From Boston street performer to Broadway
NEW YORK — It was a chilly night on Broadway when Orion Venture Maximillian Fitz Griffiths emerged from the stage door of the Music Box Theatre, shuffled past fans waiting to meet the stars, and began his nightly walk to his temporary flat.
He wore a T-shirt, no jacket, but the cold didn’t bother him. It’s no wonder. For his Broadway debut in the musical “Pippin,” Griffiths wears a skimpy vest and a pair of red leathery shorts that could make a Chippendales dancer blush.
“I had them put one more seam on the bottom,” the longtime Boston street performer said, laughing. “Now they don’t ride up my leg so much.”
Dealing with a Broadway wardrobe is not the only first for Griffiths, who spent much of his life on the road in his family’s traveling circus. At 25, he’s finally got a bank account and a place to stay that isn’t on wheels. Griffiths is one of seven acrobats in the revival of “Pippin,” which originated this season at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, opened on Broadway last Thursday, and earned an impressive 10 Tony Award nominations on Tuesday, including one for best revival of a musical. The show has generated considerable buzz for its cast and its Tony-nominated director, ART artistic director Diane Paulus. In his review, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the musical’s acrobats “pretty astonishing.”
Many Bostonians would recognize Griffiths. He’s performed to thousands at Faneuil Hall as part of the Sardine Family Circus. And the ART sold out the more than six-week run of “Pippin” that ended in January. But for Griffiths, the show is more than a big break. It’s a complicated break, giving him a chance to move into the spotlight but forcing him to alter his life. This is the first time Griffiths has left the family behind. It has also meant delaying his dream of competing in the world’s premier circus festival in Monte Carlo.
Which is why, when Griffiths was invited to join “Pippin” without an audition — he’s that good — he, at first, dismissed the idea.
“I’m a circus performer” is how Griffiths remembered responding at first to the offer.
He eventually changed his mind and joined the production, which stars Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas, Terrence Mann, and Charlotte d’Amboise. Though Griffiths has fewer than a handful of lines, he’s onstage for much of the two-plus hours of the musical.
Gypsy Snider, the veteran circus director in charge of “circus creation” for the “Pippin” revival, calls Griffiths her “saving grace.”
“Orion’s kind of a legend in the circus world,” said Snider, who hired Griffiths for the show last year. “He’s one of those performers who is so multitalented, who really knows how to sell the merchandise on the stage. He has a rare and wonderful talent.”
When he talks of the circus life, Griffiths doesn’t mean Ringling Bros. or Big Apple. His universe is about the smaller troupes that began emerging in the 1970s: talented, close-knit crews inspired by European circuses that drew on showmanship and athleticism to capture audiences on street corners.
Griffiths’s skills perfectly suit “Pippin,” which uses the circus motif to reshape the Bob Fosse-directed 1970s musical about a young prince searching for the meaning of life. In the show, even seasoned Broadway stars have learned to flip, fly on a trapeze, or ride a unicycle. As Pippin’s grandmother, Andrea Martin has brought down the house by dangling in the air with a muscled circus performer.
But for those who know him, Griffiths has pulled off the biggest trick.
For most of his life, home was Holland, Spain, Alabama, California, England, or just about anywhere the Sardine Family Circus rolled into town. His parents, John and Pauline, founded the troupe in the mid-1980s. Typically, they stayed on the road, never in one place for more than three to six months.
“I climbed on the roof of a train.’’
That’s how older sister Vicky begins the story of the accident that changed their lives.
The Sardine Family Circus was in Austria, performing, when the the 9-year-old girl decided to play in the old railroad station. It was a snowy day in October, and she hit a live wire, shot into the air, and had 75 percent of her body burned. Doctors had to amputate her right arm, and Vicky stayed in the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma for six months.
Only a few months after she got out of the hospital, John Griffiths taught his daughter how to ride a unicycle again. Then he heard about the Shriners Hospitals for Children, where Vicky could get free treatment.
That’s how the family ended up in Massachusetts. To date, Vicky has had 52 operations, the most recent two months ago. And it was in the parking lot of the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield that Orion Griffiths met his future wife.
Karly O’Keefe, 12 years old at the time, spotted Orion, then 14, doing handstands from her house, near the parking lot. She came out one day and did somersaults.
“I remember being admitted and Rion telling me about this girl he had just met and how pretty she was,” said Vicky, using the family’s nickname for Griffiths. “Once I was discharged, I met all of the O’Keefe family. Really awesome people.”
These days, Springfield is the closest thing Griffiths has to home. Vicky and sister Keleigh, each married, remain there. So does the O’Keefe family. And it was Karly who urged Griffiths to realize just what the “Pippin” offer meant when he wavered.
“I thought: Oh my God, this is huge. I don’t know why you’re looking past this. You need to think about this,” said Karly, who had married Orion last May. “And he did.”
When he was young, Griffiths remembers, he often looked at the other kids, with their toys and bedrooms and television sets, and thought, “Why can’t my life be like this?” The only life he knew was the circus.
“But by the time I’d reached 15,” he said, “I had such an overpowering love for the life, I couldn’t think of any other way.”
The Griffiths children were all skilled, but it was Orion, born to British parents in Holland in 1987, who pushed a little harder.
“Anything he ever touched, he had to be perfect,” John Griffiths said by phone from San Francisco, where he, Pauline, and two of their children live in the family RVs. “Regardless of what our program was at the time, he always got up at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and worked out for a couple of hours.”
John Griffiths remembers the boy scrawling a message wherever he could when he was just 4 or 5.
“On walls, on his schoolbooks, on a foggy window, he’d write, ‘Rion is the best,’ ” he said.
In those days, the Sardine Family Circus was 10 strong, the eight children and two parents playing streets, city festivals, and occasional tent shows. They were never anywhere for long, and while the children didn’t have much formal schooling, they developed a work ethic and focus beyond their years. The big change came in the mid-1990s, when Vicky had her accident. Three siblings headed off on their own. By the time the Sardine Family Circus moved to Springfield permanently in 2003, the Griffithses were down to five children in the troupe.
As John and Pauline stepped back from performing, Orion developed a three-person act with his sister Meisje and brother Alex. In the show, Meisje, a contortionist, would be largely silent. Alex, a masterful unicyclist, generally played the clown. Orion served as ringleader, charming the audience, playfully mocking those not paying proper attention and building suspense as they worked toward their best tricks.
“He makes a show out of everything and everybody,” said Paula Davis, a retiree from California who came upon Griffiths performing alone last summer in San Francisco. “He did tricks, he would tell jokes, and at first there was hardly anyone there, but he pulled everyone that walked by in with his sense of humor.”
Griffiths was living in San Francisco with his family last year when Snider called him.
She had hired six acrobats for “Pippin” and needed one more. But Snider was having a difficult time. “Finding a big guy who is also a talented acrobat, who can flip, who can hand-mount, it almost doesn’t exist,” said Snider.
Her family had founded the Pickle Family Circus back in the 1970s in San Francisco, so Snider began calling people she knew there.
“Instantly, Orion’s name came up,” said Snider. “In fact, one of the acrobats I had already hired said, ‘Oh my God, I trained with that guy and he’s amazing.’ ”
When Griffiths told his father about the offer, John got upset.
“I cannot deny it,” he said. “I hang on to my kids. But when it became a reality, I did everything I could to help him out. Got him to airports. Made sure he had money. Not that I was happy about it. The fact of the matter is this is not the apex of where Rion can go. If he were the star of the show, I would agree, and Rion is the star of every stage he’s on. That’s where he belongs.”
The father isn’t the only one torn.
Griffiths misses his family. He also isn’t ready to give up his street act.
Earlier this year, after “Pippin” wrapped at the ART and before rehearsals began in New York, he and Karly drove an RV to Florida so he could play to the crowds in Key West. He plans to find a spot in New York this summer where he can put on a show.
On the street, he’s reminded of what he misses the most in “Pippin”: the chance to take a solo bow.
“The proudest part of circus performing is the bow,” said Griffiths. “You gave something which is something you worked your whole life on, your act, the crowd accepts it and is now giving it back to you. It’s like the payment. Your bow is getting paid by the crowd.”
Though he’s getting paid by the Broadway production, Griffiths isn’t changing the way he operates. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and he avoids sugar. While some cast members have rented pricey apartments near the Midtown theater, he and Karly found a place in the Bronx for $1,200 a month. She works as a nanny for Andrew Cekala, the 12-year-old Weston boy who is in the cast.
Performing in “Pippin,” Griffiths said, has been exhilarating. He loves being onstage, and he’s proudest of the moment, right after intermission, when he shows off his specialty, the rolla bolla. That act requires him to balance on a narrow board atop stacked, moving cylinders.
It is a highlight of his street show, and it wasn’t originally in “Pippin.” Then, one day during a rehearsal, Snider asked the acrobats to demonstrate their chops.
“I said, ‘Orion, just do it like you’re on the street,’ ” she remembered. “He just entertained the whole cast. People were just laughing and actually were really touched. It was so endearing. He started talking about his family and that he would never leave them. And of course, in many ways, he is leaving his family. But he really needed us to understand that he’s not the one who deserts people. It was just so moving.”
When he left San Francisco, Griffiths made a promise to younger sister Meisje. He would one day reunite with his siblings and they would perform again as the Sardine Family Circus. It is a promise his father expects him to keep.
“For me, it’s not a hope,” said John Griffiths. “It’s a question of when. Whether Pauline and I will still be alive to watch it, it will happen. They’ve got too much power when you put them together.”