The thing that he loved about juggling was that it forced people to learn to work together, so he was really interested in guys learning how to pass together, and learning how to keep that rhythm together. That's what he loved about it. He learned to juggle and he was the administrator in the prison and he always had a set of beanbags around, and if he was hanging out and there was an inmate nearby he would say, 'Hey, do you know how to juggle?' and the guy would say no and he would teach them and he'd give them the beanbags. So he was great, and he would just kind of recruit.
I was one of the jugglers that volunteered. I was probably one of the only jugglers who was actually available to do that kind of job. I didn't have a regular job and I wasn't making a fortune street performing like a lot of the other jugglers in San Francisco were, and so he asked me to write this grant basically from the State of California that brings artists to prisons and then the prison system matches the grant. So that's what I did and I started about six years ago... yeah, I guess it was about, I probably volunteered about '87 and then started in '88. I spent about three or four years at San Quentin, at least, and then spent two years at Vacaville, which is a prison for physically and psychologically ill inmates.
I was scared. Prison is a scary place, I think, for everybody. Yeah, I was scared at the beginning. Jim would come down with me for just the first few times, and then he stopped and it was just me down there. Also at the time (were you ever at this spot?) we did this spot, it was in the education building. You would walk in and you would keep walking down stairs - it was literally three flights below ground level - and then you would go all the way back to the back of this maze of a building. We were extremely isolated, extremely isolated in this corner of this building. It wasn't even really a room, just kind of a corner of a building.
The officer would come and check on me about once a session. It was about a three hour session, and you could hear him coming. You could hear the keys jingling, so you could actually hear him coming from a long ways away, and he would come about once. One time I remember I was juggling and we just heard the jingling of the keys, which was actually a pretty sound out of context, and I remember that I did a routine to that as if that was my musical accompaniment. Then the guard showed up and the music stopped and the routine ended.
But I never felt unsafe with the inmates and with the jugglers. I think it's [like that] with any group of people when you know them one on one and deal with them as human beings. Then some you like and some you don't but it wasn't scary.
Lifers had a different sense of time. I remember bringing the devil sticks one day, and which to me were really hard, it took me a really long time to get them, and they had no problem. Every time they would do it for five or ten minutes and then do it again. These guys had been in ten or fifteen years and had another ten or fifteen to go so they weren't as impatient as I feel some of us on the outside are in learning new tricks, and they worked really well together.
One guy was an Olympic swimmer, like a champion swimmer or something, and you could see that same grace and that same discipline he brought to juggling. He once said that he didn't know if he would ever go out there and compete again swimming or ever be out there again, but at least he could bring those same qualities into this. The sense of grace and this sense of beauty, even stamina that he was able to bring to it, too.
You know they work out a lot in prison so there are some very huge men and they are really muscle-bound and they are not very flexible, so actually juggling I think was really great for them because it works them in a different way, and gives them a different kind of dexterity that they don't get, so I think they really liked it for that.
I don't know, for me, juggling had an addictive quality when I first started learning, too. I think [for] a lot of people with addictions that here is something else that they could do, and something they could have and something they could own. They would be out in the yard and they could take out their bean bags and do some hot juggling for their guys. It was a community for them and that's important in prison and on the outside, and that was something that they could have that was theirs. There are some good jugglers in those days.
I remember one guy who used to come up with these poems. They were the most vulgar poems that I'd ever heard in my life, and I include your poetry in that. I was in a hard position as teacher. I said to him that he couldn't say those poems in class, but that if he wanted to say them he could censor them and say the word 'bleep'. So he proceeded [with] this fabulous Lenny Bruce type routine where he would say what was essentially a rhyming poem and say 'bleep'. Of course it was way funnier than the original poem, which was just stupid. He would say, 'Dah te dah te dah te dah te dah BLEEP', and of course everyone knew what the word was. Then some lines were, 'Bleep bleep the bleep bleep bleep'. He found very creative ways to juggle to that.
I'll never forget he came in one day and he said, 'I have a poem I'd like to perform today but I didn't have time to work it out, you know censoring it with the bleeps but I'd still really like to do it'.
I said, 'No, you can't do it.'
So when it was his turn to perform, he took [one of] the juggling scarves and he put it over his mouth cowboy fashion and he got up with three beanbags to juggle and he said, 'This is called the censored poet,' and just proceeded to juggle without saying anything. I thought it was great.
People did great things, they brought in poems that I don't think they'd ever told anybody., and using juggling as kind of a mask, which some of us do, they recited these - I'm talking about fourteen page poems that they had committed to memory, that they kind of made into these juggling pieces. It was really beautiful and extraordinary. Everyone found their form. Some people would like do comedy shtick and some people would do aesthetic juggling or technical juggling or poetry and all that. That was most interesting for me.
When it changed to minimum it just became less meaningful - it became a juggling class and that was fun too. Because they were there much shorter time, they never became as good jugglers. Ever so often there'd be someone who would have some great, you know, have the gift as you say. Someone would show up that would just have that gift and would be really really good, but mostly for them it was just hobby and it was fun. That was OK too, I mean there is nothing wrong with spending a nice evening juggling. There were some nice people, as you know from your experience up there too. I mean I met some great people.
Some of the most meaningful things that happened weren't with the great jugglers. They were just with people who... I mean just language. There was one guy who used to say, I used to show him a trick that I thought was in his capability, and he would say, 'Oh, I could never do that. Like there is no way I could ever do that.' After we'd been working together for a few months and I noticed he'd start saying, 'I can't do that yet.' Or, 'I can't do that without some practice.' Just the idea that what [at first] seems impossible we can do, which is such a nice lesson for life.
Just being in control of the objects is such an amazing thing. You are not used to being in control of your life. The idea that you can change direction of a juggling pattern, so if you throw one ball a little too far in front of you and the next ball a little bit too in front of that, and you end up walking with the juggling pattern. The idea that you can stop that and at any point change the pattern and bring it back to a normal pattern. That you're always in charge is an amazing thing for all of us, including people who aren't used to being in charge. If there is there is behavior in our lives that is putting us out, changing our pattern, we can change that too. So there's, I mean it really, there are wonderful lessons.
These are people I knew in the street. You know I lived in the same neighborhood that they did when I first started working there, and they say, 'Oh, have you ever been to Mission street?'
I'd say, 'Oh Mission Street, no never', and there I lived like two blocks from Mission.
Some of these guys I'm really glad are locked up, they really are dangerous, and others seem to be very nice and responsible people. One only hopes that when they go back outside they will find a way, resources and a support system to continue that.
It's a hard life. There's just a hope that juggling supplies some way to find creative solutions and to create a bit of beauty in the world, and a way of interacting with others that is healthy. So, for example, some of these guys, their wives would come to visit and they would teach them how to juggle, or their kids. They'd say, 'Oh, my wife is coming can I have three more beanbags?' This is revolutionary, this kind of interaction, so it's really satisfying to be a part of that.
They have like a huge wheelchair/bed population, a huge blind population, and it's a hospital basically. Physical ailments and a big mentally ill population. It's got the biggest AIDS ward in the country and there is a lot of illness there. There is a lot of dying, people die there, there's a hospice. People die there, so it's very, very heavy. Also, unlike San Quentin, it's all indoors, so all this energy stays indoors.
Also it has the highest transsexual population, transvestite and transsexual population so it's a very interesting mix. Actually people are incredibly tolerant there. I mean it has such a huge gay population there, and such a huge transsexual population there, so these officers, who are often from rural and small conservative towns, and also the other inmates who are from rural and small conservative towns, have to deal with, I won't say [being] outnumbered, but certainly having to deal with a substantial population that's transsexual. Which I think is hard for many of the most progressive people to understand and to live with. It's really an amazing social experiment. I would say it works in the extent that when you have to get along with people you do. You just find a way to do that.
But it was very heavy there, it kind of felt like a black hole. A lot of just desperate energy and it was all contained. It was all contained. With San Quentin there was so much outdoors. I used to say that San Quentin was modeled on a college campus, but Vacaville was modeled like a high school and it's... I mean there's hallways to go from one place to another. I'd be teaching something and I could hear people screaming and pounding on doors, or every so often, someone would be rolled by on a gurney completely strapped down and screaming. Our class was held in this hallway, literally just through the hallway, and we had to move aside with our little juggling so this person can be wheeled by.
The weird part is juggling fit in so much more there. I don't mean this in the wrong way but, it was like such a circus. There was such crazy things going on there, that there was nothing so weird about people juggling. It like fit in just fine, and everyone understood, the guards understood it. Like everyone got that it was just the logical thing to do. At San Quentin it was always looked down upon and well, 'You're doing what?' But [there] it made so much sense.
I dealt a lot with mentally ill patients that were so drugged up that they couldn't even look me in the eye. They were so glazed over they were drooling. They had knife marks, you know from attempted suicide, marks up and down their arms. I would talk to them and think they didn't understand a word I said, and they would calmly take the scarves and start juggling. It was amazing, it was amazing the work that happened there.
In a way it was like the same thing, the more desperate, the more creative we get. That's how we are as human beings, that's not just prison, I mean that's like anything, I think. It was really great. Sometimes, I felt a little like a recreational therapist (which I don't even know what that means, practically) but I know I got people working and doing it, and feeling proud of it and making up pieces and applauding. There was a lot of ways they were way more creative too. You know, fearless. The drugs help.
So that was really powerful stuff, it was also around that time I started doing more theater work. I just started getting more bored. I'd been teaching for so long, so we started adding more theater work there too. So that was really fun for me as well. Also, they were so limited that there was just so little I could do with them juggling wise. So I had to add something there.
It's really great seeing the healing powers of juggling at the most basic level. You know this moment, because I know you teach a lot too, I always call it the 'Great Aha'. That moment of discovery in anything, it's just so fun. That's one of the most fun things about being alive is discovering or learning something new. So to be able to give that moment of 'I can't do it, I can't do it, ooooh, I get it', is thrilling.
It starts off he's in prison and there's a soundtrack to it. He's in prison and he's in the yard. He's alone and he's walking and he comes to this door, and he opens the door and there are all these robots. He taps each one and they each kind of start juggling in turn. They drop, they juggle basically until they drop or stop, and they return to being robots.
One of them drops a gold ball, and he picks up the gold ball and then it disappears, and then the room becomes a virtual, not a virtual but a real circus. There's just wild costumes and outlandish makeup and just wild things happening in the room, and he also becomes part of it and becomes in costume, and starts manipulating some objects and then at the end he turns and looks back. They're all dressed as inmates again and they're all robots, and then it just ends with him walking down the yard again and reaches into the pocket. No, I think it falls from the sky. This gold ball again falls from the sky and he picks it up and keeps walking.
It's really about the magic that can happen. To make the film I brought in make-up artists and we borrowed costumes from the Pickle Family Circus and Make-A-Circus, and the movie we should have made was about making the movie. They put on, they had unbelievable, not clown make-up but really wild, just wild facial make-up, and just wild costumes. We brought in these really wild costumes, and I thought people would want to be dressed. It was such a big deal to get out of their own clothes, which is unheard of in prison, that you can wear something else. So among the things we brought in were kind of regular clothes. And guess what? The first thing that got taken up was the most outlandish, this wild hoop dress, which you wouldn't be caught dead wearing in prison. That was the first thing that went.
Yeah, it was really great. In a way I think the film is really metaphorical too, about what can happen. Just a little bit of magic, now was it a circus or was it just these guys in prison? It's just a little bit of the magic we can bring anywhere we go. Also his name happened to be Snap, so we called it that. But also [it was about] the things that can happen in a snap, and that we are really free.
I mean that's what I learned in prison. That's what they taught me, is that we are free in our spirit, in our body and in our mind. Sometimes we have to do stuff that we don't want to do, but the rest of us can really remain free. Which is, I guess, one of the ways people survive in prison. I guess the last thing, I mean not the last thing, if you want to ask more. But that for me and I think for anyone who went there... (I know you went there for a few times, and I'm able to bring people in occasionally.) It's really a blessing and we always think about how we are bringing stuff to them but we all know that we get as much out of it as they do, and I think it's really important that we, on the so-called outside, see what kind of life it is for them.
Especially in California, and I don't know what it's like in Europe, but in California where prison is one of the biggest cottage industries here. To know that it's not all a picnic and to know a little bit of what that life is like, and who these people are that we are so quick to condemn.
One of the men in my class was on death row, and was a multiple murderer, this was back with the lifers, a multiple murderer. When California repealed the death penalty in '72 he got life without the possibility of parole, basically. You know, to have the opportunity to meet this man and to know him (I knew him for years) it was an amazing thing. It was a gift to spend time with some of these people who were really interesting people. So I feel for all of us, juggling is magical and beautiful and challenging and that it's a gift that works both ways in those types of situations.
One time one guy came in extremely drunk or high and that was a little scary. I was scared. He sounded a bit suicidal to me. I was put in an awkward position of kind of telling on him, and I did. One reason was because I thought he was suicidal, so I thought it would be better to get written up for drugs than that he killed himself basically. So I guess those are the things that come to mind in terms of the worst things that have happened.
I'm teaching clowning and theater, and we do juggling in the clowning troupe, and I'm also actually in a few weeks starting to teach at the county jail too. So I'm not completely out. This is a California Arts Council grant and it will probably be my last year of it, so I imagine I will leave. Yeah, I imagine I will leave.
But directing this clown troupe has been really fun, and that's been really great. They perform for little kids, so now in this halfway house we have more access to the world. They can actually go out and do shows for little kids and that's been really exciting.
I don't know. I don't know if I'll go back and teach in prison. I feel there is something about my personality that is interesting to me to work with what we call here special populations. That I always learn a lot and I think I have something to give to them. but it might be someone else's turn to take it over, and take over the programs that were started before me at San Quentin and even at Vacaville as well.
I think I paid a price. Emotionally, psychically, I think it was hard. It's hard being around it and I only went in and did it a couple of times a week. There's something really hard about being there. My boss for awhile was this Puerto Rican, part Puerto Rican woman from New York. I told her once how hard it was and I really felt a bit damaged even from the work, from all the need, and she said to me, 'Hey don't you know about throwing it in the water when you leave?'
I'm like, 'Now you tell me.' Of course San Quentin is on the bay and it's so beautiful. And I'm like, 'Oh you just throw it all in the water, all that tension.'
So I'm not sure what the next step will be.
I took this class and it was really easy. I couldn't believe how easy it was. I became friends with Edward and he dropped out of school, and then I dropped out of school. Not for the same reason but we stayed together a lot and I hung out with his friends, his juggler friends and oh, I don't know, Peter Davidson.... Just basically these great jugglers and in fact I was the only person I knew who juggled who was not working on seven balls.
I was a pretty good juggler, I think, I learned very quickly, and I had a good knack for three ball and four ball stuff. So I'm working on my four ball juggling and everyone I knew was juggling seven balls. I didn't even consider that I was a juggler or that I was doing anything meaningful. I just thought that anyone who is a real juggler was working on these incredibly hard tricks.
I learned what I would call classical juggling if there is such a thing, and there was a right way and a wrong way. There was even a way to practice and he taught that. That you practice a trick every third ball, then every second, then every one. So I learned.
Then after I dropped out of school I moved back to New York, and I juggled at the juggling club there occasionally with John Grimaldi, I think his name was. And you know I kind of kept it up a little bit, and many many many years later I went back to school at Berkeley.
Something happened, oh yeah I remember what happened, I was in Israel. I did a year of study in Israel, and we were in a bookstore. There's a women's bookstore in Haifa and I was in one room looking at these books and I was with a friend, and she was, I heard her, talking to someone else. I heard her saying, 'Oh, yeah we'll be there. What's the date? No, my friend knows how to juggle she'll perform at it, we'll be there.'
I go in and say, 'What's going on?'
She says, 'Oh I got you this great gig.'
I had never performed before and it was a benefit for a women's bookstore in Jerusalem that they were trying to open, and so I had this gig. I performed at it and it was really fun and it was really easy, and I thought well this isn't so bad. I kind of like this.
So I did some performing in Israel that year and it all struck me as very ironic, because I had been brought up in New York, lived in San Francisco and Berkeley and New York, which were really great juggling centers and in Los Angeles where I learned to juggle. It wasn't until I lived in Israel that I actually thought of myself as a juggler and that I could perform, and the reality was that I was probably one of the best jugglers in the country at the time. So these same people couldn't go to Pier 39 or wherever and see all these hot jugglers.
I developed a style of performance which I still have to this day, which is I felt that my juggling wasn't very good on its own, so I added written words, which I also thought weren't very good on their own, but I thought the two things together would make a complete picture and it did. It seemed to work. So I was very happy with that method, and I performed that way for awhile, at very small events.
Then I came back to the states, and I went to school at UC Berkeley. I was very involved in the anti-nuke movement, and I did a lot of political benefits and performed at them a lot, using the same formula of the visuals complementing what the words were saying. I found out that as long as I was juggling I could say anything that I wanted to say and people would be very receptive. This formula of, as long as they were being entertained people were willing to listen. So that was fun for me. I learned to perform at political benefits basically.
Then when I went back to my own solo performing I went back to doing verbal stuff and writing stuff, and also using juggling metaphorically. It amazed me in this first show Beyond Brooklyn, which is as you say, did a lot with Jewish identity and Lesbian identity. It's a story of someone who basically is trying to balance out her Brooklyn, New York Jewish childhood with her life as a Lesbian artist in California, and juggling comes in very handy metaphorically as well all know. Any time you want to talk about balance and contradictions it works rather well. So I was able to do this while showing using all different kinds of juggling apparati basically. In each one that told a different story or helped tell the story in different ways.
But now, I've started separating them out again to their more pure forms. There's a way that I really love to juggle separately from speaking, and I really love to really really work on the words separately, and I don't want a visual to distract from what I'm trying to do with the words, if it's not really going to add to it.
In my new show, 'June Bride', almost all the juggling and object work is separate from the text work, and there's a lot more writing and a lot more monologue in it. That's really fun for me to go back and forth. And the well known exception is the circumcision, where I juggle these knives and do this poem about circumcision. There's actually not a tremendous amount of juggling in it.
Yeah, I'm, like all of us, trying to find my voice I think. I really love manipulating words and manipulating objects, and sometimes doing it at the same time and sometimes separating them out to their original forms. That's the encapsulated version of my career.
So as you know I wrote this play about the making of the atomic bomb. There's some heavy stuff going on with that, but it was important for me also that it be a comedy.
I feel like I was able to enter the theater through juggling, and that it is juggling that has helped me find my voice as a writer also. It's been a good friend to me, a really good friend.
There's a way I just love just going to the studio and just working it. And when I was in the circus and before I was in the circus, I used to just practice a lot. I mean we've all put in those hours and hours and hours. You know I used to get up at the crack of dawn and go practice before rehearsal even started. There is a way, even though my work seems to be different now, that I love going back there and just work in a studio, and feeling my body work and sweat and get cut from those stupid knives. Throw balls around and ropes and sticks and explore it.
I feel my work as a juggler isn't as creative. Like I'm not going to be the one who is going to make up new juggling tricks, but I might be the one who will take that new trick and put it in a very unusual context, for example.
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