Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for the Second City show. This version has been corrected.
Ryan Shinji Murray vividly remembers how his mother reacted when he announced he was dropping out of the University of Maryland to audition for Cirque du Soleil. She was calm, cool and collected as she told him, “Okay. Surrender the credit card.”
Now, six years later, Murray says his parents are his biggest fans, proud of him for not only his acrobatic skills, but also for using his talents to pay his bills.
“There’s a lot of admiration at this point, not only that I pulled it off, but that I get to work with such a great company,” said Murray, 28.
Fran and John Murray of Silver Spring and 18 other relatives headed to Tysons Corner last month to see Murray perform in “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities,” an extremely entertaining Cirque du Soleil show with a steam-punk aesthetic. It’s onstage, under a giant blue-and-yellow big top, through Sept. 18.
Murray has been involved with “Kurios” since its inception in fall 2013. He sent the Canadian franchise an audition tape in 2010, but the troupe didn’t have a need for his skill set at the time. In the interim, he moved to New York, became a trapeze instructor and toured with Cirque Eloise, a smaller Montreal-based company that performs in more traditional theaters rather than tents and arenas. His specialty in those shows included balancing on stacked chairs and performing in an act called “trampoline wall.”
“It’s easier seen than explained,” he said. “It’s in a lot of Cirque shows.”
But that’s not what Murray does in “Kurios.” Cirque asked him to try out an experimental act in which he would bounce higher than he ever had. They call it the AcroNet, a 30-by-30-foot modified trapeze net that sends performers four stories in the air.
“It was a big experiment for the engineers, the artists and the creatives,” Murray said. And on the first day of rehearsal, the net broke. “That gives you an idea of what the stakes were,” he said.
Eventually, the coaches and team of eight acrobats from seven countries figured things out. Most also double as performers in the fun opening song-and-dance number. Every trick in the AcroNet act can be done by at least three people. Murray is one of the daredevils who can pull off the big finale: leaping to a fellow acrobat who is dangling from a ladder near the ceiling, with a few flips and twists in between.
Murray’s journey from backyard trampoline to AcroNet began at the Fairland Sports and Aquatics Center in Prince George’s County, where his parents enrolled their bouncy 5-year-old son in gymnastic classes. He competed until he was 12 but switched to diving while attending Georgetown Preparatory School. Murray describes his performance in both sports as “unmotivated.”
“Competition is a negative reason to be doing something, especially if it is artistic,” he said. “When I discovered circus and performance, then there was finally a direction for all my energy.”
Although he dropped out of Maryland before finishing a degree in kinesiology, Murray credits the university with solidifying his career goals. As a member of the school’s Gymkana Team, he learned new circus skills and showed off his old gymnastics skills just for claps, not for judges. Murray quit school the year before the team gained attention after an appearance on “America’s Got Talent.”
He’s more than happy with his Cirque du Soleil fame but does sometimes get nostalgic for the Gymkana team’s red-and-black gym shorts. He’s not a big fan of the purple-and-green leotard with fins he wears every night on the AcroNet. The show’s designers say the outfits were inspired by the aquatic-looking costumes that early French filmmaker Georges Méliès used to depict Martians, but in rehearsals, the acrobats were dubious.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Murray recalled. “The most Cirque Du Soleil thing they could possibly dress me in.”
But Cirque director Michel Laprise convinced the performers that the brightly colored costumes could help transform them into zany characters.
“You get into your comfort zone,” Murray said. “You put this thing on, and you feel crazy.”
Crazy enough to leap 40 feet in the air.
Developing a good improv comedy act takes talent, trust and teamwork.
Administrators at the Kennedy Center think they’ve achieved that rapport with Second City, the Chicago-based franchise that took over the Theater Lab from the long-running “Shear Madness” for a six-week summer run that ended July 31.
Nearly 17,000 tickets were sold to “The Second City’s Almost Accurate Guide to America,” said Robert van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic programming. Van Leer didn’t share an exact comparison but did say more tickets were sold to “Almost Accurate” than to “Shear Madness” during the same period last year.
The venerable farce about a murder in a hair salon took the summer off for the first time since 1987. Performances of “Shear Madness” will restart Aug. 30, but the show will also go on hiatus over the holidays, when Second City returns with “Twist Your Dickens,” a scripted holiday comedy written by two veterans of “The Colbert Report.” The show debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2014.
Van Leer said he hopes that, like “Almost Accurate,” “Twist Your Dickens” will attract local theatergoers. Preliminary data indicate that most people who came to see Second City this summer were not tourists and that audiences were younger and more diverse than typical Kennedy Center crowds.
“That’s a middle demographic we want to reach,” he said.
Critics, including The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, have argued that the Theater Lab should be used for work that is more artistically challenging than “Shear Madness.” But the show is beloved in the theater community because it has been a reliable source of employment for actors, as well as stage managers and tech crews. So van Leer was pleased when Second City asked to audition local actors for “Twist Your Dickens,” and five were cast.
“D.C. is rich with actors,” said Erica Daniels, president of Second City Theatricals. “You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that.”
Second City will continue to bring a touring improv holiday show to the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, where most of its performances sold out last December. The Chicago troupe also is scheduled to bring a new show addressing race and music to Woolly Mammoth Theatre for an eight-week run that begins Nov. 12, giving D.C. audiences a total of three shows for the holidays.
“I am really excited about all these opportunities,” Daniels said. “It is amazing how D.C. has embraced Second City.”