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For Tim Smith tent is whole new world

DEL MAR — Creating an entire world inside a tent 66 feet high with a diameter of 167 feet may seem an improbable task. But when that space is filled with state-of-the-art technology and awe-inspiring physical feats it hardly seems there are any boundaries at all.

“We’re using peoples’ bodies, images, space, to create this world that has become Cirque du Soleil and the world of ‘Totem,’” said Tim Smith, artistic director.

Artistic director Tim Smith makes the transition from actor to director with Cirque du Soleil and their production of “Totem.” Courtesy photo

Despite his working in a tent, Smith, who’s spent 15 years acting on Broadway where the theaters are much smaller, has the sense of being in a larger space than he’s worked in before.

As the artistic director, Smith finds himself immersed in every aspect of the production; during shows he’s out in front taking notes and ensuring the quality of the show is there; when the performers are off he’s surveying the technical aspects of the show, including the music, makeup and costumes; and then he’s managing the tour, attending to the actors’ and crews’ needs.

Smith, who’s from New York, began his career as an actor. It was only in the last five years that he’d decided to make the transition from appearing onstage to going behind-the-scenes as a director and producer.

What was the cause for the transition? “Birthdays,” Smith said wryly. “You look up, and you’re not 20 anymore. And you’re like, ‘What’s the next step?’ And being an actor is an interesting way of life, and an interesting career and it was going well for me; I was successful in it, so it was better to bow out. Transitioning at 35 is easier than 45,” he said.

Joining Cirque du Soleil has, in essence, signaled the start of his second act.

Smith began working for Cirque two years ago and for the past six months has been at the helm of “Totem.”

The show, which has been performing two shows a day since it arrived at the Del Mar fairgrounds in April and will continue through May 27, is constantly evolving from its original concept created by Robert Lapage more than a year ago. The show’s continual changes and evolution are fitting, given the show’s theme depicting the evolution of mankind.

Since taking the show over, Smith said it’s his job to do two things: keep the show fresh by creating new acts and updating the show’s technology, and to tighten the show. “We develop daily; we develop new images and the show changes daily, and we keep the show motivated. It’s a very creative job,” he said.

Putting on as many shows as it does, there are always the challenges, too. Mostly, Smith explained, with the shows technologies. “‘Totem’ is state-of-the-art at this point for the world that’s out there entertainment-wise. It does offer two things: It lets the audience see something they’ve never seen before, but then also, it adds the responsibility to us to maintain things that’ve never been used before.”

Not only can the technologies used break down, but also the performers’ bodies, which are more often than not performing skills that haven’t been seen before.

“You sit in the audience and you see acts from unicycle girls from Mongolia…to a static trapeze act that the images are just stunning and beautiful,” Smith said.