Funny manipulation - the missing link?
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So now I’m out of school living in the big city (New Yawk!) and since I’m still young and culturally allowed to be stupid, I’ve decided to try to pursue juggling as a viable career option. Yes, even though I was the valedictorian of my high school and possess marketable computer/typing/writing skills, I’ve decided to choose something (at least temporarily) with 0 security, 0 stability, and 0 benefits. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my fallback is “theatre”. Haha, enjoy the timely demise of Michael Karas over the next five years. Let’s place bets – when will Michael reluctantly face his first cubicle?
Anyway, there’s a horrible ‘M’ word in any performance-related job – ‘marketable’. Able to be marketed. After all, as I’ve learned, juggling when it becomes a career, seems to involve 90% business and 10% art. Like anything, we need to convince people in a recession that they should spend their hard-earned money on a guy who throws objects around in the air. This is a difficult challenge – even I don’t want to give a dollar to some of the very talented people I see on my trips in the NYC subways. Why? Because I’m cheap, my rent’s ridiculously high, and I’d be broke if I gave these artists the money I think they deserve.
So here we are in America. There are no major government art subsidies. As a self-employed contractor, it’s our job to “market” ourselves to achieve maximum financial gain without (hopefully) having to sacrifice too much artistic integrity. Again, I’m no historian and I don’t profess to have an incredible ability to feel the “pulse” of the entertainment sector, but it seems very apparent to me that the easiest road to success in American juggling is to be a comedian. Comedy first – juggling second. Better to have a great comic personality who can juggle okay than an amazing juggler with substandard comic timing and flair. Many jugglers in America seem to have had success by teaming up and creating a partnership – the Passing Zone, Raspyni Brothers, Fettucini Brothers, Karamazov Brothers, Clockwork, Lazer Vaudeville, the Gizmo Guys, and Team Rootberry to name a few.
Partnerships in Europe are also common – Pol and Freddy, Tre’space, Get the Shoe, Extra Art. However, notice one major and important difference. All the American partnerships, with the exception of Lazer Vaudeville, are talking acts. They routinely intersperse comedy and audience interaction with their actual skill presentation. All the European teams that I mentioned use music exclusively and never utter a word on stage. While America seems to rely on language (the aural), Europe seems to rely on the visual. European teams rely more on physicality and clowning, while America relies more on wordplay, sight gags, and (I’ve noticed) self-deprecation.
I think one could very much argue that America’s prominence in the world as well as the English language are a major factor in this continental difference. Even at the EJC, where almost no one spoke English as a FIRST language, English was the main language. So in America, of course, we can attain great success by speaking and joking in our own language. In Europe however, where small countries and their very different languages comingle so closely, it is perhaps a lot more marketable to produce a show without words, because it enables the company to travel and achieve success in multiple countries. (On a side note, the team “Duo Fullhouse” is the only show I’ve ever seen in which both performers speak so many languages that all major European countries can understand at least 20% of the show – it’s amazing.)
So far in my juggling career, I’ve strictly performed music-based wordless routines at juggling festivals and conventions. Occasionally for private gigs I’ve done comedy but I haven’t particularly enjoyed it, although I’ve often received good compliments. Although I think I can be a funny person, comedy isn’t something that I particularly feel at home doing. So we arrive at my conundrum – I’m a 23 year old juggler with tons of material that could be presented at a juggling festival, but very little material for the American public market, at least as we know the mainstream.
So what do I do? “Cave in” to the norm and ditch all the high-faluting “art” and “choreography” for gags and audience participation? Steal some jokes, do a few funny combo tricks, eat the apple, and leave’em laughing? Because at this point, in the American comedy market, my actual juggling “skills” are more than enough. I could stop practicing now and work solely on patter and comedy and put together a killer act that I could do for 30 odd years before retiring in California. Cruise ships, corporate gigs, you name it. Pander to the rich and dying, and laugh all the way to the bank.
God, there has to be another way.
Well, I think there is but as with any new foray into art progression, it doesn’t come without extreme risk, and a good dose of trial and error. Like any successful marriage, the key word is “compromise”. My juggling repertoire as I know it now does not, in my opinion, have the ability to create a solid hour-long show that can be marketed all over America. What’s missing? In my opinion, it’s the secret to American success – comedy!
But wait! So Michael, you’re just going to ditch everything you’ve worked on and go down the comedy route? Well, no, of course not, but I’m going to attempt to find the “sugar” that will make artistic juggling easier to swallow. In other words, the mission statement becomes: is there a way to make speechless, music-based juggling accessible and entertaining to the masses and if so, is comedy the best route to take?
A lot of artistic jugglers that I’ve seen tend to take themselves too seriously. I think this is why all this new-school amazing stuff is never going to take off. I recently spoke to Erik Aberg who has created an entire body of work surrounding a simple 1 club body move that very few other people have used. He first performed this club routine at RIT in America where it was well-received as the final piece in the show. Suffice it to say that the entire audience was made up of jugglers and their friends. While the piece was really cool and might do well in a modern dance production, I could totally believe Erik when he told me that he’s working on a new frame (routine) for the research which, as he said in his own words, is more “accessible”. Erik admitted that his pieces need to be financially successful for him as well so I can only guess that he is encountering the same road blocks that I am – how do you take your “nerdy technique” (another Erikism) and make it mainstream/cool?
In many ways, I think comedy and audience inclusion (different from interaction or participation) are the answers. I’ve seen flashes of it in the past. Jay Gilligan has two memorable moments from very artistic routines that connect to any audience, juggling or non-juggling. In his three different sized ring routine, he ends up with the small one on his head at one point and in a quick little hiccup move, “tips” his “hat” to the audience. It’s a small move and yet even for me, it’s the most memorable moment of the piece, whether he means it to be or not. The other Gilligan comedic moment that people love is during his three ring manipulation routine when he all of a sudden, after a long string of quick placements, becomes “stuck”. We see one of his hands struggling around his neck to juuuuuuuuust grab the ring in enough time to keep going. It is a moment in which the non-juggling audience feels some sort of a connection to this post-modern juggling – a moment of “struggle” and a moment of “howdoyado?”
Probably the best full show that employs comedy with post-modern/chapter 2 juggling is “Pol and Freddy” by Sander and Brom from Belgium. I saw the show on a hillside at the EJC and it was absolutely incredible. I’ve always loved Sander’s juggling and it was so surprising and refreshing to see him taking all that skill and tying it up in a fun, playful ribbon instead of a badass, look how cool I am ribbon. The show is about two goofy clown-like friends who arrive in a car two sizes too small and goof around with each other, often creating juggling routines that look more like rube Goldberg devices with volley clubs. (I wonder if they’re the reason so many people bought them this year.) (I also wonder why Sander looks so much like Orlando Bloom).
Even Rhys Thomas found a way to tackle club legos in his comedic job as emcee at RIT. He said something to the effect of – “Only Rubik’s cube enthusiasts could have come up with this trick” and proceeded to do a simple, RCN-era club lego. He was the only comedic juggler I’d ever seen do a lego as part of his set.
So, in other words, I think we can bring new-school “chapter 2” juggling to the American market but we have to coat it a bit with what works in this country so well – comedy. If we can swallow our pride just a little and allow ourselves and others to find the humor in some of these new –school tricks, maybe we can ease the American audience into our passion. It’s great to be respected and heralded by other jugglers. I’d certainly feel honored if Jay or Wes found one of my videos or routines “fresh” but at the same time, I also have an entire world out there to entertain, a world that doesn’t care about the difference between a romeo’s and a rubenstein’s.
Let’s lighten up a bit and finally bring new school juggling out into the limelight it deserves – with a smile instead of a stare.
Posted by Michael
at 5:32 PM EDT
Updated: Sat, Sep 20 2008 5:35 PM EDT