Smirk is the award-winning (IJA Team Silver Medal 2011 & 2009) juggling team of Reid Belstock and Warren Hammond. http://www.smirkshow.com. Warren and Reid live in Colorado and recently did this interview via Skype with Ted Baumhauer in December 2011. If you haven’t seen them here is a link to their promo video: (Smirk Promo Video: http://juggling.tv/3545)
Ted: How did you get your start juggling?
Reid: I tried to learn to juggle for about four years but I couldn’t do it. During a health fair at my school that my class was helping out with they had tennis balls lying around and one of the other students was juggling, so I gave it a shot and finally got three balls up in the air. From that point on I was hooked. That year (1988), the IJA convention was in Denver. So I went and saw how complex it could really be. From then I juggled every day.
Ted: I’ve heard you had trouble with your coordination while growing up . Was your plan to use juggling to overcome that?
Reid: Not really, but it happened unintentionally. I spent about five years in occupational therapy for gross and fine motor skill impairment. Every day I was in special classes learning how to walk properly and stand up, climb a ladder, and turn door knobs. People take all those simple things for granted. I had to take classes to train my body and mind to work together.
Ted: From watching you perform, I would say you’ve done an amazing job!
Reid: Thank you. I’ve had a lot of time to work on it.
Ted: Warren, what about your start?
Warren: When I was 13 my brother played tennis. I saw his can of tennis balls and wondered if I could juggle. So I took them out, thought about it for a minute, threw two balls and caught them both. Tried it again and caught them again so I threw three and caught all of them. From there I started playing around and came up with a few simple tricks and loved it. I did some researched and found a local juggler named David Stewart who gave lessons. I was hooked and wanted to do anything and everything that had to do with juggling.
Ted: That was Virginia, right? How did you get to RIT?
Warren: After high school, I looked for a college with a juggling club. One of my friends told me about RIT. They had a biotechnology program that I was interested in. I thought they had a juggling club, but when I got there I found out they didn’t. So Jeff Lutkus and I founded the juggling club. Of course you and Jeff Peden (Wes’s Dad) were still there teaching, and Greg Moss had retired from teaching juggling. During my sophomore year I heard Mark Nizer had moved to Virginia, about hour from my home. He was one of my early idols. I sent him an email saying I was thinking about juggling for a living and asked if we could meet. He was super cool, and a really nice guy. The first thing he said about juggling for a living is it’s not about the juggling. I was disheartened because I loved juggling so much. The point he was trying to make was that you need to be entertaining; it’s about you being on the stage, you the person. The juggling is secondary. So I decided not to juggle for a living and went to graduate school in Texas. That wasn’t what I wanted so I moved to the Boulder area because a few of my friends, including Dave Nager, were there. I started thinking about giving this ‘Juggling for a Living Thing’ another shot. So I talked to another performer, Sven Jorgensen, for ideas. He advised me to keep talking to people and specifically mentioned Reid. At the time I was planning on auditioning for Ecole De Cirque De Quebec in Quebec City. I auditioned, but I didn’t get in. Reid suggested getting a mentor and someone to do some shows with, and told me that he could do that!
Reid: Yes, I was horrible for quite a long time. I didn’t really understand the idea of performing with your own material. I’d watch people like Daniel Rosen and Edward Jackman, and I thought that this was out there and you just do it. For a long time I wasn’t doing my own thing. I was doing whatever I found on video. Even then it was still pretty bad. I hadn’t really found my way. It took a good three years before I started becoming a real performer on stage. I look back on some of my early performances and they are painful to watch. It really wasn’t until after I worked with a Disney director, that all my skills and energy started going in the same direction. I was trying to be something that I wasn’t. It took a strong director to find something that would work for me.
Ted: How did that come about, getting a director through Disney?
Reid: The special entertainment booker at Disney had a connection with the Clown College; he used to be the Dean back in the 80’s. He called the Clown College looking for graduates. I was one of the ones that got picked.
Ted: Excellent! Warren, you probably had a different experience because you weren’t doing a solo show, you had someone to guide you.
Warren: Exactly, (laughs)..the very first place I performed with Reid was a local venue called Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret. Reid told me how much fun it was, but when I got there it scared me. It’s a really fun place, and I love it now. The crowds are loud and rowdy, and everyone who works there is larger than life. It was scary at first, because I’m kind of a quiet guy. We did it, but honestly, I don’t remember a thing about it. On the positive side, there was one show we did at the Boulder Juggling Festival, shortly after teaming up. We won the Boulder Circus Arts Award for that. Cindy Marvel and Carter Brown saw me working with Reid. He had worked with them in Lazer Vaudeville years ago. I think Reid recommended me, and they approached me to perform with them.
Reid: I pumped you up to them.
Warren: Pumped or pimped?
Reid: Either one!
Warren: I went from this basement of a clock tower with Reid, to performing my first show with Lazer in a 2000-3000 seat theater. It was trial by fire. It was a show in Dallas, TX. I walked out onto the stage during the load-in, and I just forced myself to not look at how many seats were in the theater. If there was one word to describe my first shows, it would be terror. It was the same thing with my first solo show on Pearl Street. I had to pack up all my gear and convince myself that I was just going for a walk around town with my juggling stuff. Maybe I would end up on Pearl Street, and maybe I would do a show. For the first month or two I was constantly scared. The fear slowly subsided. After three or four months of steady performing I was over that.
Reid: That’s strange, because my experience was completely different. I could never wait to get in front of an audience.
Ted: Yes, isn’t that a bit of your characters too? When I seen you perform, Reid, you’re a bit of a goof. You’re always trying to ham it up. Warren is the quiet but more controlling one. You’re always trying to rein in Reid.
Warren: That’s interesting. Reid came to me with this idea for our characters. He wanted to be the ventriloquist’s dummy. To pull that off, I needed to be very controlling. We looked to Abbott & Costello for a lot of inspiration for our act. Actually, I’m not a heavy handed controlling person. My first summer on Pearl Street, Reid did a lot of shows with me to help me out. After one show I got the comment, “Hey, you’re that clown’s assistant, aren’t you?” The idea that a clown needed an assistant, and that was me, sums up my early performances. If Reid doesn’t think I’m being heavy handed enough, he’ll just get crazier and louder until I have to do something. He forces my hand. He did that a lot in the beginning, and he still does when I need it. I remember him telling me, “You need to be rough with me. You actually need to hit me with that club.” I don’t want to, but I have to. That’s what I have to do to make it work.
Ted: Maybe that answers my questions about how you develop your characters and style?
Reid: When I work solo, I do a nerd character that people have equated to Jerry Lewis. I’ve worked with other jugglers like the Checker Board Guy, and we would have a more Lewis & Martin vibe. With Warren I didn’t want to be the vulnerable, soft, likeable nerd guy. I wanted to be more aggressive, and I wanted to misbehave. I wanted to be a little more, not adult, but edgy. It’s different from the usual thing. When we were looking for duos to emulate, Abbott & Costello were the most volatile. In their movies, Bud Abbott really man-handles Lou Costello. While they get along and are funny, it’s also very volatile. It’s not, “You go do this.” There’s a shoves, and he yells, “You! Go do this!” I really want to push Warren’s buttons and be slapped around for it. We actually watch Abbott & Costello before writing dialogue to try and get a sense of conflict between us. So when I say something inappropriate, Warren has a better idea of how to retaliate.
Ted: Like the scuff in the back of the head?
Warren: (Laughs) Exactly!
Reid: Coming from a physical comedy background, violence is funny.
Warren: Pain is funny! Some people would argue that is what comedy is all about.
Ted: Ah! Schadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to have a word that means, taking pleasure in another person’s pain.
Warren: Email me that…it could be a useful term in our show.
Ted: Will do! What did you do to train for performing?
Reid: My main training was Ringling Clown College, where I studied physical comedy. Also, the Walt Disney Entertainments Arts Program with my director, and now Smirk’s director, Lloyd Bryant. We did workshops on how to interview, how to send out promotions material, and how to take photos. Disney packaged this for how you become a performer. They did workshops on voice, movement, and character development.
Ted: What a great opportunity!
Reid: It was fun! It was one of my greatest summers ever.
Ted: How long was the program?
Reid: It was all summer through fall, six months total.
Ted: Warren how about you?
Warren: My training has been much more piecemeal. As far as technical juggling, I’ve taken several workshops. One of the earliest ones that had a big influence on me was Evgeni Biljauer at the 2002 Reading Festival. I credit him with cleaning up my juggling from a technical point, and giving me a really solid foundation. My first education about performing was improv at the Bovine Metropolis Theater. Eric Farone runs it, and he’s done Second City in Chicago. That helped me perform without props, and to be able to think fast and work with someone else on the stage. That’s really important. I’ve taken some comedy writing lessons with Dan Holtzman, which were fun and very useful. I took a great workshop by Peter Davidson and Michael Menes a few years ago at the Boulder Juggling Festival on the Art of Juggling. I went to Brad Weston’s workshop on comedy juggling and variety arts in America, and a workshop by Kit Summers which was great, too. Now working with Lloyd Bryant and Reid I’m learning a lot, too. I’ve been trying to put all the pieces together myself. My next step is to take dance. It’s especially important when working next to Reid who is a great dancer. I was the wall flower at every school dance, so I need to learn how to move on stage and dance.
Ted: It is a continuous process.
Warren: Yes, I’ve got a mentor, and I respond really well to that.
Ted: What was the time period you both worked with Lazer Vaudeville?
Warren: I still work with them.
Reid: I did the 1998-99 season.
Ted: Where did you travel with them?
Reid: Just the United States. In seven months we did 60,000 miles. That was a furious tour.
Ted: Please don’t take this the wrong way but you’re not married are you?
Reid: Yes, I am. Why should I not be taking this the wrong way? (Laughs)
Ted: Your wife is a saint!
Warren: Yes, she is!
Reid: I met my wife while performing in Japan, which was just after Lazer Vaudeville. With Lazer, I only performed in the states, but I’ve performed in China and Japan and on ships around the globe.
Ted: What cruise lines did you work?
Reid: I started on Disney and then did Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Cunard.
Ted: Warren, where have you performed up till now?
Warren: So far the U.S. including Alaska with Lazer which was a lot of fun. To give you an idea, in the first year I was with them, we went from an island off the coast of Seattle and drove to the Florida Keys in under a week! That’s the kind of pace that show keeps. With Smirk we’ve cover a large swath of the United States too. We cover the Northeast, Northwest, and the Midwest. We haven’t been down south too much other than Austin.
Ted: You’ve competed as a team at the IJA, and Reid, you’ve competed there as a solo. What are the differences between that and performing?
Reid: It’s the only place that I get nervous.
Warren: That’s interesting, because I don’t find it nerve wracking to do a competition with Reid. It’s more nerve wracking to do a paid show. If we don’t do well there will be hell to pay. In competition the worst that could happen is that we don’t get a medal.
Reid: When Smirk got our first Silver Medal at the IJA In 2009, that was definitely one of them. When I competed in 1997 with Aaron Schettler as the Stoolies. It was a similar great moment when you find you have something worthwhile. Smirk’s second Silver was great, but in the first competition we were still new and testing the waters. We didn’t know what we had. I hadn’t competed in seven years. I watched the juniors the night before, and I wanted to get on a plane and get out of there.
Warren: (Laugh) I did not know that!
Reid: Yeah! I didn’t feel like I belonged at all. In seven years so much had changed technically. After ’09 I felt like there was a place for me on stage there.
Ted: What about high points for you?
Warren: 2009 definitely! To get silver was fantastic! In 2011 it was great as well but for different reasons. Like Reid said, in 2009 it was great to see that we actually belonged up there. In 2011 we actually came in as underdogs, in some ways, I think. Then to get silver, while competing with all these incredible, young, fantastic jugglers, it was really special. The praise we got afterwards was great too!
Reid: Yes, Michael Davis’ comments this year were a highlight for me.
Warren: I was so incredibly flattered by what Stefan Sing said about us in Juggle Magazine. That was an incredible honor. And then recently being on Letterman was a huge highlight. (Here is a link to that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exZA7PHa8TU)
Ted: Who were your influences in performing and juggling?
Reid: Jim Jackson! When I first learned how to juggle I wanted to be this technical Vegas style juggler, and then I saw this guy being funny. Watching him made me want to be a clown. I saw the value of expressing things physically. My juggling influences are Peter Davidson, the Gizmo Guys, Mark Nizer, and David Deeble.
Warren: It’s a pretty extensive list. The early influences are definitely Mark Nizer, and despite all the controversy surrounding him Benji Hill, indirectly. I’ve maybe said five words to him in my life, but I noticed that the people he trained became phenomenal jugglers. I really studied his students. There was an old Juggle Magazine, I think it was the one with the LaSalle Brothers on the cover, that talked about his training method. Since then I’ve learned more about that. In fact I did a paper on Benji Hill in your juggling class at RIT. This was before I knew anything about him or the controversy around him. For a time Jason Garfield, and of course Reid has been a huge influence. There’s also Carter Brown and Cindy Marvell. I’ve always loved David Deeble, and how it looks like he can pack his entire show into one suit case and do two hours. He’s so funny! Wes (Peden), watching him grow up to become this amazing juggler and beyond. It’s been wonderful. Other Rochester people were influences too, you, his dad Jeff (Peden), Jeff Lutkus, Dave Nager. My time with Jeff was instrumental in becoming a better passer. He and I worked together tons in Rochester and when I initially moved here to Colorado. Jim McKenzie from Houston, Texas. He gave me the blockhead trick.
Ted: That was the party in Texas you mentioned on Letterman where you learned to do blockhead, right?
Warren: Yes. There are some others I need to mention too. Bekah (Smith), who is flourishing as a performer, and was a big influence on me. Cate Flaherty was especially influential in getting me started on the streets, along with Sven Jorgensen.
Ted: How important is juggling in your life and who you are?
Reid: Juggling has changed for me over the last 10 years. In the 90’s it was something that I had to do day and night. Now I train only when I have a project to complete. I think I enjoy juggling more from a social aspect than from an activity aspect now.
Warren: I can’t imagine my life without juggling anymore. Normally I was a quiet and shy person, but I found that if I could do something really well, people would talk to me. I played a lot of piano when I was young, and was good at it for my age. So when I found a new skill I was relentlessly dedicated to it, and people would recognize me for that. I took that approach with juggling too, so it got me out of my shell a little bit.
Ted: I thought you were a bass player?
Warren: I was. Before I was a juggler I was a musician. My freshman year at RIT I went to Victor Wooten’s first bass camp. He is the bassist in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and a juggler. He said “If you leave this bass camp and never play the bass again that’s fine with me as long as you find something you’re passionate about.” That was about the time I gave up the bass and really focused on juggling.
Ted: Where do you guys see your act going?
Warren: Our goal right now is performing arts centers, similar to what Lazer Vaudeville did, because they were wildly successful. Does that sound right Reid?
Reid: Yes. We want to do longer, two hour, performances. We want to do more variety. Currently we have an hour and half show. We have routines that are comedy based, some musical, and of course juggling. We have a good variety of routines; it’s not just a two hour juggling show.
Ted: What advice would you have for jugglers thinking about becoming performers?
Reid: I think the way Warren went about it, talking to people, is really the right way. So many people think it’s going to be a field of dreams, and that money and opportunities will be falling from the sky. It really isn’t that way. We have to work really hard. I know many people in the business who do this because it’s their job. They don’t necessarily enjoy it anymore, but they have to do it to make a living. You have to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of enjoyment, because it’s still a business and it has to be treated that way. You need to know what you’re getting in to and be certain when you decide to make it your career. Speaking to people and getting as much information as you can before making that change is the best advice I could give. I love my career but it is work. Sometimes you have to deal with it as work and not play time.
Warren: I would like to echo some of what Reid said. There is no substitute for doing your research. My Mom was a reference librarian, so she drilled into me to do your research, and to talk to people to find things out. I think it’s crucial to talk to people, especially making a big career choice like this.
Ted: What about becoming a team or duo?
Warren: Find what is unique about your duo or the person you’re working with, not about you. You need to know what’s unique about this partnership that you’ve got. One of the strengths that we have is that we come from very different backgrounds and have very different skill sets. I come from a much more technical juggling background with some artistic background. While Reid has an amazing clowning and performing history. Blending our two juggling styles has created something that I think is very unique. Find what’s unique about your partnership, not just as jugglers, but as people, and try to see how that makes your relationship unique.
Reid: I can juggle with any juggler, but it’s hard for me to find someone I can really play with. There are only three people that I’ve had any ability to do that with in the last 10 years. One was Alan Jacobs of the Gizmo Guys, the other was David Aiken the Checkerboard Guy, and then Warren. Finding someone that you can be comfortable with and find a work flow is rare. A lot of people get together and juggle, but it’s rare that you find a team that has, not just chemistry, but different sides to offer each other. Take Henrik and Woodhead of Foolz, you have the clown and the juggler. Henrick is Danish and Woodhead is an American clown. They have very different skill sets and are different types of performers. That allows for a lot of great play.
Ted: Other than performing what do you guys do?
Reid: Nothing! Performing has been my full time job since 1991.
Warren: Since my juggling career is still in its infancy during the winter I usually get a side job just to keep some income coming in, like I mentioned on Letterman. I also really enjoy teaching. I have a couple of private students I’ve worked with here in Colorado for the last couple of years. Bekah Smith and I have just gotten our Youth Juggling Program off the ground. Partially with help from the IJA Youth Education Program. Bekah and I are also Co-Managers of the Boulder Circus Center. My life is very juggling centric now. Once Smirk really starts touring, that will be that!
Ted: And it will take off! Thank you for your time.
Highlights from Smirk’s full show can be found at: http://juggling.tv/3586