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2 min

From Virginia cornfields to Cirque du Soleil

Totem artistic director Tim Smith reflects on coming out and running away to join the circus

After starring in six original Broadway companies, Tim Smith joined Cirque du Soleil.

Tim Smith has been flying back and forth from Las Vegas to New York; more recently he jetted to Ottawa to prepare for Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, which opened earlier this month (it runs until Aug 4) under the blue-and-yellow tent at Canadian Tire Place.

His life hasn’t always been so glamorous. “It was interesting growing up in Virginia, in a field of brothers. They are all in other careers, but I was the only one to go to college and then move to New York City. It was a big jump, but it was something I wanted to do for a long time.”

Smith knew he was gay from the age of five but didn’t feel comfortable sharing that knowledge until he was 21 and at college.

“I always say the closet is your parents, ’cause they are the only ones you really care about,” he says with a pause. “I guess they reacted like anyone else did back home. It was a large learning curve for them, and we worked together. Today we are in a very great place, but initially, there was a lot of understanding that was needed to allow both sides to grow.”

Upon arriving in the Big Apple, Smith threw himself into his work, starring in six original Broadway companies, including Grease (with Rosie O’Donnell), Annie Get Your Gun (with Bernadette Peters), AIDA (an Elton John musical), Sweet Charity (with Christina Applegate) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. “It was incredible to be part of such successful productions. In AIDA, I got to travel the world.”

He seems unfazed by the celebrities he’s worked with. When asked about it, he says with a smile, “They were all sweet. I really enjoyed Sweet Charity with Christina. It was a really funny play.”

Smith credits his success to his sense of discipline and putting work ahead of love. “I have a strong professional drive, and if it wasn’t for that, then you can get distracted from your work.”

In spite of his success onstage, Smith felt a need to grow. He made the move to Cirque du Soleil and was placed in charge of the artistic direction of Totem, which tells the story of the evolution of mankind.

“I manage the 46 artists, the 20 members of my team, including coaches, stage managers and technical operators, and all the departments that make it look so amazing. Basically, I am the manager of the tour and make sure that it goes well,” he says proudly. “I have to constantly motivate my team and myself.

“I am their manager, their boss and sometimes their mother. For artists to continue to be motivated — and I take the extra time to find out what is going on that day and . . . to chat with them.”

There is no doubt that Smith loves his job. “Through the tour, every artist will need someone to talk to and need help to get them through. And those are the most rewarding situations.” 

Today, Smith has a partner. “It has been a couple years. It has been an exciting additive to my life,” he says. “I think people are happier when they have someone around to share their happiness.“

Smith says Totem showcases his signature style, though it may not be totally obvious. “I love how the show is for everyone. It is a sexy show and a feast for the senses with an opulent style. You are witnessing amazing people’s skill sets, with a diverse range of culture, race and age amongst the performers.”

He notes that the show has lots of skin. “The costumes, or their absence, try to evoke the shape of the human body. We don’t have animals; we have lighting, music and human bodies, and that has made Cirque famous!”