What inspires Cirque du Soleil performer and part-time magician RJ Owens?

RJ Owens as Mystère’s Bebe François
Photo: Erik Kabik / Courtesy

If you've seen Cirque du Soliel's classic Mystère, you've seen RJ Owens as Bebe François, the bonneted clown whose innocent, toddler-like antics provide many of the show's biggest laughs. But like everyone else involved with Cirque, Owens has talents and passions that exist far outside his nightly role, from sleight-of-hand (he's a magician by trade) to curing his own meats (he's a committed foodie). Owens recently shared a few of the things that inspire his ever-searching mind.

Let's talk Bebe François. How did you find your way into that character? Well, luckily, when I was asked to audition for Mystère, I was on tour with Saltimbanco, which was one of the original shows Cirque put out. And we had a stage manager on the show who was traveling with her two-year-old son. For about two weeks before I came to Las Vegas to audition live, I babysat Benicio every single day. Just to watch how he acted, what he did, how he walked, how he processed things. When I was given the role and came to Las Vegas, I was given carte blanche to create, and so I took insight from having babysat Benicio. They kept asking me if I wanted to watch François DuPuis, who created the role, and I said no. I didn't want to copy anybody, I didn't want to imitate anyone. I wanted to be me and real. And to this day, I still have not seen François do the role.

Did any of Benicio's mannerisms make it directly into the character? Subconsciously, yes, all of them did. Watching him and seeing how a child throws himself forward when they walk, as opposed to an adult who leads with something, gets a stride. A child doesn't comprehend a process; they see something, they throw their body in that direction, momentum takes over and they're walking.

And the constant waving. I don't wave like a princess; my waves are a little subtle. I see you, how you doing? Trying to get your attention. Oh, and also his curiosity; he was just such a curious toddler, and that's what my baby is. Bebe François is just this curious creature who wants to see what's going to happen next, no matter what the outcome.

Mystère is the only show that opens with a clown act. It's a daunting task to engage 1,600 people, and get them on your side when you don't speak their language and you're a 400-pound baby.

Cirque has completely changed my perception of clowning. What they allow you to do in Mystère is just so different from the clowning I knew growing up. Absolutely. I mean, I was a white-faced friendly clown. I did birthday parties and all that stuff. And Cirque really changed my perception of clowning as well. There was a certain stigmata attached to Cirque du Soleil clowns when I was growing up: "Oh, those weird French people." And then you meet them and they're still weird, and they're still French, but boy, are they talented. They really take the risks and think outside of whatever box they're put into. And they realize that anything can be funny, but the real magic comes when they can turn sadness into funny.

You run with a crowd of extraordinary talents, both on- and offstage. Who are some other local performers whose work grabs you? I'm a huge adoring fan of Amy Saunders of The Miss Behave Gameshow. [And] I have to say my boys, man. They're all Cirque, of course. My two costars in Mystère, Jimmy Slonina and Johnny Miles. It's an honor to share a dressing room with them. We have some of the strangest, most beautiful conversations. Unfortunately, none of us share any time together on stage, but we create in the dressing room. And my other boy is Brett Alters, from Opium; he also works with Piff the Magic Dragon. The four of us are a really big force of nature to be reckoned with.

And then, of course, Penn and Teller inspire me because of their "I don't care anymore" attitude. They care so much about the art they put onstage. Don't get me wrong, they love their audiences. But they're not catering to anybody; they're doing it for themselves. They've been putting so much new magic in their act the last year and a half, almost a trick every month. And being a former magician, that is just unfathomable to me.

A former magician? Well, actually, right now I'm working with a local performer named Matt Donnelly, an improv artist who was tasked by Penn Jillette to become a magician. [Donnelly is also a writer for Penn & Teller: Fool Us and cohost of Penn's Sunday School podcast.] They were talking at a Fool Us rehearsal, and Matt said, "I bet you anybody with good improv skills would make a great magician." And Penn says, "You know what, you're right. And it's going to be you." So, he tasked him with learning a magic trick. And Matt, being gung-ho, said, "Well, to hell with that. I'm going to do a whole show." Matt hired me as his director and magic consultant. ... Now he's Matt Donnelly, Mind Noodler. It's beautiful to see a magician onstage who's unflappable. If anything goes wrong, Matt can cover with his improv skills. Matt is another one of the guys I love to watch; he can do anything.

How often do you get to practice magic these days? Oh, I practice every day, but perform hardly ever. I actually kind of succumbed to Matt the other day: We host a podcast called Abra Kadabra, where we talk about magic, but also about life and what have you. Every middle-aged man in America has a podcast now, it seems. And I realized that I'm living vicariously through Matt, because I'm designing all of his magic effects and directing his show and helping him light.

I desperately want to keep performing [magic]. As a matter of fact, I have a meeting coming up about hosting a burlesque show in Las Vegas. A true burlesque show, not the pseudo-nouveau burlesque that's out there now, but an actual 1920s Odeum Theater burlesque show. Three acts, interstitials, variety, political acts, what have you. And that'll give me a chance to actually ply my trade again and do magic.

Maybe this is something you can answer for me: Do the magicians in this town ever get together and talk shop? Actually, there are several meetings of magicians. I don't attend any of them, because they're usually during times that I'm working, with the exception of one. There's a show [on the third Thursday of every month] called Vegas Wonderground. It's hosted by Jeff McBride, who is an incredible performer. And he brings him magicians from all over the world. They do three separate shows, they do two stage shows and a closeup show. It's about five-and-a-half hours of magic a night. A lot of magicians go there, and we go out to a local restaurant afterwards. Magicians will hang out with each other and discuss things if they're confident enough in their own performance skills.

Speaking of local joints, where do you go to relax? I have become a huge fan of PublicUs, because it's close to my house, and it's got decent coffee. I mean, I roast my own coffee at home, so normally I will have had my coffee before I go there, but I'll always get a coffee just because it's what you do when you go to PublicUs. I really enjoy the kids that are working there. I mean, you go there twice and they know your name and what you're drinking. It's so unlike the corporate coffee shops, where you feel like you're putting upon the people who are taking your order. And I love meeting people there, because I love to turn them onto the food. I'm a fan of their waffle with lemon curd, ricotta cheese and candy pecans.

If it's nighttime recharging I need, there's a plethora of places I'll go. I love Frankie's Tiki Room quite a bit because of the alcohol content. I love Dino's because of the denizens. For me, Dino's on a Sunday night, after shows, is just fantastic. I sat there one night with a coworker, and this kid and three of his friends came in. It was his brother-in-law, his sister and one of their friends on his 21st birthday. And I proceeded to sit there and teach him how to be a man on his 21st birthday, because he came in a bro. I was, like, "Oh, no, no, no. We're going to nip this in the bud right now." I taught him how to order whiskey. I talked to him about life. He was 21, still living with his parents, and I said, "You need to move out. You're 21 years old, you've got a fantastic job. Get out." Changed this man's life; I know I did.

What are you reading right now? I've actually delved into several books. One is Handsome Jack by John Lovick, whose persona onstage is "Handsome Jack." He did a brilliant thing: He wrote this book as his character, which is nothing like him as a human being. His character is very smarmy, snarky and better-than-thou. I'm also reading a really sick mentalism book by [Theodore] Annemann, which is just wonderful.

I do a lot of artisanal stuff at my house. I cure my own meat, I roast my own coffee, I make ice cream. I have a still; I make my own whiskey, I've just gotten into cheese making, so I'm making cheese at my house. And so, I've been collecting books on charcuterie. Just looking at different cultures' ways of making charcuterie, or making salted, cured meats, ranging from Italian to Middle Eastern to Indian to Korean to Thai. I've been reading a bunch of books on that. I can't give you any names, because I don't want people to buy them. I want them to be my special secret.

I'll only ask you for one last secret: What does Vegas' creative culture need that it doesn't currently have? What Vegas needs is less people saying no and more people saying yes. We've got people like Troy Heard running Majestic Repertory, and Kate St-Pierre doing shows with the Lab LV. And the artists that are showing up to First Friday, being vulnerable and putting their work out there, and saying, "This is me. This is my art. I don't care if you buy it. I would love you to buy something from me, but this is my art." ... We need people who are just not afraid to say yes, not afraid to be vulnerable. And who just aren't afraid to put themselves out there and say, "Look, world. Here I am. Love me or leave me. Let's just make art."


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