A Career of Creativity: Jay Gilligan

Jay Gilligan at the 2012 Shoebox Tour

Jay Gilligan has accomplished a great deal in the world of juggling, and is a very busy man. Originally a hobby juggler from Ohio, Gilligan now resides in Stockholm, Sweden where he heads the juggling program at the Circus School there. When he is not teaching at the University, releasing juggling videos, and playing big shows all over Europe, he’s touring the US with the Shoebox Tour and collaborating with other performers. Not content with simply reusing the same material and same tricks over and over again, Gilligan always seems to be coming up with new moves and routines to show to the world.

When asked up front what his creative process is like, rather than immediately reflecting on the joys of creation, Gilligan laments on just how difficult it can be. “It’s pretty painful sometimes just because we [Wes Peden and I] are so thorough and in one way scientific about it. Scientific is the wrong word, but basically we take a concept and we just pick it apart until we can’t stand it anymore.”

He then reflects back on his youth. “When I was growing up as a juggler, you would maybe work and struggle to find a new trick, and when you found a new trick you were super happy and then that was the end of your practice that day because you did it.”

These days, however, when working with frequent collaborator Wes Peden, the process seems a bit more streamlined. “It’s like we find a new trick and that’s only the beginning because we know that if there’s one trick, there’s like a million more that are related to it. So, we’ll pick apart the concept of the trick and then we’ll start just trying every variation. We’ll just make a list of, you know, if you can throw under your leg like that, then you can throw under your arm, you could throw around your back, whatever. We’ll go through every single possibility, and we’ll just start saving the ones that we like. So, it’s kind of exhausting.”

But creating new moves doesn’t always have to be a mind-numbing experience, and sometimes new tricks are seemingly right in front of you, according to Gilligan. “Wes and I will make up a trick and then we will just be like ‘Wait a second, that trick is too, I don’t mean it’s too good, but it’s like it’s too obvious. That trick is too obvious. Haven’t we haven’t done that before?’” Gilligan explains, “We’ll go back and look at the video tapes and we’ll think about it and like ‘We haven’t done that before!’ And we’re like ‘Why haven’t we done that before! That’s so obvious!’”

Regarding performers that he enjoys watching and draws inspiration from, Gilligan lists jugglers like Patrick Elmnert, Alexandar Kublikov, and the troupe Cie Ea Eo (who will be featured performers at IJA this year). Not all of his inspirations are specific performers, however, as he, like many modern jugglers, turns to YouTube occasionally for inspiration. “These juggling clubs in Japan, these local university juggling clubs make these videos where they just film their club meetings, and then they put like five minutes long of all these different people doing different things and maybe in and of themselves every single trick isn’t genius, but just the whole vibe of the scene over there is so cool.” He goes on to praise informal recordings like this, stating that this is where a lot of playful creation occurs, rather than out of static technical practice. “They are not worried that they are not doing more backcrosses or more pirouettes, or whatever, they are just doing goofy stuff and half the time it’s super genius and half the time it’s just totally stupid, but they are just having so much fun. Whenever we watch those videos, we are like ‘Yeah, that’s totally why we got into juggling twenty years ago.’ We love watching those videos these days, really inspiring. They make us want to go out and just keep juggling.”

As natural a profession as it may seem now though, juggling wasn’t really a career pathway that Gilligan pursued initially. “I mean, I never decided to make it a career because I love juggling so much as a hobby,” he continues, “I’ve met a lot of performers who don’t care anymore about juggling. They started off juggling; now it’s just the way they pay the bills. They are not interested in it anymore, they don’t like doing it, they don’t practice. A lot of performers like that.”

Losing passion for something he enjoyed doing so much, made him hesitant to try to make a career out of juggling, but it is clear that the deep-rooted interest in juggling still remains strong within Gilligan. “I’ve been really really lucky in my life that the stuff I enjoy doing other people sometimes also enjoy it, so I don’t have to suffer too much.” He reflects on what it’s like to work on new moves, “like, I can nerd around in my basement and make something that I really like, and then I show it and lots of times I find people who also like it. So, I’ve been really lucky like that.”

When he began touring Europe as a professional performer, cultural differences between American performance promotion and European performance marketing became apparent. “When I was growing up was that in America, you had to have your headshot, your business card, your press kit, and it was very formal,” says Gilligan, “you had to present yourself in a certain way, and look a certain way, and have the picture. You got to talk the talk.” When transitioning to Europe, however, the business side of juggling was a little different. “It was very organic in Europe. If you did a good job, word of mouth spread, it was more your work kind of did the speaking for you. Whereas when I was growing up in America, you kind of had to do the speaking for your work, in one way.”

Since moving to Stockholm, Sweden, Gilligan has become a professional instructor on juggling at a Circus School, and has been teaching there for a decade now. Unlike the preconception many people may have when they think of a Circus School, this school is an actual University where students earn a legitimate college degree in circus with a major in juggling. There are even Masters and PHD programs available in Circus.

The harshly competitive juggling program, only accepts students that already possess a high level of technical juggling, and it only takes in a couple of new students once every two years. “It’s really hard to get into the Sweden school for juggling mostly because it is University level program, and I take that really seriously,” Gilligan justifies, “I mean if you go to University for Chemistry or Theatre or whatever, you need to have a high level when you go to University, it’s not like you come in and you say ‘Okay, I’ve never juggled before, what’s this all about?’” Because of this, the students must possess a very high base level of juggling before they even apply to the program.

Gilligan looks back on when he was first began working at the school and how the foundation of the program was laid out. “When I was first hired at the school, they said that they were a new circus school and that they wanted to make artists. So, I had to define what it meant to be new circus and I had to define what it meant to be an artist”. He was given a three year program and wrote a curriculum, broken down by teaching an overview of juggling the first year, a composition for juggling the second year, and the actual construction of the student’s act during the third year. “It’s kind of like learning a foreign language that you would have your vocabulary, then your composition or your structure of the language, then finally you would figure out something you would actually say.”

The program however, takes a certain kind of student to really connect well with the curriculum. “There is no juggling teacher who is there full time, although I curate the program and I design the curriculum and I curate the guest teachers when I am not there and everything,” says Gilligan, “so, the student has to be really self-motivated and have a really strong sense of what they want to do, which is great for some students who are really independent and I also understand that it is really tough on students who aren’t and need more consistent help.” Wes Peden moved to Sweden to attend Circus school, and 2011 IJA Individuals Champion Tony Pezzo recently started attending as well. Only time will tell what future up and coming jugglers will enter into this University program next.

Though his instruction at the University is an ongoing job, Gilligan mentions that teaching at the school, is part of what motivates him to keep his juggling fresh. “The teaching really feeds my performing and my performing really feeds the teaching,” he explains, “I mean, if I was just teaching for ten years and not doing any other performing, I think the students would hate me and I think I would hate them. I wouldn’t have any new inspiration, but I get to travel around and take those experiences back to my students and say ‘Hey, I was just in Italy, and I saw this guy doing this thing and what do you think it means and why is he doing it like that and why don’t we do it like this?’ Then on the other hand, when my students ask me ‘How do you do this or why are we doing this?’ then I have to tell them and through that explanation it brings some new insight for me, and I can throw that back into my performing and say ‘Okay, maybe we should do juggling like this now, maybe this is the next thing we should be working on like this.’ Then I can do that in my own shows. It kind of feeds each other.”

While he spends a lot of his time in Sweden, Gilligan still manages to make it back to the United States from time to time. Every summer he returns to his home country to tour with his intentionally small scale juggling show The Shoebox Tour, a labor of love for Gilligan and his troupe to showcase their skills on a more hobbyist-based level. “By no means is it easy,” Gilligan assures, “I mean, every year you just struggle to break even just to do it again next year, and again it is our hobby, so of course we’re not really pushing it as a professional project.” The Shoebox Tour has a very do-it-yourself mentality, and includes a lot of planning and work from the performers with little financial gain. However, this esoteric style of creative performing can reach audiences that normally wouldn’t have been able to see such a show, and allows the performers to showcase themselves stylistically in ways that could be under appreciated at larger venues. Putting together shows of this nature can be a lot of hard work, but it is apparent in talking to Jay, that he finds the end result very gratifying. “It takes a lot of energy to self-produce, but on the other hand, it just started off with me just calling up some friends on the phone ‘Hey can I come over and do a show in your garage?’” Gilligan explains, “I think it would be cool if more people did it.”

Gilligan is seemingly constantly involving himself in new projects. One of the more notable projects in the last few years has been the Renegade Design Lab, which uses experimental juggling props and movement to come up with new forms of manipulation. RDL performed as featured guests at the 2009 IJA festival, but has been fairly quiet since then. Regarding RDLs future, “It’s totally active,” Gilligan assures, “all the members in it are just so super incredibly busy, that I guess from the outside there is not a lot of new development. Inside, we are all about it like all the time.”

The props in the Renegade Design Lab are very unique shapes, and range from two-headed and flat-headed clubs, to square and triangle rings. These novel designs may lead some to question their long term interest. “Hopefully this isn’t just a short little project that just burns out”, Gilligan says, but then turns optimistic, “I really think that there can be a foundation laid that is going to be there in ten, twenty years, and that some of these shapes are finally going to be mass produced and just enter into mainstream culture.”

As an example of this progression, Jay Gilligan points out the surge in popularity of the RDL prop the eight-ring (two connected juggling rings that make the shape of an 8). “The eight-ring is kind of taking off,” commented Gilligan. “It’s taking off, but in a totally weird way. We made it for toss juggling, but it’s super popular now with the spinning community or like the contact juggling community.” Gilligan is very enthusiastic about keeping the Renegade Design Lab alive, and mentions a solo show that he has been working on for about a year that he plans to do in 2013 that features all RDL props. He also encourages anyone interested in the project not to hesitate to reach out. “If anyone wants to get involved, the website is still up, it’s very active. We get emails all the time and try to respond to them in good time. If you are interested in the shapes or the props, just send us an email.”

Regarding the present and near-future, Gilligan has a lot in the works. “I just did a new solo show last year, but now I am working some producing. I got my other new solo show that is going to premiere next year called ‘Prototype,’ but then we are going to do a huge group show in Stockholm, end of October, four or five nights, kind of a festival performing of juggling.” He then mentions doing a project based on Steve Reich’s ‘Violin Phase,’ only with a juggler conducting minimalistic movement. Having just finished touring the U.S. with Wes Peden on the Shoebox Tour, he plans to tour Germany at the end of the year with Peden as well as Patrik Elmnert with a new show that is currently being developed. Gilligan pauses for a moment, before coming to the realization that he missed mentioning a project he is working on with Luke Wilson. “Luke and I, we made a new show, and it’s going to tour in libraries around Sweden. It was a really weird project to make a show that would tour in libraries. We are going to do that in September/October all around Sweden.” He takes another moment to think, not wanting to miss anything else before finally exclaiming “That’s everything!” and laughing.

As someone who has done various forms of performing and has helped to shape many up and coming jugglers, Jay Gilligan stresses diversity for those serious about juggling. “If you want to be a successful juggler I really believe you have to have a lot of different projects going on. I mean, you’re a performer, sure, but also a teacher, maybe a videographer, or filmmaker, or a writer.” He reflects on his own personal experiences, “I wrote for Juggle magazine for a few years, and also other circus magazines. I think for me: get a lot of projects going on and it keeps you busy. Also, though, it really helps balance you out.”

When it comes to actually taking the step to performing, Gilligan offers this advice “It doesn’t have to be such a mystery, I guess, of how to become a performer. I mean, you can put together a show yourself, and you can go do it.” Creative process, however, is not something that should be restricted solely to the juggling itself according to Gilligan. “A lot of times, people get really into practicing the juggling and maybe creating new tricks and creating a show and creating a costume and everything. But then in terms of producing, they kind of turn off that creativity,” he continues, “people could just be as creative with the business side as they are with the juggling itself. “

For a man who has traveled the world for juggling, and is completely immersed in it in both his personal and professional life, it is very apparent that the excitement he once had for juggling as a young hobbyist from Ohio, is still strong as an adult who has been doing it most of his life. Though he once feared becoming stagnant and losing his passion for it, it is very obviously that not only is that not the case, but one can’t help but wonder if for Gilligan that all this creative output has actually managed to feed the fire over the years. “It’s really exciting right now to be alive with juggling because I think it’s all changing and it’s all growing right now,” Gilligan beams. “You look at other art forms like photography or painting or whatever and you look at the evolution of how those art forms developed and if you compare juggling to that, I think right now juggling is just being born,” he explains, “I mean, just look at the evolution of technique, and you look around the gym at like an IJA festival and you see what trick is popular this year, and then you just think like ‘How did the world ever live without that trick?’ I mean, these tricks that the people learn now when they come into juggling seem so obvious to them, but of course twenty, twenty five years ago, when I started, we hadn’t even conceived that anything could be possible like that. So just in a short time you know twenty, twenty five, thirty years, you have juggling being completely revolutionized. I’m just super excited to think about what it’s going to be in another twenty years.”

Gilligan’s enthusiasm on the subject that he has dedicated so much of his life to is very apparent as he concludes. “I hope that people are also really excited these days about juggling. I think it’s all coming up. I don’t know. That’s my final thought.”

Nathan Wakefield

Nathan is a juggler from Southeast Michigan. He first learned to juggle in college, and has written for the website Streetjuggling.com. Currently, he is The Chairman of the International Jugglers' Association. When he is not frantically trying to learn new manipulation skills, he enjoys producing music, acting, and watching horror films.

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