The very first juggler I saw on the first IJA video I ever saw (1984) was Brain Wendling. I was blown away at the variety of skills he demonstrated as well as the high technical ability he displayed. I was especially impressed by the fact that he performed an act with two devil sticks. This was unheard of back then, making Brian possibly the first Westerner to do it. I believe that seeing that act was a big influence on me wanting to learn a wide array of props. It’s now over thirty years later, and Brian is still wowing audiences with his versatility and skill. Most modern jugglers have never heard of him, which is a great shame. To remedy this, I asked Brian to answer ten questions from me.
DC: Would you please tell our readers a bit about yourself apart from your juggling?
BW: I was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN. A shy kid who enjoyed school and sports. I got a double degree in psychology and social welfare from the University of Minnesota – worked at an experimental childcare center and at a residential facility for special needs adults while in college. I still have an interest in performing for special needs adults. I met my wife (a now retired Spanish teacher from Ecuador) while performing at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival (2015 was my 35th year performing there!) and have lived there since 1981. She enjoys traveling and we have traveled all over the world. No children, but we have been the “fun” aunt and uncle for our nieces and nephews.
I always try to catch a circus when I am on the road if I can. And seeing plays in NYC is one of my favorite things to do – live theater is the best!
DC: When and how did you get started juggling?
BW: In 1975 I saw a juggler (Full Moon, who performed at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival) while walking between campuses at the U of MN. Then I went home and tried to teach myself with three whiffle balls. Then I took a community education juggling class from Mario Lorenz (who now lives in Washington state). He was my mentor and we did performances that Mario arranged in the community. At the time, there was a federal program called COMPAS that paid performers to do performances in the community. Mario did all of the talking and I was the “juggler.” We did a cigar box duel that is still one of the funniest things that I have ever done on stage. The only audition I’ve ever had was the one that he and I did for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. And we got in! A third performer, Phill Lindsay, joined the group and our performing group, SIDESHOW, was founded – at first Phill was just a drummer, but he became a juggler and narrator for the group as well. He eventually was the driving force behind the group and kept it alive for about a dozen years. Many performers came through the group, including Danny Lord and Scott Burton. I also remember doing a little juggling for a choral group at the university. I juggled three eggs, caught one on a neck catch, then went back into a juggle. They went wild and I was hooked on that sensation in front of an audience.
BW: Did you have any jugglers that inspired you?
DC: I had never been to a renaissance festival before Mario and I performed at the Minnesota Ren Fair in 1978.
Listen to this roster of performers: Avner the Eccentric (a world class clown), The Flying Karamazov Brothers (who also worked evening weekend shows at Dudley Riggs – a club run by a former vaudeville performer), the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society (Penn and Teller and a musicologist – not long after this, Penn and Teller became a duo and had a long run at a club in the Bay Area) and Magical Mystical Michael (Michael Kaufmann – who I still see every year at a Texas festival)! I knew very little about performing, but knew that this was an incredible collection of performers. I also saw some performers in San Francisco at Pier 39 and the Cannery. An athletic performer who did ping pong balls out of his mouth and A.Whitney Brown and his dog of renown. A. Whitney Brown had an incredibly literate show and sense of humor – he ended up on Saturday Night Live several years later with the same comedic sensibility. Also Dr. Hotz and Neon from Now-on – a duo that I saw in Berkeley…. the three ball routine and 3 cigar box routine by Steve Mock was beautiful. Kris Kremo, Take the Shoe, Vince Bruce, Jay Gilligan, Paul Ponce, Tuey Wilson, Danny Lord’s energy, Anthony Gatto’s juggling perfection, Scott Burton, John Mallery, Rod Sipe and so many other performers continue to inspire me. Also, the book, Circus Techniques by Hovey Burgess was my “bible” in my beginning days.
DC: Can you tell us about your early partnership with Scott Burton?
BW: Scott came into the group in 1980 or 1981, I think. He and Danny Lord won best stage act at the Kansas City Ren Fair in 1981. I started juggling with him after that – he had an eye for putting together routines and working on pushing the technical envelope. When you saw his solo routines, you saw this creativity. We developed a rhythm together that worked for us. We were both Minnesota boys who got along well. Scott worked the Minneapolis comedy club circuit by himself as well. When we performed together, he did most of the talking and I chimed in as best I could. As was the case for many years, I was still finding my performing “voice.” In 1983, Scott and I competed in the team competitions at the IJA convention in Purchase, NY and won! We did 7 and 8 clubs back to back, which was unusual then. We had only entered to show off what we had been working on, so it was a complete surprise to actually take first place. We competed again in 1984 in Las Vegas but didn’t have a clean routine at all. But anytime that Scott had to squat and pick up a club on the ground while I was standing on his shoulders amazed me!
Scott lives in Kansas City now – he is a good man and I was lucky to perform with him. He had cancer in 1990, shortly after competing in St Louis – after a long recovery, he began to do cancer survivor/medical/nurse/speaker performances. It is 45 minutes of comedy (some of it dark humor about cancer) and 15 minutes of juggling at the end that amazes the audience. It is so much more than regular performing….
DC: Can you tell us about your career so far?
BW: Juggling was a way for me to be physical and, by performing, to compensate for my extreme shyness. I’ve never had a career plan, but have been lucky enough to find work in many different settings because of my versatility and easy-to-work-with attitude. I am completely self taught, with no formal theater training at all. How I have managed to endure all of these years is sometimes a mystery to me. The business side has always been a necessary evil to me, though I have gotten better at it over the years.
Though I am not a true renaissance fair circuit performer, I have performed at the KC Ren Fair for 35 of the past 37 years and at the Oklahoma Ren Fair for the past 19 years. These Ren Fairs have been settings for me to work on new material – having audiences that have seen me year after year spurred me on to learn new skills. And 80 performances over 7 weekends each year gave me time to organically hone material and juggling skills. I met my wife, Fabiola Herdoiza, there and ended up in Kansas City because of her.
Necessity is the mother of invention… I worked a touring arts and crafts festival in the Midwest and Upper Midwest doing indoor stage shows. The work and the other performers were great, but the audiences were sometimes pretty quiet – this prompted me to watch how the other performers dealt with this and helped me to insert presentational juggling pieces set to music into my show. Tim and Robin Balster (a truly professional magic duo) were my role models. And like the Ren Fairs, doing this show in the spring and fall for many years allowed me to hone material in a different environment.
Highlights include a stint with the Kansas City Symphony, a 5 month school assembly tour, doing 6 weeks of shows at Silver Dollar City theme park with SIDESHOW in 100 degree heat, doing a street show with Arsene in Paris (hasn’t everyone performed with Arsene?), performing for a Dutch friend’s school every three years and over 28 years of being a Visiting Artist for Coffeyville (KS) Community College (doing a show at the college, a day at a nearby high school and numerous shows at nursing homes and senior citizen centers)… the variety of performing work has always been so much fun…
My philosophy is that every audience deserves my best effort and respect, no matter what they pay me or what the setting is…
DC: You’re known as one of the most versatile jugglers around. Was learning a wide array of props a conscious decision? What would you consider your specialties?
BW: I have never been driven by the business side of performing, but have enjoyed being in front of audiences and learning new juggling skills. Not a conscious decision then, but one that still drives me today. As I get older, I realize that my ability to practice and learn “big” skills is waning. I still do 45 minutes of stationary bicycle, followed by 1 1/2 to 2 hours of juggling practice when I can. Extra time is needed for a big new skill.
For many years I was known for doing two devil sticks with many variations and for some of the four club overhead tricks I did. Also some cigar box tricks and lariat skills… later years include bouncing 5 balls off of a drum.. a bullwhip routine involving a rolling globe….
Since I learned how to juggle when I was 20 or 21, my learning curve was later than many other people. I learned 2 diabolos when I was 38, some freestanding ladder when I was 36, rolling globe when I was 40+, 1-5 hula hoops in my late 40’s, Russian cube when I was 58… the newest skill is always the one I enjoy the most!
DC: Having been around the juggling world for a while, what do you make of the changes that have happened in juggling since you started.
BW: Personal contact with other jugglers was so important years ago, because the internet wasn’t part of the world. So juggling festivals and any visits by performers, as well as any books one could find were sources of information and inspiration. The internet has become a teaching tool that’s increased the technical prowess of so many younger jugglers now. At my first juggling festival in 1979 there were maybe 7 or 8 jugglers that did five clubs…and now it is like doing three balls… For me, being able to engage the audience is still the heart of juggling performance. I enjoy highly technical juggling (Like Anthony Gatto), stylistic renditions (like Michael Menes) or comedic styles (Michael Davis) as long as the audience connection is strong. Sharing technical juggling accomplishments online can be inspiring, but it is the perform-able elements that are important. I don’t get a chance to attend juggling festivals much anymore, but always enjoy the energy of a large room of jugglers!
DC: What jugglers do you most admire and why?
BW: Arsene, for his silent interactions with an audience.
Vince Bruce, for his energy and skill on stage.
Anthony Gatto, for his consistency and skill on stage. I feel lucky to have seen him perform.
Bob Bramson, for his joy on stage.
Scott Burton, for his creativity.
Jay Gilligan, for forging a path all of his own and inspiring so many other people.
They all share technical prowess on stage and longevity in their performing careers.
DC: What would you say are your best accomplishments as a juggler, both from a technical perspective and from a career perspective?
BW: My early work with two devil sticks and four club tricks gave me a place in the juggling festival world. Performing 8 clubs back to back with Scott Burton gave me another foothold in the festival world. Being able to keep learning new skills, especially free standing ladder and the Russian cube, have kept my interest in juggling a strong presence in my life. I fell while learning the ladder and almost broke my wrist. While recovering I learned how to bounce a soccer ball on my head, which I incorporated into my juggling later. And the cube took me an extra 6 months to solidify while I recovered from a shoulder injury. Having patience to overcome obstacles makes me proud of different juggling skills.
And surviving for 40 years as a performer is a badge of honor for me. I never envisioned enjoying performing as long as I have and am amazed by how lucky I am. Coming from a nonperforming family, I found something that brings joy to people and to my own life.
DC: What advice would you share with someone starting out who wanted to juggle for a living?
BW: When you first start performing, perform anywhere you can and as often as you can. It is not what you can do in rehearsal but what you can do in front of an audience that counts.
Be kind to everyone you work with and everyone that hires you.
When you start, find juggling skills that you can hone so that they become your specialties. The audience will identify you with these skills.
Don’t be afraid of trying something “impossible” – you might amaze yourself!
Even if you can’t perform for a living full time, keep performing if you have the passion for being in front of people.
Be professional – show up early, perform your full time slot and thank everyone that helps you along the way.