Thom on Ice

or: a weird gig I’d totally do again

Way back in 2016, I performed at Busch Gardens’ Food and Wine Festival in Tampa, Florida (you can read about that experience here.)  I met lots of interesting people, had a bunch of huge shows, and generally shared old-school, wine-themed juggling with a lively public.

At one of those shows, I met two folks in the audience who worked with a production company and we traded cards. Three years later, they called me to talk about an ice skating show.  In Arizona.  In the middle of July.

Hire someone else!  I said, I’m not a skater!  I’d love to juggle for you, but… if you want someone to work on skates, I’m not your guy!

They appreciated the warning, insisted I’d be fine, and a few weeks later, I landed in Phoenix for the start of rehearsals.

Ice vs. Ice

There’s no ice in Arizona in the middle of July! shouts the chorus of friends and fans reading this article That’s preposterous!

Well, friends, you’re right.

As I learned, many touring ice productions – specifically those that tour in traditional theaters and not hockey arenas and outdoor parks – tour with massive sheets of Glice or Polyglide.  What’s the advantage?  Fast to set up, fast to tear down, no water, no electricity, and you can build them according to the stage dimensions.  Just lay it down, treat it with an oily coating, and you’re ready for triple axles.

As a juggler, the only downside to this system is that if you drop a ball… it’s now covered in the oil that helps make skating possible.  And if you measure success in catches, this poses a threat.

When you join a production show with strangers, the first thing you always do is compare notes on gigs, venues, and friends in common.

Within a few minutes of getting-to-know-you, you’ll discover that you’re also close friends with a stage manager who’s working halfway across the world, just barely missed one another on contracts at Radio City Music Hall, are working the same ships a few months later, and have horror stories working for that mid-range production company who shall not be named.

You’ll also trade gossip about industry news, talk about new shows you’ve just gotta see, and probably drink a box of wine while you’re at it.

You’ll also find out that one of the producers of the show was the IJA Juniors Competition gold medalist back in 1990.

One of my closest pals from my Totem days also happened to be in the Phoenix area while I was in town.  She came to the show (and brought two of her technician friends from Cirque du Soleil along with her) and we reminisced about the last time we’d seen each other (backstage at Royal Albert Hall in January – not too shabby!)  Paths cross again all the time – there’s no goodbye, there’s only see you… sometime.

The showbiz world is small, and the longer you stay in it, the smaller that world gets.  I often feel that meeting new cast members on a production show is a lot like going to a family reunion and meeting second cousins you never knew you had.  It’s nice to see your family grow.

A Brief History of Jugglers on Ice

Though juggling on ice sounds like a strange combination, it used to be a wildly popular form of entertainment.

Holiday on Ice, Ice-capades, Skating Vanities… the have been dozens of production companies that incorporated figure skating, ice dancing, and juggling around the world.  The trend kicked off in the 1940s and some of the biggest names in juggling at that time were cast in the shows.  Bobby May, Trixie LaRue, Lew Folds, Serge Flash… juggling is a beautiful thing, doubly so when it’s performed by someone who can glide around the rink and move in unexpected ways.  (Am I in that list?  Absolutely.  Not only do I move around the rink in unexpected ways, I also move around the rink in wholly unpredictable ways.  Take that, Serge!)

Scott Cain wrote an excellent article about jugglers on ice if you’d like to learn more about it.  I write this section only to explain that not only is skating while juggling possible, it was hugely popular, and there’s a precedent set by some of the best in the biz – and that’s one of the things that sat in the back of my mind going into this contract.  (GULP.))



Was I a competent skater going into this?  No.

Did I turn that into a writing problem?  Absolutely.

When I started planning out the set I was going to perform at this contract, I grappled with the knowledge that I’d have to go on stage in skates.  So – I started mapping out a routine that involved very little movement, and relied heavily on my old-school parlor room skillset.

Why the parlor room angle, you ask?  Because, my friends.  I was bringing a small area rug with me to put on center stage.  Flail my way to the center, put down a rug, then have ice dancers skate in and out with my props.  Comedy gold – especially when the rest of the show is beautiful people skating, spinning, and dancing all over.

Of course, we eventually made the decision to simply juggle in shoes (which brought its own problems, of course,) and to only skate for bows in finale.  Despite the last minute change, thinking ahead and rehearsing in skates in my basement led to a solid, cohesive set made just for this production.  Life is good.

Power Outages in Mesa

There are two truisms in theater:

Whatever can go wrong will go wrong if the show runs long enough. (Kind of an extended Murphy’s Law)

The show must go on. (If you’re a non-circus person, you probably read that as a celebratory remark – to the stars through difficulty! – No, friends.  The emphasis isn’t on show, it’s on must.  There’s money on the line.  There’s an audience waiting to be entertained.  If you don’t put on the show, there will be bigger problems.  The show must go on… or we’re in trouble.)

…and that’s exactly what happened at the Mesa Arts Center on Saturday, July 27th.  A rolling brownout destroyed the city’s electrical grid that morning, and the entire city – including the Arts Center – was without power until 5pm.  The 2:30pm matinee was cancelled.  No AC in the building (nor anywhere else in the city – with outside temperatures reaching 117F!) no lights, no music, no follow spots…. and if it weren’t for that synthetic ice, the entire run would have to have been cancelled.

Luckily, the crack team of box office professionals rebooked that audience’s tickets for that night or the next day – crisis more-or-less averted.

As the temperature inside the venue were rising, the producers whisked all of us back to the hotel – which was luckily just far enough away from the city to have been unaffected by the power outage.  We sat in the cool lobby and waited for the Arts Center’s power to go back on.  Would there be a show that night?  Yes indeed.

The Big Takeaway

Have a weird gig on the table?  Something you’re not sure you can do?  Something that sounds exciting?

Be honest.  Talk to the person in charge and see what they’re looking to accomplish.  See if you can find a way to make everything work out.

Here, I was asked to perform in skates… but the big thing they wanted was a juggler who did something other than the “usual” juggling with balls, clubs, and rings.  They wanted some of my oldschool stuff – mouthstick, glasses, balance tricks.  We worked together to help make it all happen.  I came to the table with some writing solutions – the area rug, jokes about juggling and skating.  A bit from column A and a bit from column B, and the presenter really enjoyed it.

Shows like this come up every once in a while – something with weird and interesting parameters that would shake up your year and make you push your boundaries.

And when that opportunity comes up, you’ve just got to be open with your boss, work together, and be willing to take your bows while wearing ice skates.

So.  Say YES to what you can!  And know that even if it sounds like a real challenge, it’s probably not on ice skates.  If I can gig on a slippery stage and flail around on skates, imagine what you can do!