not hesitate to assign us roles with responsibilities. In addition to our role of stagehands, Caroline and I also serve as substitute stage managers. Each stage of the parks is managed by one or two stage managers, who kind of serve as the leaders of the teams in charge of machinery, and when they take time off from work, we take care of this.
Can you list some iconic shows on which you have worked?
Caroline: When I arrived at Disneyland Paris, I worked on “Animagique” (2002), “Moteurs… Action! Stunt Show Spectacular” (2002) and “Disney Junior Live on Stage!” (2003). Then I worked on “Disney Dreams!” (2012), not to mention the shows that took place at The Chaparral Theater, such as “Frozen Sing-along” (2015) or “The Forest of Enchantment: A Disney Musical Adventure” (2016). Over time, an increasing number of shows have been designed. And, with new franchises, this is not over. For us, this is very pleasant as these franchises make it possible for us to work in completely different worlds.
What memories do you have of these shows?
Isaure: I am going to take the example of “Animagique,” on which I worked as well. What was fun is that we were on stage – but we were invisible – since we had to wear coveralls with hoods so people could not see us when the stage went dark. There were also swift scenery changes. It was fascinating. Since we were in the dark, we had to be careful about other people, and be in sync with music and puppeteers.
Caroline: In most shows, there are choreographies the audience can see, and at the same time, there is another type of choreography taking place backstage, i.e., the hustle and bustle created by stagehands, who make sure that everything runs smoothly and that everyone is safe. Usually, stage managers let us know when we can move things, but “Animagique’s” music was so loud that we could use our ears to know when to change scenery and find the right locations to hand props at the right time, without bothering performers as they moved around.
What role does technology play in your work?
Caroline: It depends on the show, but overall, we can say that technology is increasingly used. In shows like “The Forest of Enchantment,” everything was done manually. On the contrary, for “Marvel Super Heroes United” (2018), the theater had been entirely renovated and we received training on how to use new equipment and technology as they were installed.
Isaure: However, even though scenery changes are increasingly automated, we always need to stay as close to the stage as possible so as to conduct our operations immediately if necessary. To do so, we use safety handles, which interrupt scenery motions as soon as we release them. This is a real advantage to ensure our performers’ safety. The work is distributed between a technician in the control room – who has an overall view of the show and manages scenery changes using a control panel – and the stagehands who are close to the stage, and therefore closer to the action.
How do you decide who gets to work on which show?
Caroline: It depends. Currently, we spend a lot of time on “The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands” as we are rehearsing, and there are many things to prepare, but most of the time I’m used to working on several shows at a time.
Isaure: Some coworkers prefer to only work on one show, which makes it possible to maintain cohesion on the team. However, working on various projects allows us to become familiar with the operations conducted on many different shows so as to cover for someone if necessary.
How many stagehands work at the resort?
Isaure: Around fifty people under permanent contracts (CDI), and when we add casual workers, this number amounts to sixty. This figure has significantly increased over the past few years, in concomitance with the increase in the number of shows.
Could you talk about the different shows on which you are currently working, starting with “Disney Illuminations,” which just made its comeback.
Caroline: For us, this show is a bit special since it takes place outdoors. Two stagehands work on this show. We take care of checking and turning on the systems that control water jets, in collaboration with lighting technicians and maintenance teams. We also take care of the star that sparkles at the very top of Sleeping Beauty Castle’s main tower, still in collaboration with the other technicians who work on the show. Every element is controlled from the control room across from the Castle, but we must be on site to turn the systems on. We also install the screen that block the Castle entrance so that videos can be projected.
There is also Disney Junior Dream Factory, which is beginning its second season.
Isaure: This show involves manual handling and a more technological approach. Both the opening of the door leading to the area where characters arrive and the activation of the various mechanical units, such as the scenery gears, are controlled by way of a control panel, while the props such as the balls, the large feather scarf, and all door openings for Disney characters’ arrivals are controlled manually.
And finally, there is “The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands.”
Caroline: For this show, we work alongside acrobats since we are the ones who take care of their equipment – poles, bungee cords, straps, and spirals. We check these elements every day, and during the show we look after them to make sure they are safe.
Isaure: We must constantly be by their sides, including during rehearsals. Dancers can rehearse without us, but acrobats need us at all times, just like singers need audio engineers.
What is your schedule like?
Isaure: A typical day starts at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 6:30 p.m. We start with the cleaning of the stage, and then we check the machinery. We activate all scenery units once, with no music, no effect, just to listen whether there are odd sounds, and to make sure that all motions are smooth. We also check the equipment of the acrobats’ warm-up room, and then we run a show – with no performers – using only technology, special effects, and lights, to make sure everything works properly, and scene transitions are natural. Afterward, performers have access to the stage so they can warm up, and the day continues with performances. Once they all are over and performers are gone, we put the stage elements back to their initial position.
We feel that you are very close to performers.
Isaure: Due to our job, we are indeed very close to acrobats, and to Disney characters, who have to go back and forth between dark areas and lighted areas – such as at Studio D – and therefore, we have to guide them when they walk in the backstage areas, where it is dark. It is a real trust-based relationship between them and us.
Caroline: Like them, we are here to make sure we deliver an amazing show. And when we collaborate on such projects, we are all united and share the same excitement so that everything can run smoothly.
Do you sometimes have to get involved in show creations?
Isaure: This can happen sometimes, indeed. However, we get involved as soon as the theater is ready and scenery has been installed on the stage so it can be assembled.
Caroline: That’s when we have to think about how we are going to conduct our operations on the show.
Isaure: Sometimes things work out when we put them down on paper, but they do not necessarily work out in real life. Therefore, we have to change and improve some aspects to turn the show directors’ vision into reality, and this is when we can get involved.
Caroline: For “The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands,” some of the acrobats use bungee cords and elastic equipment as part of their performance, and for certain acts they have to climb up a rope until they almost reach the fly loft, and finally let go of it. To do so, we had to find a way to make sure they could reach the right height to perform this act safely. Therefore, to reassure them and ensure their safety at the same time, we thought about installing a system that guarantees that they have reached the right height.
The team in charge of machinery designed what we called “blue boxes,” which are little wooden boxes containing LED lights, built by one of our coworkers. When the acrobats’ eyes are aligned with those LED lights, they know they have reached the right height. It was complicated to install them before they were on stage, because we really had to try out this system directly with them, but at the end of the day it really has made everyone’s job easier.
How do feel about the return of shows at Disneyland Paris?
Caroline: It’s a great pleasure. Some iconic shows have already made their comeback, and new shows on the theme of the 30th Anniversary will soon be launched. We are delighted to see that some projects that were interrupted due to the pandemic have been resumed. Some shows also had to be suddenly interrupted because of that, and no ultimate performance was even delivered. That’s too bad. Luckily, today, our entertainment teams are excited about the current and upcoming projects. Because, as we tell each other, “What we like to do is to put on a show!,” which is why we are here!