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The Karasel of Progress
Fri, Oct 10 2008
The American Gym Show - Possible?
Mood:  incredulous

                  I have only been to one European juggling festival so I’m no expert on the subject.  However, the European convention I chose, you’ll have to admit, was THE one to pick – EJC 2008, an event that, to my knowledge, stands as the largest congregation of jugglers in the history of the world – 5500 REGISTERED attendees, and ya’ll know that not all of those sock spinners were registered, haha.


                So even though I’ve only been to one, it was an epic festival, and my mind was, for lack of a better cliché, blown.  I didn’t go to the EJC to perform, to teach, or even to network.  My goal in going to the EJC was to observe and understand this juggling culture about which I had heard so much.  Typical American globe-trotters like Jay Gilligan, Luke Wilson, and Jeff Lutkus had conveyed to me some of the “fundamental” (popular word during election time here in America) differences between the largest conventions in America and Europe – the IJA and the EJC respectively.


                Now, to be perfectly honest, I rather disliked a large portion of these differences.  Camping, for example, was rough.  My legs were permanently cramped as I couldn’t actually straighten my knees in my tent when horizontal.  Group showers with hordes of naked men were honestly not how I was expecting to spend my EJC mornings – just wasn’t aware of this practice.  The gym was hot and sweaty, the seating in the tents was, well, a bit earthy for my sore bottom, and the workshop board eventually became more of a chore to read than a joy.  I probably sound like a spoiled American wussy, but remember the culture from which I’m coming from.  The IJA means hotel room, private shower, air-conditioned gym, plush theatre seats for shows, and a workshop schedule that rarely gets added to.  It also hosts about 10% of the attendees this year’s EJC welcomed.


                However, if I could pinpoint my most enjoyable facet of the EJC 2008 in Karlsruhe, it would most certainly be the shows – both their quality and even more so, their quantity!  As a minor globetrotter in my own right now who has seen and experienced both sides of the coin, one of the major ideas I would love to migrate to America would be the emphasis on shows and the presentation of original, unique material, even in “less-than-stellar” environments.


                Let me be clearer.  Let’s examine briefly an IJA and a regional festival in America.  First of all, a regional festival in America is likely to (at most) have some sort of an open stage on Friday night (rare) and a big show on Saturday night – this is the standard.  At most regional festivals I’ve been to (8 just this past year), the Saturday night is always run as a variety show – a large amount of 4-8 minute acts consisting of B and C list American jugglers and usually a foreign juggler to close the show because Americans are obsessed with imports.  Well, and also, these European jugglers are usually the reason I come to the fest (Erik Aberg at RIT, Jens Sigsgaard at NYC).


                At the IJA, the standard fare as of late has been the following:


Tuesday night: Welcome Show, similar to a regional fest Saturday night show.

Wednesday night: Juniors comps

Thursday night: Championships

Friday night: Cascade of Stars

Saturday night: Awards and “Closing Show”.


                The unfortunate thing is that, besides skill level, all “shows” at the IJA are basically the same.  There is an MC who introduces 7 minute act after 7 minute act.  During the competitions, these acts are judged and awarded small cash prizes, but the format is entirely the same.  The Cascade of Stars is similar (I actually MC’d it this past summer) except that they usually try to round up an A list team of jugglers to really end with a bang.  The Closing show is barely worth talking about – various talking acts do their best to entertain you while you eat a catered meal and watch a bunch of awards get handed out.


                At the EJC, the closest thing I found to “competitions” were the games on Saturday morning, run by Luke Burrage.  No one seemed to really care who won and many of the games involved absolutely no juggling at all.  It was silly fun, intended to pass the time and make us forget about Godot for an hour.  The only other competition was the “Eurovision Contest” (poorly attended from what I hear) and the juggling “fight night”, which is one-on-one combat amongst club-juggling celebrities.


                Other than that, the entertainment consisted of show after show after show.  In fact, there were so many people to entertain nightly that two tents simultaneously held shows.  In one tent was always an open stage, similar to an American regional Saturday night show and in the other tent was a self-titled “special stage”, which held a variety of groups doing their full-length standard shows.  Two of the biggest highlights for me were seeing Duo Fullhouse and Extra Art, two groups that presented their full shows near the end of the week.  This was no 7 minute act.  Both companies had their own, well-rehearsed, extremely professional 90 minute show to present.  Both shows had juggling, comedy (both high and low), clowning, music, spectacle, and fun.  The two members of Duo Fullhouse are extremely well-versed in languages, so they interwove English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French, often in the course of a sentence or two so everyone walked away with at least 20% of the show.  Extra Art had a completely wordless show, instead relying on their amazing physicality and presence to include the international audience in their often silly behavior.


                So while I loved these tent-based long form shows by established companies, I have to admit that in the past, the IJA has hosted similar events.  Jason Garfield did a full-length show one night during the IJA in the early 2000s.  In 2005, Lazer Vaudeville presented their full show for I believe a Tuesday night slot.  And in 2006, the Mud Bay Jugglers took one half of the Cascade of Stars, leaving the second half for special guest Jerome Thomas. 


                So where’s the major difference?  Well, it all comes down to one simple marvelous point, which is really the force behind this article.  The EJC contained so much talent and so many shows that it actually couldn’t contain it all.  Shows spilled out of the tents and into less-obvious places.  One marvelous example – Pol and Freddy, a duo based out of Belgium, decided that they would present their amazing and funny two-man show on the hillside!  So they put up posters, one of which I noticed, and in the middle of the afternoon, I went and sat with probably 1000 other people on the hillside and watched Pol and Freddy present their hour long performance outside.  The great thing about this experience was that behind their backdrop, 1000 other people were continuing to juggle and have a jolly good time.  So even though there was a huge crowd on the hill enjoying the show, there were plenty of other jugglers content to just juggle.  Pol and Freddy actually ended up giving an encore presentation a few days later because word of mouth had required an additional show.


                This was only one example – another night, after an open stage, a circus company did a show on the hillside.  It was incredible, and involved a backdrop on which video was projected.  In the minor workshop gym, another circus company did three performances of their full-length show.


                Surprisingly, these “casual” tent-less shows left the most powerful lasting impression on me.  So many talented jugglers felt the need to present their work that they decided an official “spot” on a stage was not required to share their art with the rest of us.  A hillside or a gym left vacant for an hour was enough.  A few posters served as promotion and they could always count on a well-attended show.  Sitting on a hillside or on a gym floor, I really felt like I was a part of these endeavors, and welcome the chance to put down my props for an hour or two and go enjoy the research and hard work of other performers.


                So now let’s get back to America.  I honestly don’t think that we have a shortage of American jugglers with 45-90 minute shows in their back pocket.  For example, Jen Slaw has a solo show that she’s going to be premiering this Nov. 7 in Philadelphia at one of the most famous juggling showcases on the east coast – Greg Kennedy’s studio.  Nic Flair, who seems to be doing very well for himself, also has a solo show.  Greg Kennedy just recently performed a fringe show for the Philly Fringe Fest.  Sean Blue created a show called “Mixed Up” which he performed in Philly this past weekend.  These performers and many more like them have a wealth of material that they have translated into a solo show.


                Here’s my proposal – the invention or at least the experimentation of the American Gym Show.  In this proposal, I don’t suggest that we change anything about the regional festival in America or even the national IJA festival – I simply suggest that we add to what we already have.  Let’s say that I’m a juggler with a 45 minute solo show.  I’m at a regional festival in America.  Saturday night we already know is going to be a glorious 90 minute variety show.  Why not set up a backdrop in the gym and perform my solo show around 4pm?  In this scenario, I wouldn’t expect the gym rats to stop what they’re doing.  If you want to gather around, sit on the floor, and watch my show, go ahead.  If you want to keep juggling and dropping, feel free.  The purpose is not to try to turn the gym into a theatre – it’s meant to also see the gym as a casual performance space, where solo shows can offer an alternative to practicing for an hour. 


                Thus the American Gym Show would be created.  I think this scenario would definitely favor a music-based show.  So for an hour, the usual gym top 40 soundtrack could be dropped out and the performer’s music would replace it.  The different music would encourage some to investigate what’s going on, while the jugglers who still want to practice and socialize would still have a soundtrack.


                We all go to festivals for different reasons.  Some really just enjoy the space and time to practice.  Others really love the social aspect – the chance to see old friends again.  Others still come for the Saturday night show, a chance to see new acts and jugglers they’ve only ever seen on YouTube.  Others even come for the workshops, a chance to teach or learn new material. 


                I think the truth is that all the reasons listed above are compelling arguments for attending a regional American juggling festival.  The American Gym Show, however, could be one more.  Imagine the buzz created by the fact that a juggler you really love will be presenting his/her brand new untested full-length show in the gym, before dinner?  To me, that’s a perfect day of juggling.  Workshops, open juggling, a gym show, dinner, and then the Saturday night show.  Then again, there’s also Sunday, the self-proclaimed dead day in juggling festival history.  Sunday for me is always a long and sad farewell to all my juggling buddies, a chance to realize I’m too sore to seriously juggle any more, and a realization that every five minutes, there are fewer people still remaining in the gym.  The vendors pack up, the banners come down.  Who wouldn’t love to come into the gym on Sunday and have an 11:00am gym show?  Some people may not be into the performance/theatrical side of juggling as much as me, but to me, this would be wonderful!  The more shows, the better.  I can practice at home – while I’m at a festival, I want to be exposed as much to the art of juggling as possible.


                The wonderful thing about presenting Gym Shows at festivals is that you have a built-in knowledgeable audience that will give you real and honest feedback on your work.  It’s almost similar to a workshop performance and it’s possible at the IJA that you could use workshop rooms as venues because honestly, I think an IJA gym is too loud to pull off a gym show where you don’t expect everyone to watch.  So yeah, I’d encourage Gym Shows at regional fests and Workshop Room Shows at the IJA.  And, if you’re feeling randy and the weather’s nice, try a show outside!  Who knows, maybe even the local police force will show up!  Haha…man…


                I did want to applaud Sean Blue and friends for presenting “Mixed Up” as a sort of preamble to this year’s Philly Fest.  It couldn’t have come at a better time.  Jugglers who might not have come to Philly to see a 60 minute show did so because they were there for the fest anyway.  This proves in my opinion that all three regional fest slots – Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday afternoon – are all viable spots for shows that aren’t being used up at the moment.  Let’s change that.  The sport of juggling is receiving a lot of air time here in America – not so much the art side.  I know that none of you are going to make any money from doing a gym show at a juggling fest, but that’s what I always thought was so wonderful about festivals – jugglers come together for a weekend or even a week at a time and remember that juggling is not just a career – it’s something that can be shared and supported.  That’s why the IJA and the EJC thrive – because everyone’s willing to pitch in as a volunteer.  Dare I say we as artists volunteer our shows to our fellow jugglers?


                If you are an America juggler with a solo show, please contact me and I will give you support, encouragement, and advice to try and attempt one of these American Gym Shows that I’m proposing.  I want to recreate that mutual feeling of support and encouragement that I felt during the casual shows at the EJC here in America.  Let’s give it a try.

Posted by Michael at 1:56 AM EDT
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