What Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” Can Teach Us About Creating Transcendent Experiences

This was a post I wrote on my old Posterous blog in 2011 and which will be reblogged on my Tumblr.

The clipping is a theatrical review, an article carefully removed from the London Times. It is a positive review; some might call it glowing. Nevertheless, it has been put in this position of execution, and the silver-handled knife is being thrown at it. […]
The sentence that holds his name is the particular one that has incensed M. Lefèvre to the point of knife throwing. A single sentence, that reads thusly: “M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre continues to push the boundaries of the modern stage, dazzling his audiences with spectacle that is almost transcendent.”
Most theatrical producers would likely be flattered by such a remark. They would clip the article for a scrapbook of reviews, quote it for reference and referrals.
But not this particular theaterical producer. No, M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre instead focuses on that penultimate word. Almost. Almost. […]
Clearly he must be doing something wrong. If his productions are merely almost transcendent, when the possibility of true transcendence exists somewhere nearby, waiting to be attained, then there is something else that much be done.

It is this quest for absolute transcendence that leads the knife-throwing Lefèvre to creating Le Cirque des Rêves, a circus operating from dusk till dawn full of magical attractions, beyond-talented performances, and other enchantments that transfix all involved — whether participant or audience member.

In Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus, the circus serves as the setting and the manifestation of a long-standing battle of skill and wits between two magicians unwittingly roped in by their guardians since childhood — but really it’s the Night Circus itself that steals the show. Morgenstern’s detailed descriptions of the circus setup, the process of its creation, and the reception from the public draws us into its own enchantment, and shows us the power of creating transcendence in our work — and handily, her novel describes just how we can go about doing so.

1. Decide the effect you want to have on the people who experience your work, and have that be your guiding vision. Lefèvre was sparked into creating a work of absolute transcendence, and never strayed from that central vision. Every element — the performers, the food, the tent setups, the costumes, seriously everything — was examined meticulously against this vision, as well as against everything else that had been selected, to see if it passed muster. By not compromising on the vision, the Night Circus surpassed their already-high expectations, sharing its transcendent qualities onto all that come by.

One aspect of sticking to the vision that is especially strong within the book is the use of black and white as the central Circus colours. Every tent, costume, prop, and other material in the circus follows this down to the last detail: about the only part of the circus that isn’t black & white is the bright red hair of the twins Poppet and Widget, which soon becomes a trademark of theirs. They even bring the colour theme to the everlasting bonfire, lit in their opening ceremony with arrows of rainbow fire merging to create a bright white blaze. Attention to details like these are crucial in bringing your vision to transcendence.

2. Assemble a team of trusted people with both skill and passion, and encourage them to find other contributors that also match the vision. Lefèvre’s team had people who were both skilled and passionate in fashion and costuming, architecture, observational & interpersonal skills, performanceship, and sensory experiences. They were all top in their fields and regarded their skills not just as a job but as a life pursuit of passion and dedication — it didn’t feel like menial work, but like a meaningful and powerful journey. These people were then trusted to use their knowledge and taste to find other contributors: the architect eventually finds a world-class clockmaker whose work fits the vision of the Night Circus, and this clockmaker eventually becomes the Circus’s biggest advocate. Eventually even the cast of the Circus add their own touches, building from inside experience.

Picking a great crew from the beginning isn’t just about what they do, but also about their commitment and belief to your vision, and mutual trust. Lefèvre wouldn’t get anything done if he had to micro-manage the whole endeavour, but his choice of people meant that he could trust them to keep the vision going in ways that he himself could not do, while spending more time on the particular skills and passions he brings to the table. In return, his team feel a strong sense of agency and ownership, and they feel just as strong a need to fulfill the vision of transcendence — a vision as much theirs as Lefèvre’s.

3. Take risks on the uncertain if it means a better chance at fulfilling your vision. Celia, one of the two leads in the story, auditions for the Night Circus without any prior professional performance experience. Had Lefèvre and crew only gone for those with experience, they would have likely found no one worthy of the vision — but they let Celia showcase her skills and passions and found in her an absolute treasure.

Taking on Celia also had a side bonus: since she was not stuck on a particular style of performing, she was more flexible with adjusting what she already had with the Circus’s style and vision — eventually contributing a great deal to the Circus itself. There are plenty of people who have worked hard at their passions, and are busy exploring opportunities to share them with others. Their enthusiasm can sometimes override inexperience: their eagerness to participate leads to them working harder towards your vision, because they believe in it so much already and want the best from it — whereas those with some experience may just see it as an opportunity for themselves and not see themselves as part of a greater whole.

4. Involve all the senses; go holistic and ambient. Part of the original Circus team are two sisters, Tara and Lainie Burgess, who are noted for their keen sense of observation and their ability to interact with all sorts of people. Their contribution to the Circus is not necessarily as obvious as the architecture, the performances, or the costuming, but without it the Circus could not be as transcendent as it is: they provide the ambience and atmosphere.

The air is often thick with scents of caramel and autumn leaves, consistently there no matter the weather or season. The music and lighting are carefully chosen to suit the mood of the exclusively black-and-white palette. “Even the weight of the velvet curtains at the entrance”, notes the book, is carefully considered. We often consider sight as our main sensory input, but other senses such as touch and smell are just as evocative — if not so — of memories and fantasies. It transforms an event into a whole another world, so much so that when you encounter even a smidgen of those sensory feelings again — the smell of caramel or similar music in the background — you are immediately transported back and reminded of the experience. As Lainie says when discussing the Circus atmosphere:

The trick is to make it seem as though none of it is purposeful…to make the artificial feel real.

5. Rethink all assumptions; be prepared to start from scratch. In making the Night Circus, Lefèvre makes it clear that he is going to transcend the notion of a “circus” itself:

More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment. We will destroy the presumptions and preconceived notions of what a circus is and make it something else entirely, something new.

Those who are familiar with Blue Ocean Strategy will notice the parallels with one of its case studies, a real-world circus — Cirque du Soleil, who also set out to rethink the notions of a circus away from the elephants-under-the-Big-Top stereotype in the quest to bring it to a more sophisticated adult audience. Both Lefèvre and crew and Cirque du Soleil kept what they felt was the core of the circus experience — multi-disciplinary, enchanting and otherworldly, memories of a lifetime — and brought in what that meant for them personally: sheer human talent in technique and artistry, a strong sense of story and atmosphere, and appreciation for magic, amongst other things.

By embracing the foundations while rebuilding the structure to suit the vision, they help their audience connect it to something they already know — the idea of a circus — but also imagine and experience something new and unexpected — transcendence.

6. Treat your team and your fans well. The cast and crew of the Night Circus are often described as family; their input is valued and included into the Circus, and they are regularly celebrated and brought together at Lefèvre’s famed Midnight Dinners, itself its own menagerie of creative inspiration. This in turn gives them a sense of belonging and ownership of the Circus — indeed, they are the Circus, and what they go through affects every other part of the experience. (this is especially true for the leads of our story, but we’re getting into spoiler territory here.)

Even more apparent is the Circus’s relationships to its fans, or rêveurs — a group of core enthusiasts initially brought together by the writings of the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Theissen, who was so enthralled by the Circus that commissioned his work that he spent a lot of his time visiting the Circus when possible, taking great lengths to do so, and sharing his observations with others that have similar experiences or are only able to live vicariously through him.

The Circus management and crew, for all its professionalism and mystery, are surprisingly accessible to fans like Theissen. Lefèvre responds to Theissen’s request to be kept updated on when the circus is near his town — a remarkable ask considering that the Circus does not advertise itself nor reveal its tour locations — by personally sending him a notice in advance whenever the Circus makes its way to Germany, and Celia develops a close friendship with him that is rumoured to be intimate and romantic. Perhaps this is because Theissen, as the clockmaker, is also considered part of the crew and a valued contributor, but soon the generousity is subtly extended to the rêveurs fan groups. Poppet and Widget even easily befriend another young fan, Bailey, who eventually becomes a core part of the Circus (again, spoiler moment) — there is no bodyguard or PA to assess his worthiness before he can continue. His passion is acknowledged, respected, and welcomed; the mystery is still enigmatic, but also down-to-earth and approachable.

The rêveurs’ own contribution to the Circus experience is recognised and respected by the cast: attire of black and white, befitting the theme, but with a touch of red — to signify that they are also observers, part of the outside world. This level of respect and adoration for the fans shows recognition for their loyalty, which will be repaid in even more support and loyalty: respect begets respect, love begets love. Transcendence involves treating your audience as part of the experience — without them there is no experience after all, as Lefèvre’s philosophy on production states.

Immersive experiences are becoming more popular in arts and entertainment: interactive performance & visual art pieces, Alternate Reality Games, fan interpretations of favoured media. Selling the experience rather than the product has been a core part of marketing theory for some time. Creating an experience that is memorable, effective, and powerful means tapping not just into excellence, but also transcendence — a quality that companies like Cirque du Soleil are starting to recognise.

Focus on the reaction from your audience, keep true to your vision, and value your people — and your work will transcend too.

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