Kristi Hughes ’98 has lived and performed all over the world, perfecting her work as a puppeteer, actress, teacher, clown and playwright. Her latest gig is in the touring company of Toruk as one of the first six puppeteers ever to work for the internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil.
“In casting this show, Cirque du Soleil decided for the first time to hire professional puppeteers to manipulate these large-scale animal objects,” Hughes says.
Based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar, Toruk is set thousands of years before the time depicted in the film. The puppets portray various fauna on Pandora, the moon on which Avatar takes place, including Viperwolves, Austrapedes, a Turtapede, Direhorses and Woodsprites, as well as the great predator in the sky, Toruk, a puppet with a 40-foot wingspan manipulated as a giant, upside-down marionette. Altogether, 16 puppets appear in the show.
“One very special thing about being a part of this production is that all of us in the cast right now have been together since its creation,” Hughes says. “It has always been my goal to be a part of a major production of Cirque du Soleil and to participate in the creation process.”
Rehearsals began in July 2015, and the show celebrated its world premiere in Montréal, Canada, in December. The production will tour North America this year, including dates in Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati in April and May, followed by a world tour.
“Every week the show continues to evolve, and for me, as a creator of theatre as well as an actor, it is exciting, invigorating and educational to be a part of a creation on such a massive scale,” Hughes explains.
She’s also had the opportunity to rub elbows with the Hollywood elite.
“The producer of Avatar, Jon Landau, came to several of our rehearsals and recently saw the show again in Miami. We also had the opportunity to meet James Cameron a couple of times, which was, of course, absolutely thrilling to interact with such a successful and well-known director.”
After graduating from Centre with a double major in French and dramatic arts, Hughes attended the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She currently makes her home in Berlin, though travels across the globe to act, teach, puppeteer and perform, including work with the TheatreFragile, her mask theatre company.
With many irons in the fire, Hughes was initially concerned about the rigors of this current world tour.
“Touring to so many different cities in all parts of the United States is the best possible way for me to get to know my country again after being an expat in France and Germany for so long,” Hughes says.
Before rehearsals for Toruk began, she taught at the Kentucky Center Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA) in the summer of 2015, a residential program conducted on Centre’s campus for gifted high school students.
“One major highlight of GSA was teaching a full-day Larval Mask workshop with Patrick Kagan-Moore in Weisiger Theatre,” she says. “I took my Acting I class with Patrick in 1995, and my very first physical theatre and mask class with him in 1997. To then have the opportunity to teach alongside one of my Centre College professors who had had such an important influence on my life’s path was very powerful.”
GSA was also the venue for trying out another of Hughes’ ventures.
“I’ve wanted to create a one-woman show for about 10 years, and now I’m finally in the research and development phase,” she explains. “I had the opportunity to perform a 20-minute excerpt of my work-in-progress on Weisiger stage, the very stage that inspired me to pursue acting over 20 years ago. Words cannot express all of the emotions I felt during those twenty minutes of playing in front of all of the GSA students and faculty.”
See a complete list of “TORUK—The First Flight” North American tour dates here.
Photo credits: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil
by Cindy Long
April 8, 2016