Avner Eisenberg, or "Avner the Eccentric" as he bills himself, has used his juggling, mime, magic and general clowning talents to become a leader in "New Vaudeville," the newest rage on Broadway.
His one-man silent show, "Avner the Eccentric," garnered rave reviews there during its run from September 1984 to April 1985 at the Lambs Theatre and Samuel Beckett Theatre. On stage, Avner is a shy show-off. With the audience as his protagonist, he creates artistry out of obstruction. His act, he says, "is largely based on the theory of accidents. Every action has a terrible and opposite reaction."
Success on Broadway led to his role in the film "Jewel of the Nile," where he played a holy man that is "a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Mary Poppins." He has recently signed with ICM, a big agency in New York to represent him in future movie deals.
Now 38-years-old, Avner has apprenticed under noted Parisian mime Jacques Le Coq and Carlo Mazzone-Clemanti at the Dell'Arte School of Mime and comedy in California. Starting out in his native Atlanta, he paid his dues in countless theatre, street, school and festival performances. His show has now toured internationally -- Canada, Chile, England, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland.
He is booked up through the summer and next year with community concerts, festivals, college appearances and a tour of Germany and Holland. The month of March found him resting in his home in Peakes Island, Maine, nursing a troublesome case of tendonitis in his elbow. "It's a blessing in disguise," he said. "I'm too chicken to try out new stuff sometimes but this has forced me to do just that."
One such venture is his new autobiographical monologue, a stage presentation that's light on manipulation but heavy on character. "It's the story of how a skinny, bearded kid from Atlanta got to Broadway," Avner explained, "but it's spiced with sardonic observations about the American educational system."
An IJA member for many years, he was glad to give Juggler's World his opinion on the importance of theatrical technique in the effective presentation of juggling or any other physical skill.
JW: What brought you to juggling and entertaining?
Avner: I grew up in Atlanta and had a pretty generic childhood. I spent a lot of my time romping through the creeks of North Georgia. I was particularly interested in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, and did lots of sports. It was regular old kid stuff -- crew cut in the summer and blue jeans.
The thing that really changed my life more than anything else was when I was about 10 years old. We went to Calloway Gardens and saw the Florida State University Circus. There was a fellow there who at that time had red hair, a real skinny kid who was the catcher in the trapeze act. His name was Hovey Burgess.
Hovey taught me how to juggle in a little class that they had. He has gone on to be probably single-handedly more responsible for all the juggling in the country than any other person. He certainly is the one that got it legitimized and put into theatre programs, as well as getting circus arts recognized as an important part of theatre training.
JW: A lot of jugglers get to be extremely proficient technically, but never have the opportunity, the inclination or the intuition to become performers. What are the ethics of taking somebody else's joke or idea and using that to get a toe hold on performing?
Avner: Well, first I'll say that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. Then I'll say I think that the worst thing you can do is to take someone else's material. That's true ethically and in terms of your own development as a performer.
There is a clown -- and I mean that in a very loose sense of the word -- an amusing entertaining, engaging performer in everybody. It's important not to take someone else's character because what you are doing is short-circuiting the possibilities for developing your own character, your own sense of timing, rhythm and relationship with the audience.
I think too many beginning performers see something working and try to adapt the finished product without going through the process that got someone else to that end. It really doesn't work for the imitator.
What I recommend for every performer is to take acting lessons, particularly improv lessons. Learn to develop a character. The tricks don't matter. It's what you do with them. It's the attitude of the tricks. W.C. Fields is a perfect example. He did more with three balls in terms of communicating with the audience in that little routine that's on film than most jugglers who do seven balls.
I teach a lot of workshops in character development. I remember one girl in my class when I was teaching at Dell'Arte. Juggling was one of the courses, and the students had to develop a three-ball routine. She said, "But I can't juggle." I said, "I know you can't, so you'd better be funny." And she was a riot.
She came out as a Germanic army-type ordering the balls around. She could do some floor juggling, she could do a cascade, and her big trick was rolling a ball down her arm and then catching it under her neck.
What she worked up was a relationship with one ball. She had two of one color and one of the other and the odd one was always screwing up. She always conspired to drop that ball. She could basically get through about 2-1/2 throws and drop one. She went into this character piece, and the last thing was holding this ball up and shaking it and shouting at it, and it attacked her. It rolled down her arm and bit her in the neck.
It was the best three ball routine in the class, although there were some people who made their living as jugglers. What they did was get up and do their tricks and their regular old lines that they had mostly stolen from somebody else. That's an example that I give to people to help them find a character of their own.
JW: Why is it that you just use ordinary objects in your show?
Avner: That came from a decision that I made a long time ago. It was really a moral political decision as well as a dramatic decision. When jugglers show up with real flashy equipment, of course they can juggle it or they wouldn't have all that stuff. I was interested in the drama and the dramatic confrontation of the actor and the prop, the predicament of, "What's he gonna do? Can he possibly handle it?"
My slack rope act is a good example. I used to do a lot more on it. What I determined was that if I could convince the audience that I could kill myself if I tried to walk it, all I had to do is barely make it across to thrill them. Then I turned around and walked back again and did tricks. But I felt like I was just showing off. I was in a way betraying the trust that they put in my character who had convinced them that it was very difficult to walk that rope. I was saying, "Well, it's not really that hard, let me show you some more tricks."
If you rely on your tricks and juggle four balls, they want to see five. If you do five, they want to see six. But if you do three and stop, they're happy.
So, I use ordinary props in a sort of political statement. You don't need glitz and glamor and you don't need the kinds of values that Broadway brings to theatre in order to create good theatre. You don't need to spent forty bucks to see a show. Everything in my show is stuff that everybody has around the house -- an old baseball bat, paper napkins, cloth napkins, little paper umbrellas, a clothes line.
What is special is what the character does with the props. I want the audience to look at the object and ask, "What is he doing now?" and then have them be constantly delighted because I defy their preconception of those objects. It's a constant discovery for the performer, the character, but it's also a discovery for the audience -- there is a lot of life in these ordinary things.
JW: Is your Broadway run going to make it easier for the next guy?
Avner: I think so. There are three of us who have made it now, beside Michael Davis, who was the hit of "Sugar Babies." The Karamazov Brothers, me and Penn and Teller. The K's lasted a couple of months. I lasted nine months and would have gone on but I closed it to do the movie, "Jewel of the Nile." Penn and Teller are the hit of Broadway and are coming up on a year now. I'd say that for each one of us it has been easier than for the one before. The world has opened up to what we do.
Avner the Eccentric in "Jewel of the Nile"
I really do have a feeling that the work we are doing is going to make it easier because, it sets standards for the public and opens their eyes to the possibilities.
When the K's opened, a lot of the reviews said, "These guys are great jugglers, but what are they doing on Broadway? Juggling doesn't belong here." When I opened and when Penn and Teller opened, we didn't get any of that criticism. The K's unfortunately had to absorb it all, and in fact they do a lot more juggling than we do.
I think it is definitely opening up. The thing that they are calling New Vaudeville is what used to be called Variety. It is a real hot concept for theatre goers right now, so much so that I am going to be closing the season at Jacob's Pillow. That is a place that I could never have gotten into five years ago.
JW: What's different about New Vaudeville from the old variety shows?
Avner: We have taken vaudeville skills like juggling, magic and acrobatics and expanded them theatrically into a full evening show. For example, the Karamazov show is not a juggling show. They use juggling, but they use it for dramatic reasons.
What we do is theatre. My show isn't really a variety show, it's more a character piece. It's a Beckett play with tricks, like Emmett Kelly doing "Waiting for Godot." It's all about waiting and how this particular character handles it.
JW: What do you see in the future for juggling?
Avner: I'm most interested in the theatrical applications of juggling. What people can do with it in terms of character rather than how many tricks they can do in three minutes or how many different objects they can manipulate. I still practice that stuff -- I'm into technical juggling -- but I haven't found any real way to use it in the show except occasionally. I've never been into that competitive side of juggling. It seems bizarre.
JW: What can the IJA do to help its members build their own juggling characters?
I think it would be lovely to see more workshops taught by people on how to develop character, how to develop a routine, how to put an act together, and not just a traditional juggling act.
JW: Is there anything else you'd care to pass on to the Juggler's World audience?
Avner: Yes. You can't succeed every time. Learn to fail magnificently!