Exploring the Stunts, Sounds and Story Behind New Cirque Du Soleil Action Show ‘R.U.N’
The last time Cirque du Soleil launched a new show in Las Vegas was more than six years ago. Michael Jackson One officially premiered on June 29, 2013, at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and audiences knew exactly what to expect. The Beatles Love was already seven years into a historically successful run at the Mirage and served as the blueprint for another colorful production combining Cirque’s trademark theatrics with the familiar and beloved catalog of a music icon.
There’s no Instagram account for Michael Jackson One or The Beatles Love. There’s a Cirque du Soleil page with images and info for its various Vegas shows and other globe-trotting touring productions, but the Montreal-based entertainment company hasn’t always used trendy social media platforms to promote individual shows and events.
But check out /runtheshow on your ’gram and you’ll get a whole lot of behind-the-scenes video footage and character exploration teasing R.U.N, the latest Cirque creation, set to open October 24 at Luxor. The vastly different approach to marketing this show demonstrates just how far Cirque is stepping out of its box.
“This is so different from what people expect from Cirque du Soleil onstage. The production value is so amped up and some of these things have never been done onstage,” says Lou D’Angeli, vice president of marketing and public relations for the resident shows division. “While R.U.N is the first live-action thriller for us, it’s kind of the first live-action thriller, period.”
It was known that Cirque du Soleil was developing something new to fill the 1,500-seat theater at Luxor vacated last year by illusionist Criss Angel’s Mindfreak Live—originally a collaboration with Cirque titled Believe—but when R.U.N was officially announced in April, the focus was on the things that would not be part of the new show: circus-style acrobatics, avant-garde clowning and subtle, ethereal storylines. Explaining what R.U.N actually will be—and more importantly, generating buzz—requires new tricks and tools.
“This is much more pronounced because of the way the show is formatted,” D’Angeli says of the marketing strategy, which has included videos showing fight training in Montreal and interviews with performers playing the main characters. “There are identifiable and marketable characters: the Professional, the Bride, the Groom. They all have identities, which is why we created an Instagram for it and did other things we typically wouldn’t do, to push that identity out there and give people that idea that this is really not what you’ve seen before from us.”
We’ll know very soon just how far Cirque has pushed itself to create R.U.N, but we already know there are at least three elements that distinguish its 10th resident production on the Las Vegas Strip from everything that came before. There’s the action, a stunt-driven strategy in the vein of a big-budget, CGI-filled Hollywood blockbuster. There’s the music, an edgy rock ’n’ roll soundtrack composed by Tyler Bates, known for his work on 300, Guardians of the Galaxy and John Wick. And there’s a clear-cut plot complete with narration, a hard-driving storyline written by action and horror filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, director of El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City and Machete.
R.U.N cast members practice fight sequences at Cirque du Soleil headquarters. (Cirque du Soleil/Courtesy)
Rob Bollinger is a former competitive diver who worked in the stunt industry before joining Cirque du Soleil as part of the original cast of Mystére at Treasure Island in 1993. He’s also worked as artistic director for O at Bellagio and as a coach and coordinator for various acrobatic-themed acts and shows around the world
Bollinger serves as a performance and action designer for R.U.N, collaborating with veteran stunt coordinator and five-time world karate champion Jean Frenette (who has worked on hundreds of movies and TV shows including X-Men, Deadpool 2 and Jack Ryan) to choreograph the grittier, more frenetic fight sequences and high-flying stunts that will define the new production.
“Every show is different; every acrobatic act is different. This is a more story-driven show that has allowed me to tap into my stunt experience in a different way than I have before, and I’ve really enjoyed that,” Bollinger says. “If I look back and compare my roles as a designer and coordinator and director, this one is definitely unique. I’ve been much more involved at the creative table, developing the concept and designing the action. It’s a very immersive project.”
Bollinger uses the word “immersive” to describe both the creative process—which brought in many artists and consultants from the Hollywood stunt community—and the anticipated experience for the audience. The action of R.U.N is supposed to surround you, as if you’ve somehow walked into a movie or graphic novel.
“A stunt by itself is really nothing. It needs a story, and it needs to have a purpose; then it becomes of value,” Bollinger says. “All the stunts we’re doing aren’t just thrown out there, like, let’s light someone on fire or jump off a high place. Each has a purpose in telling the story.
“We also wanted to make sure we’re being true to the stunt community. Having been a part of it, I want to know that if a stunt person comes to see the show, he or she is thinking that it’s really done well, that those are not fake falls. We wanted to incorporate anything you’d see in a film into this show, with the understanding that we have to do this 10 times a week, do it safely and do it night after night and year after year. That’s been a delicate and important process.”
There are combat and falls and fire and stunt work in plenty of other Cirque du Soleil productions, but R.U.N’s action should be more realistic and palpable. There will be motorcycles flying over the stage and steering through stunts you’d normally see in an arena motocross competition.
“It’s crazy,” D’Angeli says. “We built out a stage to be the same size as [Luxor’s] in Montreal to show how it happens, and I was blown away there. But seeing it here, these motorcycles flying over and coming down through the audience and all over the stage, it really feels like this huge production in this intimate setting.”
The volume of stunts will also set R.U.N apart from the Cirque family of shows—and probably from everything else in Las Vegas—something Bollinger realizes when asked about the pace of the production.
“Not every scene or chapter of our show has … well, now that I’m thinking through it, they all pretty much do,” he laughs. “It does have that emotional EKG, if you will, as you go through the show, that heightened sense of drama that scales back as the mood and the vibe changes, then it brings it back up. It takes the audience on a nice journey.”
A live R.U.N production shot (Matt Beard/Courtesy)
Music is essential in changing those moods and vibes and transporting the audience through the journey of any Cirque du Soleil experience. Outside of the obvious Beatles and Michael Jackson tunes in their respective shows, Cirque productions in Las Vegas are known for sublime, celestial soundtracks that frame the drama onstage without moving too far into a defined genre.
Tyler Bates played a few thousand live shows with rock bands before becoming one of the most in-demand musicians, writers and producers across the spectrum of film, television and video games. His breakthrough gigs came when he scored Zack Snyder’s films Dawn of the Dead and 300, and he has collaborated with Rob Zombie on music for The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween. Think of the sounds of those movies and then think about the music of Mystére and O. It’s a considerable contrast.
“The thing I really love about Cirque is how emotional it is and how much those shows have a tendency to open portals for thought and emotion,” Bates says. “Depending on the show you see, there are a lot of things that happen to the audience. For me as a composer and producer, this [project] is very rare air.”
Bates says the music in R.U.N is inspired by early creative conversations with show director Michael Schwandt and creative director Stefan Milijevic that included questions like “how hard can we go physically” and “how far can we push the audience musically” to build an emotional range for the show. “It’s been interesting,” he says. “It’s also been in a constant state of flux while working out the details of the show and the timing of each performance. The timing of the stunts in this show is very critical. We have to know all those things and funnel them into the music.”
While the pieces of the score range from eight to 14 minutes long, and there are plenty of complicated tempo and key changes, Bates says the music “sounds like me, but I can’t say there’s a specific film reference we’ve discussed.” The Cirque creative team was compelled as much by Bates’ hybrid electronic-rock production work with artists like Marilyn Manson and Bush as by his movie music, so while it may be natural to think of R.U.N as a live-theater version of an action film, it might be more accurate to describe it as a graphic novel coming to life.
“It was hard not to be inspired by every piece of concept art they’ve shared with me and [by] the theater itself. What they’ve done there is really fantastic,” Bates says. “I think there’s some relatability to some movies I’ve done like John Wick or Hobbs & Shaw, but it’s tipping more toward the fun, graphic-novel side of things. It vacillates. Sometimes it’s a little more inside your head, and other times it’s full-on action in your face. I found that to be really interesting and exciting to move through those states of consciousness, so to speak.”
A live R.U.N production shot (Matt Beard/Courtesy)
R.U.N is set in a sort of fictionalized version of Las Vegas, director Michael Schwandt says, because Cirque wanted to take inspiration from the city where it has set the benchmark for entertainment. In order to set a new standard for storytelling, the company connected with one of the most distinctive auteurs of his generation, Robert Rodriguez.
“It was a super-collaborative process with Robert,” Schwandt says. “We had identified the stunt disciplines within the show and a layout of certain scenes we wanted to feature, and we had a rough road map when he came on. But from the beginning it was all about collaborating with him to find the best story, not only in a way that would translate to the live show but also to support the performances in this show.”
So what happens in R.U.N? You have to buy a ticket to find out. One thing that’s clear is that unlike other Cirque du Soleil productions, in which characters and scenery push things forward—often in a dreamy, passive way—action drives this show.
“We’re definitely aiming to be more direct,” Schwandt says. “We’re guiding the audience with the use of voice-over narration which we hope keeps them invested in the journey from scene to scene, and the performance in each scene supports the storyline. Everything is interconnected and for the most part follows a linear story. We hope you’re not only following that journey but really invested in the main characters. Sometimes it might be a little too obvious.”
Schwandt has collaborated with Cirque once before in producing a performance for television, but this will be something new for him. “I have a tendency to be involved in projects where companies are trying something they haven’t done before, and I welcome the challenge,” he says. “I think the landscape of entertainment options is diversifying, and this is a valid and important step. Cirque is acknowledging there is a different way to bring what they do to the table in a new platform, a new entertainment experience, and it’s very smart on their part.”
As a stage director and entertainment developer and producer, Schwandt has had a hand in TV projects like The Masked Singer, American Idol and America’s Next Top Model; concerts and tours by Kendrick Lamar, Katy Perry and John Legend; and diverse live productions like LA Live’s New Year’s Eve show with Drake and Diplo, the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Sports Awards and the Ringling Bros. Circus Xtreme arena tour. Even with that wild spectrum of experience, he says there are “absolutely more differences than similarities” between R.U.N and anything he’s done before.
“I’ve pulled from experiences across a greater swath of project types, kind of grasping at things I’ve done from a super wide range more than ever before, because there are a lot of new challenges for me in this realm. Stunts in general is a new realm; I’ve done circus work before, but nothing to this level. One thing that’s unique is the way we’re structuring this performance as less about individual acts or numbers and more about a scene and an environment and a vibe.”
He points out that some of the “acts” in R.U.N might last 10 to 12 minutes, “a long time to sustain a particular performance or energy. It’s not just stunt fighters for three minutes; it’s hand-to-hand combat, weapons specialists, motorcycle riders, fire specialists—all of these elements integrated into once scene, 25 to 30 people to make one collective wow moment that spans 10 minutes. It’s one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on.”
R.U.N will also use a massive amount of video content to complement the action onstage and to contribute to the storytelling. Cirque du Soleil is using everything in its toolkit to create another visual spectacle in a different way, while aiming for the same emotional resonance that makes its Las Vegas shows so memorable.
“The whole synergy of pulling together video, music and stunts has been super-exciting. We’re really trying to find something new for the audience within each environment we’re creating,” Schwandt says. “It’s very challenging for us but also super-rewarding.”
A live R.U.N production shot (Matt Beard/Courtesy)
With this week’s addition of R.U.N at Luxor, Cirque du Soleil now has eight productions running on the Las Vegas Strip, counting Blue Man Group (also at Luxor), which was acquired by Cirque in 2017. But R.U.N is actually the 10th resident show created for Las Vegas by the Canadian entertainment behemoth, which first broke through on the Strip in November 1992 with a limited run of the touring Nouvelle Expérience in a tent at the Mirage. That success inspired the creation of a new show for Mirage’s sister resort, Treasure Island, which charted a course for Cirque’s vast expansion in Vegas …
1993 Mystére at Treasure Island
1998 O at Bellagio
2003 Zumanity at New York-New York
2004 KÀ at MGM Grand
2006 The Beatles Love at Mirage
2008 Criss Angel Believe at Luxor
2010 Viva Elvis at Aria
2012 Zarkana at Aria
2013 Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay
2019 R.U.N at Luxor