Lyn Heward on inclusive excellence

Former director of creation for Cirque du Soleil shares keys for encouraging diversity and inclusion.


At the Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil, only a French word can adequately describe it: l’oeuvre.

But in any language, culture, or organization, its meaning is the same: It is the whole of “the work” — and it is everyone’s responsibility to make it happen. At Cirque — the 30-year-old self-described “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment” — it means the person behind the scenes is every bit as essential as the one under the spotlight in a show like “Mystère,” “O,” or “Zumanity.” And it is that combined expertise, that inclusive excellence, that has grown the organization from a handful of street performers to literally thousands of employees, including close to 1,500 artists. More than 100 million people have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since 1984.

“There is that reminder in the company, the importance of every individual in the group and their expertise, which is very different from one to another,” said Lyn Heward, former director of creation and former president and COO of the organization’s creative content division, who will offer a keynote presentation at the NACAS Annual Conference. She talks of contortionists, acrobatic gymnasts, dancers, musicians, jugglers, and vocalists associated with Cirque. But she also speaks of a director of immigration playing a key role, since 60 nationalities are represented in the company. Then there are those who help with taxes for each international employee. And even a receptionist who spent several years at the front desk of the creative center — one who later joined the cast of “Dralion” as a specialist in early woodwind instruments.

“When I think of it, a university is a lot like Cirque,” Heward said. “The purpose of the university is to nurture. People will use the term ‘teach,’ but to teach is sort of a one-way street. When I hear ‘teach,’ I think about speaking out, telling students what to do.”

With nurturing, however, “There is a certain amount of teaching, but there is also a certain amount of guiding. ‘Is this the right path? Can I broaden it for you?’ At Cirque, we call it nurturing talent.”

Welcoming To All

The challenges of nurturing a population as diverse as that of Cirque are very real. As colleges and universities continue to draw increasingly diverse populations of their own, however — in both employees and students — the same rules apply. Regardless of the setting, inclusive excellence means valuing the unique skills, abilities, and perspectives each person brings, and seeking out opportunities to bring those together in an environment that is welcoming — nurturing — to all.

“I can use the example of the coach and the artist at Cirque, but there’s also an example in the great technician who finds a solution to a problem with the trapeze,” she said. “That person is equally as important and also can serve as a mentor to the young artist coming in. It’s not just the person working directly as teacher or coach, but the entire system built around that to work together. Auxiliary services have to be in some way related to the overall goals of the university…. Everyone still has to feel an attachment and responsibility for the ultimate goal, which is to send young people out into the world, not just with academic understanding, but also with a little bit of an understanding of the world itself.”

Greater Contact With The World

Heward, who graduated from McGill University with a joint bachelor’s in modern languages and humanistic studies, is also the speaker of five languages: English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish. On a personal level, she said, that step toward understanding and appreciating other cultures has served her well. A Canadian by birth, she studied dance and gymnastics and toured Europe for several years as a performer prior to college. At 23, she served as assistant to a head judge at the 1976 Olympics in Montréal. In 1985, when Montréal hosted the World Gymnastics Championships, she was technical director and chief scorekeeper; she also judged numerous national and international competitions. Her journey with Cirque began in 1992 as an acrobatic scouting coordinator — able to converse with the large number of acrobats coming from the former Soviet Union, naturally — and her various roles in the development of shows led to the title of president and COO from 2000 to 2005.

And all along the way, Heward said, the ability to communicate allowed her to have “greater contact with the world” — and a clearer understanding of diversity.

“Diversity is like being very rich, but not rich in the sense of money,” she said. “The more diversity, the more this world will change and grow — and hopefully grow in a way where people can connect positively with other people, and be accepting of the way different people do things. At Cirque, that’s a tremendous value. The way a Russian acrobat works and an American gymnast works is completely different. Yet you have to bring that group of people, and that would be Britain, Canada, the United States, a couple of South Americans, a bunch of Russians and Ukrainians, and sometimes some Chinese, together. You have to accept the diversity because it broadens your product. It is the diversity of these techniques and the meeting of all four corners of the world that allows us to create new shows, and not do the same thing over and over and over again.”

Granted, that takes a certain amount of humility — just as it will in the university setting.

Sometimes artists will join the company believing they need to do nothing more than their individual act.

“They think they can come in as stars,” she said. Those artists typically don’t end up staying.

“They tend to expel themselves. We don’t end up firing the person. They just feel it’s time to go on to something else. It’s the same thing at the university: It’s a culture. Not all places have a culture, but universities should.” When the culture is set as one that’s accepting and welcoming of all, those who aren’t willing to take part eventually won’t, one way or another.

“Eventually it is the product that gains the notoriety as opposed to the individuals who make up the product,” she said.

One On One And Face To Face

In addition to humility, acceptance and championing of cultural differences, and creating an environment of individual responsibility toward the greater good, there’s one other thing that Heward mentions in the quest for inclusive excellence — and it goes back to Cirque’s earliest days. The company’s original street performers were a group of non-conformists whose influence continues to weave throughout Cirque today.

“They did not come from a very specific background,” she said. “They were people who lived life raucously and were not afraid. They didn’t feel challenged by other types of performers. They were who they were.”

As street buskers, Heward said, “There was always this open relationship with the public that they were dealing with. The only way to get your money as a street busker is to be really good at engaging people, irrespective of where they are coming from. They had to entertain them, but also reach them deeply enough that they would put a little money on the pavement.”

In the same way, each auxiliary employee has the opportunity for that face-to-face creation of the culture, valuing others and working toward the common goal.

“We have those artists who are completely fulfilled, who want to do this for the rest of their lives,” Heward said. “They are empowered, and they believe in giving back to the spectators, and to the world…. I think we’d all be a lot better off with more mentoring to help get people more engaged — even in love — with what they do.”


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