Steven Ragatz Interview

 

At this year’s IJA Festival, Steven Ragatz will be presenting a special Act Creation Workshop on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 1oam to 12:30pm. The cost is $100. Your juggling act should be more than merely a collection of tricks executed in sequence. This workshop explores the design and execution of a contemporary juggling act, from initial inspiration to the debut of a performance-ready product. Each class consists of an introductory discussion, followed by hands-on exercises. After each exercise session, students are expected to provide feedback on the progress of others as well as demonstrating the improvements in their own presentations. There may be homework for later classes! Students who complete the workshop will depart with new material as well as concrete tools to continue building their juggling performances. This workshop is open to jugglers who haven’t begun writing an act and wonder where to start, to jugglers in the midst of the creation process and to jugglers who wish to further develop an already formed act.

More information about the special workshop can be found by clicking here.

To learn more about Steven and the workshop, David Cain interviewed him for eJuggle.

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eJuggle: How and when did you learn to juggle and who were your early influences?

I didn’t get interested in juggling until high-school. I have family up in the Minneapolis area, and I think that the first jugglers I saw performing were at the Renaissance Fair up there. I remember going and seeing all of the acts that were at the fair and then running home to teach myself how to cascade three rocks in my sister’s front yard. I knew right away that I wanted to become a street performer.

I discovered the IJA later that year and attended my first regional juggling festival. The IJA magazine, “Juggler’s World,” provided inspiration back then since there were not too many other sources available. I know I hit the library and picked up copies of the Klutz book, Carlo’s book, and one of my early favorites, Hovey Burgess’ “Circus Techniques.”

At that time, I saw Michael Davis on TV as a guest on “Saturday Night Live.” I’ve always loved his stuff. Then, once I started attending the IJA festivals, I really grooved on Edward Jackman’s routines. I thought Jackman exemplified what comedy juggling should be as he was able to combine good technical tricks with stand-up.

In hindsight, if I had to pick a single performance that has had a lasting impact on me it would have to be the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ production of “The Comedy of Errors” in Chicago. The FKB performing Shakespeare (along with Avner Eisenberg) was a pinnacle experience for me.  It was total silliness, total absurdity, and total class.

These days, my greatest influences are probably my peers. Fritz Grobe and Mike Miclon, both up in Buckfield, Maine, are super good variety performers to brain storm and workshop new routines. They’re my creative go-to guys, although really all of the Celebration Barn crowd are very giving and willing to be creative amplifiers for half-baked ideas. I’m also continually learning from the other cast members in each of the shows I’ve been with. The other circus artists who are actually on stage doing the shows each day have a wealth of information and ability – a benefit I’ve really enjoyed.

eJuggle: What are your favorite props to perform with?

I’ve tried to dabble with many different props over the years, including several custom designed ones. I tend to be drawn to routines and acts rather than the props themselves, so I don’t really have any “favorite” props, but if I had to choose, I would lean toward those techniques that come easy for me. Devil stick was always a go-to skill. Easy on the body and it makes me smile. Easy techniques mean that I can split my focus and actually perform rather than simply attempt to keep things off of the floor. It also means that I can modify the prop and try to morph it into something that will support the theatrical part of the act. Currently I do devil stick in a couple of different shows – one with an umbrella and the other with a (prop) pickaxe. I really enjoy trying to work the techniques into real-world found props whenever I can.

eJuggle: You’ve worked in a very wide array of venues. Can you tell us a bit about your varied work?

I think I’ve worked in just about every genre except for cruise ships or burlesque. As I said before, I started out wanting to be a street performer, and in that pursuit I worked on my comedy juggling act while I was in college. I used to perform at open mics and did some comedy competitions to try my hand at the comedy club scene. I had a couple of agents take interest in me, but once I actually worked a few of the comedy clubs, I realized that the environment didn’t really appeal to me. The spaces were very limiting and the audience demographic wasn’t one that I particularly respected.

Somewhere in the middle of things back then I spent an entire summer on the floor of a tour bus and traveled around with the drum and bugle corps, “Star of Indiana.” We performed in large sports arenas doing a rock–n-roll style tour. We would sleep on the bus overnight, wake up early the next morning to train and practice all day, do a show that evening, and then climb back on the bus and travel to the next city to do it all over again. It was a trial by fire sort of experience.  It was very fun working with 120+ musicians on the field. Compared to the street shows and clubs I was used to at the time, we performed live for epically large crowds. I was told that the end of the season show for the finals competition drew 40,000 spectators for that one performance.

I knew that I preferred to work a more family oriented audience, so I took my act to summer seasons in theme parks.

I’ve never had good promotional material, nor have I enjoyed working on that stuff.  As such, I have always relied on networking and word-of-mouth to land me the next gig.  By way of a couple of different recommendations, I went from theme parks to performing in ice shows (including one summer with “Fire and Ice” where I shared the dressing room with the interviewer, David Cain), then on to variety shows and some small theater productions.

Those shows led to others, and thirty years later, still with no business card, I string together dates based on word-of-mouth testimonial and working with the friends I’ve made along the way.

eJuggle: How did you develop as a performer versus just being someone who juggles well?

While I was working on writing my comedy juggling show I was taking classes at Indiana University. My studies were focused on learning rather than achieving a piece of paper (that’s a round-about way of saying that it took me a loooong time to finish a degree). I was in no hurry to join the real world. Just to give my parents fits, I used to enroll in classes alphabetically… One from the “A’s”, one from the “B’s”, etc., until there was a point where I was equally close to completing a Bachelor’s in five different subjects. All the while I spent most of my free time practicing juggling and performing at various regional shows and festivals.

Then I found that the university had a specialized department allowing students to build a customized degree program. The “Individualized Major Program” was just what I needed, and I built myself a curriculum for street and circus arts. Most of the course work was through the theater department, but my program also included classes in opera and ballet, costuming, music, as well as gymnastics each semester. That course of study probably had more influence over my identity as a performer than anything else.

Around this time I also discovered the “Celebration Barn Theater,” and in between school and shows, I would take workshops there. (I won’t go into the Barn in detail since I wrote an article about it for eJuggle already, but it suffices to say that I am a BIG fan of the place and their classes.)

eJuggle: You have a long association with Cirque Du Soleil. Would you tell us a bit of your history with them?

My getting on with Cirque du Soleil in 1992 came about because of two separate events. The first event was my love for Michael Moschen’s work and his special talk at the IJA’s festival in Montreal. Michael was the special guest at the festival and gave a presentation to a very large group of jugglers that year. He covered some very emotional issues, predominantly about intellectual property. It was a charged event and many of those in attendance got confrontational. Oh, I was riled up by the talks as well, though at the time I admitted that Michael had valid points, and although he could have delivered them in more diplomatic ways, his message impacted me. It was a turning point for me as a juggler. Right after the talk I decided that if I was going to be able to make a go of it as a performer I would have to do something different from everyone else and find my own techniques and performance style. I didn’t want to just be another copy. So I started by following my first impulse and I walked around the gym and gave all my props away.

Clubs, balls, rings, devil sticks, boxes – the entire kit went. I wanted to force myself to learn something new, and explore innovations rather than just rehash standard tricks with store bought props. After the festival I went home and worked on a routine based on a very simple ball rolling technique that I had not seen done before using some non-juggling balls.

The second event came about a year later. I had finished all of my PhD course work for my Computer Science degree at the university and was looking for a lab to do the research portion of the program. Around that time, the department hired me to perform at their annual Christmas party. The show went well, but I think after seeing me in that light, none of the faculty took me seriously as an academic. From that silly little parlor Christmas show on I was “The Juggler.” I was working part time as a network administrator when I saw a posting on the rec.juggling newsgroup looking for jugglers to work with Michael Moschen and Cirque du Soleil on a new act.

I got the job because Michael liked the ball rolling routine I wrote after the Montreal festival.

Serendipity was kind to me.

I ended up working with Michael, Pat McGuire, and Jean Besnard on the “Manipulation Act” that ran for three years with Cirque du Soleil’s “Mytstere,” and then an additional three years with “Quidam.” I later returned to “Quidam” and performed an additional four years as a soloist as a character actor and with my own juggling act.

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eJuggle: What have you been doing since your time with Cirque du Soleil?

After the ten or so years with the gang from Montreal, I began working almost exclusively with other former Cirque du Soleil performers in the company “Cirque Mechanics” (www.cirquemechanics.com), based out of Las Vegas. We’ve toured two theater shows, “Birdhouse Factory” and “Boom Town,” internationally for the past seven years. So far, the two productions have played in about three hundred performing arts centers world-wide, including two successful off-Broadway runs at the New Victory Theater. Both shows continue to tour and have bookings in 2013.

BirdHouseRagatz

Also this year the company introduced a new performance concept called “The Gantry.” The Gantry is a human-pedaled mobile circus rig, able to travel through the crowd while acts perform above the audience’s heads. The Gantry premiered at the Scotiabank Buskerfest in Toronto this past August as an outdoor performance installation, then moved to some corporate shows in Las Vegas working inside large ballrooms. Later this year, we’re transforming it to introduce it as a center piece for symphony/circus hybrid show.

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Each of these shows have offered very exciting and diverse situations for creating material as well as developing theatrical circus acts and have been very challenging to me as a juggler, performer, and writer.

eJuggle: You’re teaching a workshop on creating an act at the 2013 IJA Festival in Bowling Green, OH (USA). Can you tell us about it and what participants can expect?

I’ve decided that I need to get out and try to learn to teach. (That sounds funny, though it makes sense to me!) The stage manager of one of the show’s I’m currently with is a dancer. One day she told me about an artist’s “responsibility” to share knowledge and to teach future generations about the craft. I haven’t done much teaching as I have always considered myself a performer, or student, and not a teacher before. In my mind, I’m still just trying to figure things out as I go from one gig to the next, but after recently taking a step back and realizing I’ve been the oldest, or second oldest, performer on stage in the last six years of shows, I thought it prudent to try teaching.

The Act Creation Workshop that I’m offering at the IJA festival this coming summer is going to be three sessions where I share some very specific tools that I’ve used to create juggling and circus acts. They’re devices that I’ve either developed myself or learned from different teachers with whom I’ve studied over the years.

I’ve taken many workshops, and one of the things that I’ve noticed about them is that, even though the class may be fun and inspirational, often I would finish the workshop with no more concrete material than when I started. In that light I’m going to try to make sure that everyone who attends the workshop leaves with identifiable tools that they can utilize on their own work and actual material that will enhance their performances.

eJuggle: What are some things that you wished every aspiring performing juggler would know or do?

If I had to pick just one thing, I think it would be to care for your audience and treat them with respect. This is an era of canned media. Each audience member had to get off the couch, pay good money (hopefully), and then, most importantly, put their trust in you to put on a quality show. With that trust comes a responsibility to care for them for the duration of the performance. Don’t forget that you need them more than they need you!  You won’t remember each of them, but they will all remember you.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of sixteen books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

Comments 0

  1. I took one of Steven’s workshops at the Stevenson Juggling Festival just outside of Chicago several years ago. Lots of different performers participated, and it was a lot of fun and seemed beneficial to us all. A few days later, Steven followed up via email with very specific and enthusiastic suggestions about my work. If you want a supportive, experienced,and knowledgeable professional to check out your act, this workshop is for you.

    PS Anyone know where Edward Jackman is these days? Indeed, what an inspiration he was…

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