BWW Interview: Rye Mullis on Balancing a Circus & Juggling Collaborations

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We had a chance to chat with Rye Mullis, the director of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® latest extravaganza OUT OF THIS WORLD™ world premiering on the west coast at The STAPLES Center July 14, 2016. Rye's entertainment resumé, besides directing, includes acting, casting and professional wrestling.

Hello there, Rye! Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

OUT OF THIS WORLD is the fourth Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® (RBBB) version you've directed. Is this production now easier for you than the previous ones you're directed?

It is the fourth circus I have directed, but it possibly the hardest PRODUCTION I have ever directed in my life. It is a musical/play/stunt show/arena show all rolled into one. I'm amazed at how much work and passion go into the circus.

This is the first RBBB show without elephants. What's in store to replace them?

While the elephants will never be "replaced" in circus history, by retiring them and breaking the restraints of history and nostalgia; it has allowed us to venture into completely new territory for the show. By adding the elements of an ice floor, projection and, most of all, a story; we are able to reach a new audience and create an entirely unique and groundbreaking experience.

What do you remember of your first time seeing a circus? And how old were you?

I was about seven and it was at the Anaheim Convention Center. I remember sitting on the street with my cousins as they walked the animals down the street to the arena. From the actual show, I remember the trapeze act. They wore orange.

What can audiences expect sitting in the OUT OF THIS WORLD seats?

A show unlike anything you have ever seen. Even if you are familiar with the circus, you've NEVER seen one like this.

Is OUT OF THIS WORLD the first RBBB show that you've directed to have a book and theme (good vs. evil)?

All the circuses have a book and a theme. BUILT TO AMAZE was a construction idea, based on the notion that if the train was late to a town; how would we build a show on the spot. LEGENDS' theme was inspired by the mythology and fame surrounding the circus, from unicorns to the final performances of the elephants. But what makes OUT OF THIS WORLD so amazing is that it's the first time we've "left" the circus. It's a story of two young friends who both leave earth to join a galactic circus, Johnathon joins the legendary Paulo's Circus Space Fleet and his best friend Davis joins Tatiana's Evil Circus of Fire. Years later, Davis and Tatiana kidnap all of the Space Fleet Stars and it's up Johnathon and Paulo to rescue them!

How different (or not) do you find directing a circus as opposed to a book musical, like when you directed ROCK OF AGES?

I think all productions present their own challenges. When you are knee-deep in rehearsals, everything is life or death; regardless if it's community theater, Broadway or the circus. That's just part of the temperament of the arts community. The circus does present its own set of unique challenges: working with a cast comprised of hundreds of cultures, ages, languages and backgrounds who all excel at different things and yet all have to work together to make a cohesive and enthralling experience. It is extremely humbling as an American director. You realize how little we know about the arts in other cultures. For example, an American clown is different than a European clown; which is different from a Chinese clown. You have to learn how to respect these amazing performers and speak their specific artistic "languages."

As the director, at what part of the process do you get involved? Before or after the casting/auditioning of the various acts?

At the beginning. I'm part of it all. Some acts come with the deal, some show up during pre-production.

What's your criteria in placing the acts in your final show order?

It's a tapestry of a million departments. First, you want the show to be cohesive and have a specific melody. For example: you don't want to do two comedy acts back-to-back. You want variety and to keep the energy building and moving. But it's also something as detailed as: "Alex Lacey needs 20 minutes to prep the cats, so if he is going to be in the opening number, the tiger act will have to be at least 25 minutes after his exit, that means that we need a 5-minute act before he starts so that we can set the tiger cage and load the tigers. The 5-minute act has to be in Ring 1 to cover the set-up and can't involve anything flying in the air (because it might scare the cats), so why don't we do a clown gag in Ring 1 and then transition into Alex Lacey?" THEN you have to justify WHY in the story... #CircusMath

When you have a self-contained act (like the high-wire Simet Wheel Act or the Heilongjiang Ice Troupe or your various animal acts), what direction on what aspect(s) of their self-contained act can you give them?

It's a very collaborative process. Doing Ringling isn't like anything most of us have done. When performers come to our shows with their own acts, it's up to all of us to help re-work the act for the 360-degree arena and yet make sure we retain the integrity of the act that they themselves have created. For some, like the Simet, their act stays basically the same and we finesse the transitions and finale. With the amazing Heilongjiang troupe, we have re-staged their acts for an arena (the troupe came from a proscenium theater) as well as adding new elements to their acts, like fire.

What was it like the first time you stepped into the ring as the stand-by ringmaster?

Probably one of the most scary and exciting experiences of my life. Anyone can sit in the audience and decide how easy it is to fix something. Try doing that on the arena floor, belting your face off and trying to watch where 100 people are at a time... WITH ONE put-in rehearsal!

Let's talk a little of what led you to your current place in the entertainment universe. You were the casting director on BOY FROM OZ, BROOKLYN, RING OF FIRE, among others. At what point in pre-production, do producers bring you in to do your casting magic? After the marquee names are signed?

I was fortunate to work with two amazing casting directors - Johnson Liff Casting and Dave Clemmons Casting. I was brought in whenever they told me I was on. Lol! With BOY FROM OZ, Hugh Jackman was already attached. But that's rare. We usually got to work with the teams to see what they were looking for.

You attended the American Music and Dramatic Academy. Who were some of your classmates that our BroadwayWorld readers would know?

Chandra Schwartz, Caissie Levy, Moeisha McGill, Isaac Calpito, Tiffany Engen, the list goes on and on...

What did you learn from director Kristin Hanggi (also your former roommate) when you were her associate director?

I love Kristin so much. Kristin taught me how to listen to my instincts. How be receptive to the more emotional needs of performers and to trust the uniqueness of their personal gifts. Something very hard to do in the world of the long running musical. When a show runs for a long time (especially a comedy), there is tendency for everyone who's ever seen it, worked on it, served drinks at it, been on the crew of it, etc., etc., to have a very specific view of how the roles should be played. But Lonny in the Broadway company is not Lonny in Vegas; is not Lonny on the cruise ship. The writing is the same and some of the staging is the same. But the way the actors perform the role has to be tailored to their individual talents and then molded into the necessary needs of said production. Sometimes it feels like your forcing them into a mold because you have to give them staging that someone else did and they feel something different. And then sometimes, they WANT TO BE forced into a mold, and do an imitation of a performer they have seen and loved. You have to reassure them that they can do unique justice to the role. Every case is unique to the production you are working on at that moment in time. Kristin also taught me how to do 20- minute improvs in our living room just to make ourselves laugh.

How did you choose your wrestling moniker "Mr. Sparkles"?

"Sparkles" was a nickname I had from when I was younger, based on an episode of an old TV show called Get A Life. I got the "'Mister" when I decided to get into the ring.

Do you have any plans to re-enter the wrestling ring?

Actually, yes.

Lastly, what do you want the OUT OF THIS WORLD audience to leave with after the performers' last bows?

I want people to realize the circus is so much more than what you remember and what an incredible family experience it can be. I also want people to be able to appreciate these super hero human beings and all of the magnificent feats they can do.

Thank you, Rye!!!

Check out Rye's latest directorial feat RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY PRESENTS OUT OF THIS WORLD and Barnum & Bailey® OUT OF THIS WORLD™ Circus Experience at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on Thursday, July 14 - 19, 2016;

followed by Citizens Business Bank Arena/Ontario from July 22 - 26;

and at the Honda Center/Anaheim from July 29 - August 7.

For more info and tickets, go to: or

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From This Author Gil Kaan