Under the Big Top: Life in the Circus

For Billy Murray, joining the circus seemed natural.

“My parents took me and my brother to the circus every year,” the 24-year-old clown recalls. “The circus was always magical to me, and of course, the clowns were my favorite.”

“(Graphic design) just wasn’t satisfying because I knew at heart I was a performer,” Murray says.

After going on auditions and a stint at Universal Studios, in 2009, the aspiring clown got his big break and won a position with the famed Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus, which rolls into Miami this week for a 10-day run at American Airlines Arena.

Nearly two years later, his character, a musical clown with a real drum in his hat, enters the arena—circuses rarely perform in tents anymore—to unleash his antics on the audiences.

“With clowning, you get to wear your insecurities on the outside,” he says. “I’m not a big guy, only 5’2”, but I can really play with that. Somebody who is 6’4” can look pretty still next to somebody who is small.”

While Murray dishes out zany stunts, keyboardist Ryan States provides the music for the acts, setting the scene for crazy clowns and death-defying stunts alike. Unlike his colleague, however, States never dreamed he’d be performing for the circus.

A 36-year-old singer-songwriter, he saw a job posting while studying at the University of North Texas. He inquired about the job and eventually spoke to the band leader. Soon he had joined the circus.

“I went from doing musical theater or accompanying a singer to providing music for circus acts. While it’s similar, the challenge is that I want to watch the show,” States laughs. “I have to remember to keep my eye on the conductor.”

He admits favorite acts are the contortionists and the teeter totter, in which clowns try to balance each other in the most unusual ways.

Behind the scenes, Matthew Variell brings a different kind of magic to the performance, running the series of 10 jumbotron screens that hang around the arena.

“The video is a nice part of the show,” Variell says. “Our show, from a technical standpoint, competes with the Broadway style shows. We’re making circus history.”

He hopes one day to rise to stage management, choreographing the show each day from behind the scenes, orchestrating the talent as they take the stage.

Variell ended up with the circus in a unique way: his brother was already touring as the lead show electrician and recruited Matthew, first to handle spotlights and later, the elaborate video support.

“Mom makes the joke that both her boys ran off and joined the circus,” he chuckles, but after 16 months on the road, he’s glad he did.

While Murray, States and Variell each play vastly different parts in the production, they have one thing in common—they are all openly gay.

Each confirmed the company is very supportive of all its employees—nearly 350 people travel from city to city, many from far flung countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa—and their sexual orientation is rarely an issue thanks to the company’s blunt non-discrimination policy.

“It’s been a marvelous opportunity,” says Variell, who counts among his closest friends a group of Russian performers he met on the road.

And each agrees that life on the road can be challenging. The performers travel from city to city on a mile-long train that also serves as their accommodations, with each person occupying a small room, 10 to a car.

States says it’s hard to date when he’s travelling to different cities each week and the small company (350) means there is a relatively small dating pool among his colleagues, even though he managed a five-year relationship once.

“We’re here one day and gone the next,” Murray sighs.

They each manage to take advantage of their new surroundings to explore the local gay life. Pumped up on adrenaline after the last show, they often will check out clubs or go dancing, as long as tomorrow’s show isn’t too early, Variell points out.

Life in the circus isn’t for everyone, Murray says, and even he would like to settle down one day. But for now, all three are happy to be part of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

American Airlines Arena, Miami

Jan. 7 – 17, performance times vary

Tickets $32 - $122 at Ticketmaster.com

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