uOttaKnow podcast transcription

Season 4, Episode 1

Marie Turgeon: Welcome to uOttaKnow, an informative, inspiring and entertaining podcast produced by the University of Ottawa. Hello, this is Marie Turgeon, filling in for uOttaKnow’s regular host, Gwen Madiba. I am a proud graduate of the Faculty of Arts, where I completed my bachelor’s in theatre and communication.

I currently live in Montreal, and I work there as an actor in various television shows and in theatre. uOttaKnow’s goal is to put you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for stimulating exchanges on today’s trending topics.

Welcome to the fourth season of uOttaKnow. This time around, we will be discussing creativity and inspiration. We’ll be talking to some of the university’s graduates who are now pursuing successful careers in their fields, whether in law, business, science or the arts.

These influential figures will join us from Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and beyond to talk about the roles inspiration and creativity play in their lives. Our first guest of the season has been leading an inspiring career in a highly creative field.

We’d like to welcome University of Ottawa graduate Daniel Lamarre. Currently Executive Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Cirque du Soleil Group, he was President and CEO of the renowned organization for some 20 years, contributing to its success.

He is the man behind Cirque du Soleil’s rebirth in 2021 through the restoration of its financial viability and preservation of its culture and values. Daniel Lamarre holds a Bachelor of Communications degree from the University of Ottawa and was later awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Arts. In 2018, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Daniel Lamarre, thank you for joining us live from Montreal. I was busy last night, I must admit. I had to run out last night to pick up a copy of this fabulous book and then I read about a third of it overnight. This morning, very early, I went to my rehearsal. Now I have just come back from the rehearsal, I ran like crazy, but I’m really, really, really delighted to have come across this book and to have been able to read the tiny but that I could, just a bit, and I can’t wait to continue reading it later on. It is fabulous what you have given us. I just wanted to mention that here. I guess the stars must have been aligned for our interview today.

We had been hoping to welcome you for several years and when we chose to dedicate the new season to creativity and inspiration, you had just published your book, in French called L’équilibriste: Performez grâce à votre créativité. And it couldn’t have been a better coincidence. And it’s a really inspiring book, as I mentioned earlier. The first question I’ll throw at you is about page 11.

You say in your book that without creativity there is no enterprise. Creativity has its place everywhere. So what made you decide to write a book on creativity in the first place? 

Daniel Lamarre: I have had the chance, over my 20 years at the Cirque du Soleil, to work with some very exceptional creators. First, the founder, Guy Laliberté. Later, I worked with Robert Lepage, Dominic Champagne, Michel Laprise; on the international scene, with Paul McCartney, the Beatles, James Cameron. And I had the chance to observe the creativity of these people and it had a very significant effect on me, personally and professionally. I wanted to share all of what I had learned while rubbing shoulders with these greats of the creative world because I think it is essential in our personal lives, but also in our professional lives, to push our creativity to the limits. Because it has an invigorating effect on whatever work environment you are in. Creativity, we must remember, is the foundation of innovation.

And if you want to remain a leader in your field, you must use your creativity and that of your colleagues and employees. That’s what pushed me to write the book.

Marie Turgeon: It’s interesting, you talked at one point in your book about what sparked your enthusiasm for creativity. Tell me, what were you before you made that change?

Daniel Lamarre: I am a more conventional businessman. I was the owner of a public relations firm and after that, president of TVA in Montreal.

It was really something very conventional. And when I came to Cirque Soleil, I thought I had been around a lot of creative people, but it was on another level here, and I still appreciate very much the chance I have to work with these great creators and with these great artists.

Marie Turgeon: Do you see creativity and intensity as similar concepts? Would you say they are directly linked?

Daniel Lamarre: I would say that this is a very clear correlation. What’s important for me in the notion of creativity is that it is a collective exercise.

It’s not a one-off thing you can do alone in your living room. I always tell people “don’t waste your time sitting down and just saying, today, I’m going to be creative.”

You need to have a very, very clear goal. Creative for what purpose? What are you looking to achieve? What are your goals? I must admit that my colleagues here are a great source of motivation because they feed my creativity, and humbly, I hope that I also feed their creativity.

Marie Turgeon: So, when you engage in creation with others, you have a broader vision, you end up sharing the same vision, so you actually make it better. I guess that’s what you’re telling me.

Daniel Lamarre: Yes, and I am also saying that we should not be afraid to argue.

Because you know, in life, we are often too “politically correct.” I will be nice to you when you suggest an idea because maybe you will be nice to me when I suggest an idea. And that’s a waste of time.

If you want to bring out the best ideas, you need to argue. You need to argue, it’s through debate that the best ideas will emerge. And this is something that I encourage very, very, very much because unfortunately, I find that we make far too many compromises in everyday life.

Marie Turgeon: It’s like not in our DNA, well not in French Canada; it’s less in our DNA. People always says that when we argue, we end up fighting, but it’s not necessarily like that. What we want to develop is the idea so that we can debate. You have to be respectful and listen to others, I think. Is that right?

Daniel Lamarre: Just listening to others is essential. Unfortunately, we often start a project with a preconceived idea. Because we have a preconceived idea, we close ourselves off to the ideas of others. I try to do the opposite, I try to listen to others first, and their ideas feed my own creativity.

At the Circle du Soleil, we say that a show is a collective work. That is why we don’t have any starts at the Circle du Soleil. The spotlight is the show. That has had a big impact on my everyday life too, being much more collaborative and much more open to others.

Marie Turgeon: That means we have to take our ego and leave it at the door of the meeting room and then we pick it up again when we leave. That’s it.

Daniel Lamarre: What that really means is that we have to be very modest and open to the ideas of others.

But above all, it’s the understanding that debate and listening to the ideas of others is what makes us grow. There is no need to be scared of that! Unfortunately, people are afraid of confrontation, afraid to step out of their comfort zone and that’s where, unfortunately, they limit their creativity.

Marie Turgeon: In fact, it is the fear of risk, the fear of challenge. You wrote somewhere in your book that your mission is to create jobs for artists. I loved that concept.

Daniel Lamarre: It’s funny because I was once challenged by a professor, a fantastic woman from Stanford University, who asked me: “Well, what is your reason for being in life?” To be honest, I had never stopped to think about that. Then, after some reflection, I told her: “It is very difficult for an artist to make a decent living from his passion.” And I have the chance to offer well-paid jobs to over 2500 artists.

So every time I open a new show, I allow artists to earn a living doing what they love. So today that is my reason for being, far beyond anything I can do for the organization.

Marie Turgeon: It certainly makes for wonderful shows.

I’d like to talk now, if you don’t mind, about a coincidence that you mention in your book. It was your—obviously creative—relationship with the Beatles that gave birth to the Cirque du Soleil’s collaborative show The Beatles LOVE. You tell us an incredible story in your book. The details of that creation are obviously intriguing. Thanks for sharing them, by the way. I liked the fact that we went from 30 million for the hall to 90 million.

Whew! That must have been pretty tough to swallow. To make a long story short, I will share this with you, Daniel Lamarre. You may know that the University of Ottawa also has a connection to the Beatles through Allan Rock, who is a former president and former vice-chancellor as well, and a graduate of the University who is now a professor in the Faculty of Law.

In June 1969, Allan Rock was president of the University’s student union. He managed to convince John Lennon, who was of course then doing his famous Bed-in for Peace in Montreal with Yoko Ono, and he convinced him to take part in a forum on world peace.

In fact, it was a press conference that was held at the entrance to Simard hall. Following the press conference, of course, Allan picked up John and Yoko and they took to the streets of Ottawa in his yellow Beetle.

That was something you really can’t just make up. The Beatles song... When they were in the car, the Beetle was playing Get Back. I wanted to share that with you. Of course, John Lennon started singing in the car. That was for the little anecdote.

Daniel Lamarre: That’s wonderful, but I have to tell you that I also had a very emotional moment when I first met the Beatles. One of the things I’ll always remember in the theatre is hearing Paul McCartney and George Martin talking to each other behind me and being so happy to be a part of this work, the show we did together. It was certainly the most moving moment of my career.

Marie Turgeon: Yes, and you say that Paul was even there at the rehearsals. Is that right?

Daniel Lamarre: Yes, that’s right, and it was quite the moment because obviously everybody was nervous. And I remember Dominic Champagne at the beginning saying: “no, no, no, I can’t believe he’s here.”

Marie Turgeon: Too much pressure.

Daniel Lamarre: Exactly. Great generosity. Because as an artist himself, he understood very well all the obstacles we had to overcome to reach the level of performance we finally achieved.

Marie Turgeon: I think the Beatles story in your book will be of great interest to our audience because it gives a very inspiring lesson about the importance of emotional connection and also trust in the creative process. Tell us a little about that creation.

You say it was a defining moment, and one of the most defining moments of your career. Tell us a little bit about the connection you had to make with Dominic Champagne.

Daniel Lamarre: First of all, what we had to establish was trust, mutual trust.

In the beginning, the Beatles were very concerned that people wouldn’t understand the messages in their music. When it was suggested—because we suggested it—that George Martin be the musical director, and George agreed to do it with his son Giles, that really created a bond of trust between the two organizations.

Where Dominic was exceptional was that he took the time—and God knows he did—to look for the visuals of the characters that were in Paul McCartney’s and John’s and George’s imaginations.

And he showed them these images. Throughout the process, they worked with him. I think that it is by working in parallel between the music and the visual of the show that we avoided any bad surprises during rehearsals.

Marie Turgeon: Was that Dominic’s first time directing with you? With the Beatles?

Daniel Lamarre: No, he did the show Varekai and he also collaborated with René-Richard Cyr in Zumanity. This was his third show with us, and that’s important because he knew us well, so he was able to do a good job representing us with the Beatles.

Marie Turgeon: Yeah, that’s amazing. I would also like us to address the issue of bilingualism today, which is obviously of great importance to the University of Ottawa. In March, as part of the Mois de la Francophonie, the University announced a $5 million investment over three years to support its Francophone community.

Daniel, I’d like to know what role bilingualism has played in your career from your university years to the Cirque du Soleil, and now for the publication of your book in both languages—Equilibriste: performez grâce à votre créativité, and another in English, Balancing acts: Unleashing the power of creativity in your life and work.

Daniel Lamarre: Listen, I was that little kid from Grand-Mère who could speak a few words of English and decided to go to the University of Ottawa to learn more. So that was one of my academic goals. So I asked to stay in residence with an English speaker; the English speaker in question, unfortunately for me, wanted to learn French. So this is how we managed to satisfy each other’s needs: I spoke to him in English and he answered me in French. So it made for excruciatingly long conversations, because I spent my time looking for my words in English, and he was looking for his words in French.

But after a whole year of that carry-on, I think we had already learned quite a lot of each other’s language and that was very important for me because, without it, I would never have had a career in business.

Without a solid command of English, I would never have toured the globe with the Cirque du Soleil.

Marie Turgeon: And your degree in communications—if I remember correctly, you studied communications at the University of Ottawa—did you do it in English or in French?

Daniel Lamarre: Both Yes, at the beginning I started mostly in French because my English wasn’t great, and then I took several courses in English.

Marie Turgeon: Another little question on that, Daniel: Why weren’t you attracted to one of the English-language universities in Montreal?

Daniel Lamarre: First of all, the University of Ottawa offered me a communications program. You have to remember—it shows my age, of course—but you have to remember that at the time, the University of Ottawa was one of the first to offer a communications course.

Marie Turgeon: That’s true.

Daniel Lamarre: And we, our group, were the first University of Ottawa graduates in communications.

So that’s what made me go to Ottawa. And even today, those three beautiful years I spent there have left a deep impression on me.

Marie Turgeon: We can perhaps draw a parallel here with the fact that, obviously, you wanted to open up to the world, to open up to The Rest of Canada, the ROC, and also to open up to the world by mastering English. But if we come back to the fact that, within the Cirque du Soleil, you have 5000 employees of 49 different nationalities; if we are talking about an openness to the world, that’s one for sure. Did that have an influence?

Daniel Lamarre: A massive influence! Because you know, today it’s very popular to talk about diversity. At the Cirque du Soleil, we don’t talk about diversity: we’ve been living it for 37 years. It’s absolutely fabulous and rich to discuss a project where you have around the table someone from the United States, France, China, Russia, people of many nationalities who arrive with their culture. And that, for me, is a very important ingredient in the success of our organization.

Marie Turgeon: Incredible. And that must make for so many enjoyable and interesting and discussions that are stimulating in terms of creativity.

One of the cornerstones of the University’s Transformation 2030 strategic plan is to make it more interconnected. We need to have a real connection with the world and increase our presence and influence on the international scene. As someone who obviously has to maintain the delicate balance between implementing your business strategy on five continents, Daniel, can you tell us a little bit about your vision for success on an international scale?

Daniel Lamarre: Yes, first of all, the first thing I tell people is that you can’t succeed internationally if you sit at home; you have to travel a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. And there is no such thing as a global footprint. A global footprint is developed city by city, country by country, and you need to have a presence. If we go to a city—London, for example—every year, we make sure that between the two months of shows and the next venue, the following year, we maintain a presence. That is extremely important.

You don’t want people to forget about you, so you have to keep that mark there. So today, we’re lucky with all the digital platforms we have; it’s easier to keep a visible footprint globally. But to really make your mark on a market, you have to be present.

Marie Turgeon: But the fact that you are also present on all five continents is also challenging. You have to deal with many unexpected challenges. You have to deal with tidal waves, with all sorts of things that are out of your control.

That’s what it’s all about; you expose yourself. You are global, but you are also more exposed. How do you react to that? How do you deal with it?

Daniel Lamarre: You have to be extremely quick. I could give you a few examples of what I have experienced over the years, whether it was a storm in a city, as we experienced in Tokyo, or a political crisis, as we are currently experiencing. Let’s not forget that we have Russian and Ukrainian employees who travel together around the world. So, there are many situations that, on the surface, could appear to be very touchy.

But our versatility allows us to adapt and react quickly to unexpected situations like that.

Marie Turgeon: You have to be tough, I’d say. There is a part in your book that I found very touching. It’s the whole part where you understood why Sylvie Fréchette needed to stay in the water.

It’s a fabulous moment and that’s where I left off last night before falling asleep. I really wanted to say thank you for that. I’d like to know what triggered that realization, I mean, to go from “Sylvie, really the best thing you can do in your life is work at the bank,” to discouraging her from following her wild dream of diving into a pool in Las Vegas, to the moment you saw her on stage that you understood that.

Daniel Lamarre: It was special because I was so proud to have guaranteed her a job for life at the National Bank and I had a lot of trouble undoing that deal and sending her to Cirque du Soleil. But her passion was so strong for the idea that I supported her, and because I was there to support the artist. And then, when I saw her perform in Las Vegas in the fabulous show O, I realized straight away that she had made the right decision and that I would have made a terrible mistake if I had not supported her in this.

Marie Turgeon: And every creator is often faced with something difficult to explain between security—the balance of security, creation, the need to eat, but the need to be creating, too. And you manage to do that very well, thank you. Let’s continue now, Daniel, if you like, with a special guest by the name of Kevin Kee, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa and who has a question for you.

Kevin Kee: Thank you. Hello Daniel, hello Marie. I am very happy to have been invited on uOttaKnow to ask Daniel a question. First of all, I’d like to congratulate you, Daniel, on the success of your book.

I found your father’s story very moving. I suppose he has been a real role model for you and I admire him for his perseverance when he had to change careers for reasons related to his health, for his role as a respected leader in your hometown of Grand-Mère, and most of all for the time he has given to the community inspiring the youth to follow his example.

In many ways, you have followed in his footsteps and we are grateful for the time you have given to our university and for encouraging our students to believe in their ability to be bold and pursue their dreams.

I would like to hear your views on how to cultivate caring and honest relationships in our society.

Daniel Lamarre: For me, there is a term that sums it all up. It’s called social engagement.

I think it is very important today, no matter who you are in society, to be socially engaged. At the Cirque du Soleil, we set up shop in the poorest neighbourhood in Montreal and we really gave that neighbourhood a new lease on life by creating the circus arts.

We have causes like Cirque du Monde, where we help kids living on the streets. One Drop, where we try to help solve the world’s water problem. This social engagement means that you have a reason for being that goes beyond the company.

But you are a citizen, you are a citizen who can have a very positive influence on our society. In a world that has just gone through terrible chaos, in a world that is going through a terrible war, there is an ever increasing need for us to play this role in society in order to maintain a certain sense of humanity on this planet.

That’s what I learned from my father. I try to pass on that value to our employees, to my family. And above all, it’s not the financial success of the Cirque du Soleil that makes me proud. It’s not the success of our shows that makes me proud. Yes, it makes me very proud. But what makes me most proud is our social engagement. This is what will make a difference in our society.

Marie Turgeon: Thank you Kevin for that question. It’s a tough question. This is not an everyday one. Thanks for the nice answer too, Daniel.

I’d like to make a connection with what we’ve just talked about and in your book, where almost at the very beginning, you talk about loyalty being a long-term thing. I’ll let you talk about what loyalty means to you.

Daniel Lamarre: I think in life you have friends, you have family, you have people, and loyalty is a value that is very important because it means, in short, that there are people you can rely on at all times.

I have a great story with Guy. When I was at National and the Cirque wasn’t making much money, I agreed to literally tear up a bill for the Cirque because he couldn’t afford it.

And thirteen years later, Guy made a great gesture of loyalty when I became president of TVA: he granted us the television rights to the Cirque du Soleil. And that loyalty is what brought me here four years later. Because I trusted him.

I knew he was a loyal person with good values.

Marie Turgeon: And it also ties in with your social action, loyalty to the people who come to see the shows, the whole community in general. That’s really interesting. I would like to end with a question about creativity and inspiration that we will be asking everyone we interview this year. I would like to know, Daniel Lamarre, what inspires you at the moment? Whether it’s music, painting, literature or cinema, what helps you keep your head above water in these times?

Daniel Lamarre: James Cameron is someone who has had a very, very big influence on me because he is monumentally successful in the film industry. It’s his humility. When he came to visit our creation and production centres in Montreal, he had an incredible intellectual curiosity.

I thought he was just going to do a quick one-hour visit. He ended up staying with us for four hours. He wanted to know everything, he wanted to understand everything, and this intellectual curiosity influenced me a lot because I say to myself: it doesn’t matter what happens to me in life, as long as I don’t lose this curiosity, this desire to learn, to discover... Because that, in my opinion, is the basis of creativity.

Marie Turgeon: Yes, I completely agree with you. His childlike heart too, eh? When you are curious, you want to learn everything and you ask 8000 questions. You are absolutely right.

Thank you very much. We could go on for hours, but I will stop here. I’d like you to tell us, Daniel, where we can find you online?

Daniel Lamarre: Yes, of course! I can be reached either on Instagram (daniellamarreflash) or on my website, DanielLamarre.ca. And if anyone wants to join me directly at the Cirque du Soleil, it’s [email protected].

Marie Turgeon: Well, now we know everything. Now we’ll be able to track you down easily! Thank you so much. Thank you for your time and for this interview, Daniel Lamarre. Thank you for all the stars you have lit up in the eyes of audiences around the world over the years with your Cirque du Soleil creations. Many have certainly were able to find their childhood heart again. It was a real pleasure talking to you, with such a creative leader. Thank you, Daniel Lamarre.

Daniel Lamarre: Marie, thank you very much for so kindly asking me to have this conversation. Thank you.

Marie Turgeon: Thank you. uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team.

It is produced by Rhéa Laube and the theme music is by Idriss Lawal, a uOttawa graduate. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario.

We pay respect to the Algonquin people who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded.

For a transcript of this episode in English or French, or to learn more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.