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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 20, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 34
Clowning around at Ringling Brothers
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Clowning around at Ringling Brothers

An interview with circus clown William Murray

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Ringling Bros. and Barnum
& Bailey Circus presents
FUNundrum
August 26 - 29
Comcast Arena in Everett

How many children have dreamed of running away and joining the circus? How many are actually lucky enough to make that dream come true? William "Billy" Murray is one of those people. Working with the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, William talked to the Seattle Gay News about what it was like being a clown as well as being an out Gay man, and how the two mix.

Eric Andrews-Katz: What is your earliest memory of the circus?

William Murray: My family used to take us to see the RBBB [Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey] Circus every year. Growing up in New Jersey, it was a tradition. It was sort of a neighborhood outing. We'd see the show and I loved it, thinking that it was so magical. I remember doing mini circuses in the neighborhood with jumpropes and dogs jumping through them. Even after I moved out, I went to the circus every year.

Andrews-Katz: Which came first, clown school or gymnastics?

Murray: Gymnastics came first. I taught at a center called Health Quest in New Jersey. It was a woman who first employed me there who used to be a flying trapeze artist for RBBB. She had gone to the RBBB Clown College. That's closed now, and those directors went on to start new schools. She introduced me to directors she had known.

Andrews-Katz: You attended the New York Goofs Ultimate Clown School. What's the curriculum like?

Murray: Two weeks of intensive studies. Six days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are improvisational workshops, trust-building exercises, how to do props and makeup, how to write a skit and do costuming. You have to learn things like slips, falls, and trips.

Andrews-Katz: Were you out of the closet when you joined the RBBB Circus?

Murray: Yes, I was. I came out in my freshman year of high school. I had a not-so-hot relationship with my parents because of us not being honest with each other. It was really affecting our relationship, so I didn't have much of a choice because I wanted the relationship with my parents to get better. I didn't do it in the best way. I wrote them a really nice letter explaining who I was and that I wanted this to be the first step in better communication. I wrapped it up and put it in their stocking for Christmas. I thought honesty would be the perfect present. Let's just say it didn't go so well. We have a great relationship now, though.

Andrews-Katz: How does being an out Gay man affect your performance?

Murray: I wouldn't say it affects my performance. Playing a clown character is something very family-oriented, so a person's sexuality doesn't come to the surface. But there are things about me, and my character, that may be seen. Some signs are there for those who want to look for them. I have rainbows on, and play a rainbow instrument.

Andrews-Katz: Have there been any situations with being out while performing in a family-style production?

Murray: Not so much. We have performers from six different continents, so there are all sorts of people in our troupe. Some of them have very different beliefs at home, but they are on my turf and they have to be educated about our ways. I also feel very fortunate for the aspect of learning about other cultures within the troupe. The only other situation is that I have a significant other, and being away from him is difficult at times.

Andrews-Katz: How does a performer build their "clown persona"?

Murray: So much of being a clown is wearing your insecurities on the surface. You really have to be comfortable with yourself to be a clown. You want to show people that you can laugh and cry at yourself while being both strong and weak. So much of being a clown is therapeutic at times, so you can work out inner issues by making fun of them and making others laugh with you. It's a great way to overcome insecurities. My clown character isn't necessarily Gay, but I can make fun of who I am and act more effeminate or more masculine than I would normally. It's part of doing your job. I do not have my persona trademarked, as do a lot of others. My real name is William, so I just call my clown "Billy" Murray. My character is still building. The makeup I use doesn't really change, but those who stay with the show on a long-term basis? Those are the ones that copyright their face, their look, and names.

Andrews-Katz: What is your favorite part of being in RBBB's FUNundrum?

Murray: I really like 60 minutes before the show. It gives the public an opportunity to meet the performers and try on circus costumes, ringmaster's jackets, etc. & I can meet people from all over the country that way. It seems to really get people excited.

In 1884, five out of seven brothers named Ringling started their own circus out of Baraboo, Wisconsin. They quickly established a reputation of honesty and for being "clean" with "good value." Twenty-three years later, they bought full possession of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1919, with all companies fully merged together, the Brothers began marketing themselves as: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The Greatest Show on Earth.

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