Thom Wall is a professional juggler and variety entertainer who toured with Cirque du Soleil for five years. He’s also the author of the book Juggling: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Thom has performed in 12 countries and on four continents, including a run of his solo show on juggling at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Robert Vezina, Artistic Director of Cirque du Soleil described Thom as “a remarkably consistent performer… [h]e has my highest recommendation.”
This article has been edited, condensed, and annotated.
Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?
Thom Wall: It’s from this woman named Bronwyn Sims. She’s a circus performer who is an acrobat, choreographer, and actor. She said, “Don’t show more. Hide less.”
Did Bronwyn Sims tell you this quote in person?
Yes. She was teaching at Celebration Barn Theater, which is this phenomenal physical theater school in South Paris, Maine. Absolutely middle of nowhere, but it’s beautiful.
Why is this quote meaningful to you?
When you think of a juggler, you probably think about somebody on a unicycle juggling three torches, wearing a felt hat, and giving these schlocky looks to the audience—you know, pandering. This specific idea of exaggerating your emotions by contorting your face is called mugging—a term that Tony Montanaro, a very famous mime, used to use.
But that’s not an honest thing. If you’re walking down the street and you see somebody smiling to themselves, you think, Oh, that person’s happy. You don’t need them to be jumping up and down, showing all of their teeth.
I’ve found that your genuine emotional state is more likely to come through when you’re just trying to be as in the moment as you can, hiding as little as you can, without showing anything more than you absolutely have to.
Did you befriend other performers while you were working in the circus?
I actually learned this sense of minimalism from this friend of mine, an amazing Ukrainian clown named Misha Usov. We were doing ten shows a week at the time, and we were going out for pre-show animation, which is when clowns and a juggler like me try to get people amped up before the show. And I said, “Misha, you seem really tired. Are you ready to go knock ‘em dead?” I was trying to fire him up. Misha looked at me with this deadpan face (he’s a very deadpan person) and he said, “Thom, I feel 10%, so I give 100% of my 10%.”
It’s the same idea as the quote: don’t show more, hide less. As long as you approach the audience with this pure and honest form of who you are and how you are feeling at the moment, you can establish rapport very quickly. Whereas, if you ham it up, that’s going to feel disingenuous to most people.
On this subject of hiding and illusions: you make the point in your book that juggling has historically been associated with magic tricks. Is there still a connection between juggling and magic?
That depends. The historical association has more to do with linguistics and etymology and the changing scope of the word “to juggle.” The first instance of “to juggle” in English was a 1200s copy of Piers Plowman. The line was “I can neither jape nor juggle.” Which is funny, because it means the first mention of juggling is about not juggling! But in those times, juggling basically meant entertaining, and a juggler was a generic entertainer. It could be an animal trainer, or sleight of hand, or a musician or a comedian. It was a very broad category.
Then in 1897, there was an article written about Paul Cinquevalli. He is what we would today consider a juggler. He did toss juggling, a lot of balancing, and strongman feats like catching a cannonball on the edge of a plate. And in that article, that was the first instance of the word “juggling” being used to represent a feat of skill done through practice.
It wasn’t until about 1947 that juggling and magic really became distinct. This group of toss jugglers that were part of the American Brotherhood of Magicians got fed up with the sleight of hand and stage illusion, so they branched off and created their own organization. They founded the IJA—the International Jugglers’ Association—a brotherhood of professionals that helped each other and fostered a community. And that’s the community that I grew up in.
There are obviously a limited number of spots in Cirque du Soleil. Are you ever competitive with other jugglers?
That’s a really tough question to answer. In a production show like Soleil, there are a ton of acrobatic positions, but there’s usually only ever one spot for a juggler. So oftentimes as a professional juggler, it’s somewhat lonely in terms of camaraderie. I mean, Stephen, do you really want to watch two juggling acts in a show? You can be honest! At very least, the producers don’t think the audience wants two juggling acts.
So is there competition in terms of trying to get work? Like, sure. But I would say that it’s really no more competitive than any other career path. You respect the people that have been putting in the work and that are going for the same jobs that you are. The circus is a meritocracy because the more work you put into it, the better you get. And actually, when you compare juggling to the rest of the circus, jugglers and variety act performers tend to look out for each other more than other disciplines simply because, historically, jugglers have always been the underdog. I've been very fortunate that the juggling community as a whole has been more supportive than competitive throughout my entire career.
You and I actually went to college together at Washington University in St. Louis, though we didn’t know each other that well. WashU has a reputation for academic rigor and I wondered: did your parents or anyone else ever discourage you when you graduated college and decided to juggle for a career?
Not really from my parents. The decision came from different places. You and I both graduated in 2009, during the Recession, and I had a degree in Germanic languages in literature, which is not always the best idea, especially in that economy. I applied to basically any job that would hire me, and nobody ever called me back. But throughout my whole time in high school and undergrad, I had been juggling just as a hobby. And it turned out that my most marketable skill coming out of college was that I was a pretty solid juggler!
I got a job teaching juggling to teenagers at a YMCA summer camp in Colorado. I lived in an apartment with all of these Burlesque dancers and sideshow performers. I was doing some street performances out on Pearl Street in Boulder. For a while I was eating Chef Boyardee ravioli and living out of my car, but at the same time I was really focused.
So, I would say that juggling after college was partly just pragmatic, though I don’t know that anyone else would say that. I think that period helped me realize that this art was something valuable to me. The fact that I was willing to make those sacrifices to pursue it helped me recognize that maybe this is something that I would genuinely enjoy doing as a career for a long time.
When I read reviews of your juggling, people often say that you are remarkably consistent. You don’t often make mistakes. I’ve been thinking about that with this interview series, when I make flubs asking questions or in a podcast. What tips do you have to avoid making mistakes in a live performance?
Embracing them. Embracing the mistakes. There is this discipline of theater called devised theater where you basically create a bunch of stuff and apply meaning to it later. A lot of Soleil shows are built through devised theater. One thing they talk about in devised theater—and also in improv comedy—is this idea of the offer. Take the mistake as an offer.
People think of mistakes as something that’s fully rendered in the world, and there is no way to possibly recover from it. They think, Oh man, I totally screwed up. I’m sorry, everybody. But if you instead think about ways that you can turn those moments into something that’s enjoyable or funny—a willingness to laugh at yourself—then it becomes a way to establish rapport with people. So rather than taking it as a failure and getting mad, you figure out some way to slingshot it around the moon and turn it into something that adds value.
I had this contract in southern New Hampshire recently with a company called Opera North. There were six circus artists in this beautiful tent accompanied by something like 70 members of the symphony and opera singers. The audience was—I might get flack for saying this this—but they were very sophisticated, very refined, and definitely on the older side. Like a sea of gray hair.
I was juggling seven balls, and I started collecting them for the big catch at the end—one, two, three, four, five, six—and then number seven, it hits my arm, and it bounces out! And I try to catch it with my other hand, and it bounces again. It’s this super dramatic moment where I just can’t catch the stupid ball!
Eventually, the loose ball falls of the stage and it’s right there, right at the feet of these patrons. I look at it, and I look out at the audience, and I notice that one of the doors to the tent is open. One of the tent flaps is open. So I just grab the ball and throw it as hard and as far as I can out of the tent!
And it gets this really beautiful response from this stuffy opera crowd. They were not expecting somebody that was juggling so marvelously to have this disrespect for this object that he was just caressing. For me to throw it away.
A lot of performers, a lot of jugglers, would have picked up that last ball, ball seven, and done their clean collect, and moved onto the next thing. But a performance should never be about showing an audience that you are better at it than them. It should be about sharing your love of a skill with other people. Of course, after the show, when I had to go out and find the ball in the dark outside the tent—I regretted it then. But it was a beautiful choice in the moment.