In rock clubs, at festivals and on few-and-far-between carnival midways, sideshow performers are returning to the spotlight. They’re sucking down fire, hanging from hooks like devotees of some high-tech yogic sleeping practice, and reviving classic arts as they juggle Champagne bottles. These feats of physical and mental endurance shock, horrify and and amaze — but most of all, they entertain.
In advance of this month’s Snake Oil Festival, Gambit spoke with sideshow performers and a sideshow historian about the festival and the state of the art.
Apparently, tossing a few balls in the air and catching them isn’t enough to call yourself a juggler. Arty Dodger informs me that among those who know, you’re not legit until you can do five throws and catches of five objects at a time. But Dodger (who prefers to use his stage name) practices a more difficult, obscure style of juggling called “gentleman juggling,” in which everyday household objects — a hat, a cane — become airborne as props in his act.
Dodger, 30, has been juggling since he was nine. He got his first professional gig in his 20s and now regularly performs at sideshow festivals across the South. In his act, he performs balance stunts (pictured) or juggles objects as obscure and/or dangerous as Tasers and his personal favorite, Champagne bottles. (He clarifies: “Empty. You don’t want to waste good alcohol.”)
Juggling, particularly gentleman juggling, is part of a number of 1920s-era vaudeville traditions that Dodger and others have revived during the current sideshow renaissance. Even though he’s been doing it all his life, he practices almost every day, often over his bed so anything that falls won’t break.
“Juggling is my meditation,” he says. “Everywhere else I’m just off the wall, but when I start juggling, all concentration is on that.”
James Taylor, sideshow historian
James Taylor was proven right about sideshow's resurgence, much to his amusement and alarm.
“'The metaphor for the 21st century is going to be sideshow,' I would say, with a little wink and a nudge,” he sighs. “Well, you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting someone in the variety business these days.”
As the founder of the Shocked and Amazed sideshow arts magazine, Taylor has been chronicling the industry for decades. He gives some credit for the industry's revitalization to videos and media that familiarized modern audiences with circus arts, but says the real enduring magic lies in the tension of live performance and “curious monkeys” (his term) trying to entertain and outdo one another with ever-more outrageous and, in some cases, death-defying stunts.
“It’s a form that has an ancient appeal ... you tell me who goes to the circus and doesn’t look at any of those acts hoping nobody gets hurt. But at core, that’s where the curiosity starts,” he says.
Taylor says Snake Oil Festival is one of the most broad-reaching variety festivals, touching on circus arts, sideshow, burlesque, vaudeville and musical perfomances. He’ll be there lecturing on history and giving insights on the business.
“You don’t need grand and glorious structures to perform [sideshow], you don’t need much tech … there's a reason why this is the oldest form of amusement and entertainment,” he says.
Marlo Marquise, fire eater, suspension artist and burlesque dancer
Marlo Marquise's resume is not for the squeamish. She eats fire, walks on glass, dangles from hooks, and perches on a machete ladder, to start, often incorporated into a burlesque act with sideshow elements.
Marquise first learned fire tricks when one of her mentors, a belly-dancer and sword-swallower, retired from fire-eating and decided to pass the skill along. Over the years, she’s picked up other hair-raising techniques. (During our conversation, she mentioned that she's learning to throw knives, the same way one might pick up knitting.)
She points out that sideshow acts are not to be confused with magic, which relies on illusion and sleight-of-hand.
“[Sideshow is] very real; one of the skills you have as a sideshow performer is being able to endure all the physical things you have to put your body through doing it,” she says. “I’ve had teeth literally fall out of the back of my mouth from doing too much fire, which is a very old carny thing.”
Although her work, particularly her "pain performance" acts, might seem strange or unsettling, she sees it as expressing a natural talent, like writing or being mathematically inclined.
“From a really, really young age, I knew that I could handle a lot of pain, and handle it a lot better than the average person. Sometimes I describe it as my superpower that I turned into a job,” she says.