Making things Interesting – The Act Without Skills Test

“Thom, how do you make a good routine?”

That’s one of the questions I’m often asked when I’m coaching at NECCA.

Unfortunately for the students who ask, there’s no one clear way.  “Interesting” is a difficult — if not impossible — attribute to measure.  There are, however, different ways to look at routines and pick apart different aspects of their presentation.  Here’s one of my favorite ways to dissect choreography:


The Act without Skills Test

Variety performance inherently relies  on unique skills and props to create an act.  Relying on skills or props alone can sometimes be a crutch to performers – the “Act without Props Test” requires that the performer run through their act’s choreography without the skills or props that they rely on.

The idea is simple – if an act’s choreography can hold an audience’s interest without any of the skills it was written with, won’t it be that much stronger when the choreography is done with the skills as well?  Think of it as a melody being hummed, compared to a melody being performed by a full orchestra.  If it’s strong in the simplest form, it should be strong in its fully rendered form.  By stripping an act down, we are forced to focus on the tempo, the character, and a host of other elements often overlooked in favor of the tricks and skills.

Let’s use juggling as an example.  A young juggler approaches his director, asking why his routine isn’t very strong.  It is extremely technical, well polished, and captures the attention of jugglers all over.  Other audiences, however, haven’t been as interested.

We’ve all seen the act – the juggler stands centerstage, and juggles three balls.  He moves on to four, five, and seven.  Then he runs back to his prop stand and swaps the  balls out for clubs.  Three, four, five club juggling.  He runs back and swaps the clubs out for rings.  Three, four, five, six, seven, and eight.  He takes a bow, and runs off stage.

If you like juggling for the sake of juggling, then this act was probably great!  If you’re like the rest of the world, you probably looked at the person for cues about how he was feeling, what he was thinking, or why he was doing it at all.

This exercise strips the juggler of his equipment, and has him “mark” the act in real time with his music.  (He’ll probably protest.  Lock his equipment in the closet until he agrees to do it!)

Watch for movement around the stage, for facial expressions, for pacing and tempo within the body.  How does the performer breathe on stage?  Is the act interesting to watch when the “meat” of the act isn’t there?

The juggler in our example spent minutes at a time standing center stage, facing the audience, in a fully upright position.  This stance was punctuated with short sprints to his table in the back, where he picked up new equipment before returning to his starting position.  Not a very interesting act without the technique.

So, what can we do to make it a little more interesting to watch?

The juggler should reblock his routine to hit more places around the stage.  If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to do where, pick an arbitrary shape and see what happens. I like to have jugglers working with this exercise to pick a letter of the alphabet, then trace that out during one of their sequences.  We’ll run that arbitrary blocking a few times, then add the props back in.  We record it, watch it, and pick through it to see if something jumps out as interesting to watch.  We keep the new part, and keep playing with the rest of the sequence.  When you devise material this way, it’s easier to step back and look at the altered routine with a sense of equanymity – noone’s feelings get hurt when you cut material.

How about pacing?  In our example, the juggler did tricks one after another – back to back to back to back.  The juggler should look at their tempo.  Is it so even that they’re unwittingly putting their audience to sleep?  I like to have students pick a series of tempo-related descriptors.  “Molasses-slow!” “Stop-and-Go!” “As fast a possible, then stop!”  Once they come up with a few different words, they’re tasked with taking a sequence and finding a home for each one of them.  A standard pattern is changed with some stops and starts, a dash to pick up a ball on the floor is turned into a slow-motion walk. — and all of these changes help make the core of the choreography more interesting.

This exercise certainly doesn’t pretend to be a cure-all for routines.  If you’re looking for a new perspective on your act, though, perhaps this will help you out.

Do you have an exercise you use to change things up?  Comment below!


Addendum for Aerialists

A lot of folks messaged me after this post was published, asking how it might apply to aerial acts.  How can you mark through an act on a vertical apparatus, like silks or rope?  What about something like static trapeze?

Here’s a challenge for my aeralist friends:

Next time you rehearse, try doing it in the middle of a room, sitting on a bar stool.  Instead of the skills (climbing, dropping, suspended in a pose in the air,) what can you do to hold attention while isolated in one fixed point, like a stool?  You’ll have to play with emotional textures, viewpoints, movement, and other non-athletic aspects of performance.

The bottom line of it all is this – the skills themselves only represent a small portion of the act.  Lose the skills for a few rehearsals and focus on the rest.  You’ll come away with a much fuller piece as a result.


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2014 by the Numbers



Accounting and reflecting are two important year-end activities that small business owners all across the world engage in.  I’m no exception!

As I tidied my house this year, sorting through old programs and ticket stubs and finding shards of broken plates all over the place, I thought about the year’s happenings and started gathering data. Not one to throw away frivolous year-end statistics, I’ve compiled it all here for your enjoyment!

Here you are, friends!  Here’s my 2014, by the numbers.

World Map 2014

I visited six countries this year – the USA, Canada, Ethiopia, China, New Zealand, and Fiji.

Fiji was a kind of happy accident – their national airline has an “unlimited layover” policy that afforded me a little vacation on my way home from New Zealand.  No shows there, but I sure did juggle on the beach!

US Map 2014

 I juggled in eleven states this year, too. That was Oregon, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

The folks in New Hampshire went crazy when I announced it was my Granite State debut that night.  “Live free or die!  Don’t tread on me!” they shouted.  They also went crazy when I announced my box of “guns with tiny American flags on them” during my rat-hoop act.  (That one worried me a little.)


I traveled a total of 65,404 miles traveled for shows in 2014.

(That’s enough juggling to circle the globe two and a half times!)

DSS Single

Eight stagings of “The ‘Dinner and a Show’ Show” in four states, winning one award, getting three lovely newspaper reviews, and a dozens upon dozens of audience comment cards (including three crayon drawings of Claude the lobster, and four phone numbers.)


Two wonderful pop-up shows for patients at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Catherine Hamlin, the woman three to my left, is working to eradicate obstetric fistula in Ethiopia.  She’s doing an incredible job, too, with a network of hospitals all across the country.  She was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2014!

Joan and the Gentleman 2Joan and the GentlemanFour stagings of “Joan and the Gentleman Juggler” – a new production with my friends Gabi Sinclair and Ric Walker.  I learned one new stunt for this show – a version of Cinquevalli’s famous pool cue and sherry glass balance.


Despite the trick collapsing a half dozen times when I was learning it, I only ever got hit on the head once!  And never got a black eye!  Small victories.

Spectacular - Newspaper

Two nice newspaper articles about me and my work with nonprofits! (Brattleboro Reformer & New Hampshire Union Leader)


Fourteen incredible hamburgers on the road.  (Most memorable?  The “Tom Selleck” burger at the Elbow Room Cafe in Vancouver, BC. Hamburger, bacon, brie, banana, pineapple, and peach with a chipotle aeoli.  What?!)

See for yourself – follow #hamburgersIhaveknown or @thomwalljuggler on Instagram!  (Six-hundred and nine others already are!)


Three killer benefit shows for the New England Center for Circus Arts.  Two were in the Latchis Theater in downtown Brattleboro.  (Who could resist performing on that stage!  Did you see the archways?  Did you see the constellations?!)

The third show was at Dixon Place on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – the kickoff show for NECCA’s capital campaign.  They’re raising money to build a new circus school building from the ground up. (How cool is that?!)

Totem - Clocking In

Three cities in six months with the largest circus company in the history of the world!  Easily the most stressful contract I’ve been on, but also one of the most rewarding.  Over the course of this contract, I performed for around 200,000 people.

Totem Cast

Nearly one-hundred pre-shows with four animators and one lizard puppet.

From an email with my dad:

“Before the show, I do animation/walkaround through the audience as they’re waiting and getting seated. I’m dressed as the scientist, but with a giant lizard puppet under an arm that I use to surprise people with. He’s got this fantastic tongue that shoots out quickly – good for startling people and getting a rise out of groups of people who watch. At the show two nights ago, I was walking around the seats near center stage and got a big reaction from the crowd. When I got backstage, I learned that I’d attacked the prime minister of New Zealand with my puppet?”

Trade Show

Three days at a booking convention in Colombia, Missouri in January.  (The number of stories from this convention?  Dozens.  “You ain’t never been to a tractor pull, son?” “Oh, my wife and I really have fun, if you know what I mean.”  “Who wants to buy this quarter hog?”)


One new acrobatics partner.  (One hundred and sixty pounds on my head.)

Victory - New Zealand

Two-thousand, two-hundred – The number of seats at the Auckland Circus Convention’s gala show.

One – The number of drunk guys who decided to try and steal a ball from center stage during my act.

“One hundred percent!” – The amount of focus to put on a balanced object, in order to balance and juggle (as chanted in meditation by my dedicated students!)


Twenty-five plates were smashed in the initial devising process for “The ‘Dinner and a Show’ Show.”  One part enthusiasm, one part polished cement stage.



Thirty-six statues of Snoopy in front of my stage in Hong Kong. Six statues of Snoopy on my stage in Hong Kong. Seven stories of people watching me from above, in the atrium of the mall.

I packed 16 backup plates for these 10 shows, just in case some broke in transit or on stage… but not a single one did!


One new leopard-print suit.  The Hopeless Throwmantics are going jungle-casual in 2015.


One IJA medal.  (For my mouthstick act!  The first medal awarded to a mouthstick routine in the IJA’s sixty-seven year history.)

…all in all, a tremendous 2014!  Where will 2015 take me?  I’ve got a few interesting leads already, but I’m not about to spill the beans quite yet.  Stay tuned, friends!  Wishing you all a successful year ahead, and I hope all of the seeds you plant come to bloom!


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Tom Swifties – A Collection



My friend and fellow juggler, Chris Taibbi, has been writing Tom Swifties and sharing them on Facebook for the past few weeks. He’s come up with some good ones, and the joke forumla has been in my head since he started.

If you’re not familiar, a “Tom Swifty” is a kind of play on words where an adverb “…relates both properly and punningly to a sentence of reported speech.” (Source.)  This example might explain it best:

“The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom, half-heartedly.”

In Chris’ honor, here are a few original Tom Swifties – written in a marathon session with Alison Dreyfuss.


“Have you any creased slacks?” “No, just flatfronts,” said the store owner, depleted.

“I believe that I have swallowed my reading glasses,” Tom introspected.

“No!  It’s only called magma when it’s underground!” Tom erupted.

“You jerk!  You lost my car!” Tom derided.

“I reckon them Asia-bears might eat them some fried rice.  Yer so right.” Tom pandered.

“A place for every pickle and every pickle in its place?!” Tom said, jarringly.

“Oh Christmas tree… Oh Christmas tree!  You’re the best!” Tom opined.

“Black mold in the house?  Well… maybe… just in the very top floor…” said Tom, sporadically.

Oh, and I bet that man in the top-hat spends a lot of time in the sun, too.” said Tom, tangentially.

“Aha!  That mime isn’t actually walking uphill at all!” said Tom, climatically.

“You thought that was a good movie?! I’d give it 80%… on a good day!” Tom berated.

“Do you like my new sweater?  It’s made entirely out of the finest nitrogen!” said Tom, putting on airs.

“Oh no!  This floor is too slippery!  I can’t get any traction at all,” the Kitten mewed.

“No, you prefer living in the astral plane,” Tom projected.

“I believe that is a baby octopus,” said Tom, with an inkling.

“That cloud?  Yes, it does look like a lamb,” said Tom, sheepishly.

“A right angle?  What’s that again? 120-degrees?” said Tom, obtusely.

“Why yes, I would love to eat some pickled peppers!” said Tom, peckishly.

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