Shoebox Tour 2012 Review and Interview

Shoebox Tour 2012.  Photo credit to Frida Flodin.

Shoebox Tour 2012. Photo credit to Frida Flodin.

On Thursday May 10th 2012, the Shoebox Tour came to Hazel Park, MI to perform at a venue known as TANK.  The touring cast for this year’s U.S. tour is Jay Gilligan and Wes Peden doing a two person juggling act with Erik Nilsson providing musical accompaniment.

The venue was a small area that was part of a factory.  It had a very intimate feel, as there was no actual stage, and the performers did their performance on the floor of the room while folding chairs were setup for people to sit down to watch.  The overall ambiance of the venue was very fitting, as it added to the experimental and underground feel that the Shoebox Tour is known for.

Gilligan and Peden started out the show by using a wide variety of two person patterns and seals with balls.  Body placement and space played a big role in many of these tricks, as they often contorted around, over, and under various parts of the other person while juggling various numbers of balls.  It is very hard to describe many of the moves that they executed, as they were so unique and performed at such a rapid pace, it was easy to get lost in the creative display.

The performance was setup so that there was no real talking by the performers during the show, and it was presented as a continuous juggling experience with no real breaks between routines, other than to change props and move around the venue a bit.  This was no doubt a very physically exhausting means of performing, especially given that their high-energy performance lasted over an hour.

For the music, Erik Nilsson had a mini drum kit set up and a generator of electronic sounds and samples that he played with throughout the show.  The music he played ranged from solo drum work, experimental electronica, and dubstep.  Many of his drum beats were played in conjunction with the finish on some of the big tricks being performed.

After doing moves mostly with balls, Gilligan and Peden moved right into a routine involving juggling a three ball cascade, while using rings and clubs to add different zones of space.  They would take turns juggling three balls in different ways through a ring that was added to their body.  One would come out and put one leg and one arm through a ring and juggle briefly, then the other would reply by putting both legs and both arms through and juggling.   This back and forth creative routine kept building in terms of complexity and difficulty until both jugglers came together and juggled side by side while consumed with interlocking rings.

As the show progressed, they moved onto doing moves with clubs, and mixed props as well.  At one point they pulled out rings of varying sizes and juggled them back and forth, often catching and pulling the smaller rings through the larger ones.  Their props were stored inside black cylinders, which were integrated into the show as well.  One of the more intense moments came when Peden lowered one of the cylinders over the head of Gilligan, completely obstructing his vision.  Once he could no longer see, Gilligan then pulled out five balls and executed a flawless five ball cascade.

By the time the show was nearing completion, dozens of balls, clubs, and rings cluttered the floor of the room.  By this point, Gilligan and Peden began whimsically scooping up the props by the armful and started throwing them at each other while the other grabbed as many objects out of the air born pile and attempted to juggle them.  Pretty soon both men were raging around the venue throwing armfuls of props around at will as the show reached its climax.  At one point, Nilsson even got into the mix by throwing his drumsticks into the fray (they were promptly juggled).

Once everything had been strewn about for a while, Gilligan went over and got a strap out.  He then stacked the prop cylinders up upon each other and secured them into place.  Once that was complete, he then took a single ball, and stuck his arm through one of the cylinders and dropped it.  Peden put his arm through the one below it, catching it then dropped it from the next one up, which Gilligan then caught.  They repeated this until they had reached the end of the stack, and this concluded the show.  Both men then took a bow, and thanked the audience for coming out to the show.

There was a workshop that followed the show, which was led by Jay Gilligan.  Gilligan started off the workshop by talking about three elements of juggling: the person, the prop, and the rhythm.  He had the students start with a single ball, and work on different throwing/catching combinations in a three count rhythm, moving hands in different ways to the beat.  Erik Nillson made a brief appearance at the workshop, demonstrating a body drumming rhythm exercise that involved snapping your fingers, slapping your chest, clapping your hands, and popping your mouth in a set sequence.  Under the leg throws was the next part of the workshop, where Gilligan demonstrated many different, often overlooked variations of the trick to the students present.  The workshop concluded when he gave some commentary on the circular pathway of a shower pattern, and then demonstrated how to separate a two ball shower into two separate circles, and then he did the same with three balls.

Gilligan and Peden with clubs.

The Shoebox Tour performing at TANK.

I had the opportunity to ask Jay Gilligan a few questions about this current Shoebox Tour over the phone a week before the Detroit show.

When did you first start The Shoebox Tour?

I think it was 2006, so the 7th year now.

What is the philosophy behind the show?

In 2005 into 2006, I did 235 shows in nine months when I was in Germany.  I was working with a circus company out of Montreal and we were doing a cabaret show in Berlin, and we did all those shows in nine months.  After a while, you kind of forget even what day of the week it is.  We’d do two shows a day, and I wouldn’t remember if it was the first or second time I’d been on stage that day.  You just turn into like a robot.  Also the audience, they don’t really care, they are just there drinking and they don’t care about the show at all.  So I was really thinking it would be nice to do the opposite of that and to do a show where people want to be there and want to see what you are doing they actually care about what you are doing.  Since I really like juggling, and I’m a juggler, I thought “yeah let’s just go to my friends or their backyards or their garage or whatever and just juggle like crazy”.  Even if five people show up, at least they want to see it, they took the time to come and they are happy to be there, is the idea.  So that was the first part of it.

The second idea behind the tour is that since I grew up in America but now I live in Europe, I knew a ton of really really cool people in America, I knew all these amazing jugglers in Europe and I knew that they would like to meet each other if they could meet.  So I had a couple of friends coming over from Europe, they were just going fly in and do a juggling festival then fly out, and I thought that it was really sad that that’s the only part of America that you get to see.  I mean, you get to see the airports, the hotels, the backstage of the theater, then that’s it.  So then I thought, we could have a little tour and bring my friends around from Europe and bring them to meet my friends from America, and that’s kind of how it all started.

How has it evolved over the years?

It’s expanded to different countries.  So now at least every year we mostly do America and Iceland.  We do Iceland every year now for like a month.  In the past we’ve also done the United Kingdom, and we did some stuff in Ireland and Japan.  We did a Shoebox Tour in Finland for a couple years, and we did one in Sweden.  So it’s expanded into different countries.

Over the years we’ve had some guests on the tour.  We generally would try to have some different people along.   For a few years, we had some Japanese guys come along which was awesome.  They came to America a couple years, and that was really cool because we don’t speak Japanese and they don’t speak English.  Totally weird, but we all juggled and we had a crazy road trip across America together.  Then sometimes we’ve some taken younger jugglers, not an apprentice, but kind of that idea.  We had Tony Pezzo a couple years ago come along, and we’ve had a couple other jugglers who were breaking out just come along and get some experience and help out with the show.  That’s always been awesome for everyone too.   We learn so much from them and they have a good time along with us I hope.

What are some of the pieces you’ve been working on for this year’s tour?

This year it’s really exciting because mostly this project is more out of our passion of wanting to do new juggling and wanting to share it with people.  That being said, this is like our hobby.  This is kind of like our summer vacation; we don’t have other shows that actually pay the bills.  This is our little fun side project.  There is no budget; there is no production cost or anything.  It means we also don’t really have rehearsal time or anything normally.  We normally work on this juggling in our free time and throw it together like the week before the show and work it out on the road see what works see what doesn’t.  It’s always changing.   This year it’s a lot different because Wes and I were in Germany for about five months last winter and we were working in a theater, again kind of ironic since the whole tour started out of that idea of working in Germany being a robot and doing a million shows.  But we were back out there in Germany doing some cabarets, and we had the keys to the theater.  So, we could just go in during the day, during the night whenever there wasn’t a scheduled performance and we could just practice all we wanted to.  So, we actually worked on this show over the course of about four months, a little bit more than that, every day, for a couple hours.  We filmed 725 new tricks, and then out of that, we took a few of those and then we started choreographing the show.  So we didn’t just use those tricks we actually did a whole show of just more or less different things, but those tricks were kind of a starting point for some of the pieces.

We do balls, rings, clubs.  We do sections, like we have a club act, a ball act, a ring act, and an act that mixes them all up.  It’s kind of hard to describe, I don’t know, a bunch of new concepts.  It’s two people, I mean it’s all like two person juggling, there’s no solos this year.   And we have my musician, Erik Nilsson, he’s from Sweden too, so he’s like our special guest this year.  He’s a drummer, so he’s gonna play.  I did some shows with him before, we’ve done shows together.  It’s going to be a pretty crazy show this year I think.

Are you selling merchandise on the tour?

Yeah, we have a DVD of the show that we are going to sell.  I think that’s pretty much it.  We just put out More Fun Than Visiting a Zoo Volume number 3 which is like, 500 of the tricks that we filmed when we were researching the show.  That’s available online like as a download.  Then Wes just put out his big video Synthetic online for sale.  So that’s kind of our limit of our merchandising.  (laughs)

Can you share any interesting stories from previous Shoebox Tours with us?  I know you do a lot of smaller out of the way venues.  Anything weird ever happen with any of that?

Oh yeah man, we’ve done a couple of super strange gigs.  One year we did a gig at a zoo, and we were kind of thinking like it was kind of random we were going to perform at a zoo, who knows, just when you imagine that, I didn’t imagine what was going to happen.  What ended up happening, was we had a crowd of 5,000 people.  It was more like a children’s day and Children’s Hospital was sponsoring it so it was super cool, right?  Like we had no idea.  We’re just going to go do this gig at a zoo, I don’t even know if we were getting paid, I don’t even know what we were doing.  It was just for fun.  We were trying to promote the show in the city we were going to, and so we got hooked up with some gig at the zoo to like go promote it.   We’re like “That’s cool maybe there’ll be like twenty people watching you know”.  And we show up, and there’s a stage and there’s 5,000 people there.  It was children’s day, and we’re like “This is awesome!”  But the crazy part was the Children’s Hospital had sponsored the gig by giving out kazoos to everybody.  There was like 5,000 kids with kazoos!  And the Japanese guys are just freaked out, you know?  They just could not take it.  It was like too much!  (laughs)  So that was pretty awesome.

Last year we performed in Minneapolis.  That’s probably one of the best shows we ever did on the tour ever.  Actually, we arrived to the venue; we thought it was an old art gallery or something.  But apparently, it was just a bunch of super cool punk bands and stuff had occupied this building, but the building had been condemned the day before we got there.   We show up and there’s a police line in front of the door, and we were like “Alright, I guess the shows canceled.”  But then some people showed up and they were like “No, no, it’s cool we can sneak in the back door or whatever.”  And then, we were setting up, the whole place was trashed.  There was graffiti everywhere like the entire place was burned and trashed and everything.  Super cool venue.  I mean, it looked amazing.  But then this guy shows up, and he’s from the police you know, like “What are you guys doing there?”  We’re like “Well, we’re going to do a show.”  He’s like “You know this building is condemned?”  “Oh, okay, well  uhh…”  and then he was so cool, he was just like “Alright, I’m just going to leave for a few hours.”  You know, kind of like winking, “Alright, I’m just going to take off for a few hours.”  So, like whatever.  Then we did the show and like 100 people came.  It was really weird.  We were stuffed in this condemned building with all these graffiti and these wires hanging down and flickering lights.  It was a crazy show.  So, that was super cool.

I guess the last super random gig I remember was that, again it was with the Japanese guys and Marcus Monroe.  We were doing a show in Louisville, Kentucky.  We just thought it was going to be a normal community center or an art gallery or who knows, just a normal place.  We get down there, and it’s this mansion.  Like, we drive through these rolling hills in the middle of the country with these horse farms and everything, then there is this huge mansion.  We show up and we say “Okay, this is where we’re supposed to be?”  “Yeah, yeah, come on in.”  “Alright, where are we going to do the show?”  “Yeah, you can do it in the living room.”  “Okay, uh where is the audience?”  “Yeah, they are all out back in the pool.”  We’re like “What’s going on?!”  And then, it turns out, it was some kid’s birthday party.  I don’t even know how any of this happened.  You try to plan it all out, but until you are there, you never know what’s going to happen.  Turns out, it’s somebody’s birthday, we’re playing in their living room.   They just got a new huge flat screen TV, which back in 2007 was kind of a big deal.  We’re in their living room next to their fireplace, and we just did our whole normal show, and these kids are on the couch in their bathing suits are completely stunned.  They had no idea what’s happening.  They were kind of into it, but you know, it was really really weird.   We got out of there as fast as we could.  Like that was really weird.  That was an experience!  (laughs)

How did you first meet up with Wes Peden?

That’s a good question.  I don’t even remember.  We met over the years at all the regional juggling festivals in America and like at the IJAs when he won juniors in Buffalo 2004.  So we met when he was really younger, we went to all the festivals.  Then he was interested in going to circus school and he started talking to some friends of mine, and word got back to me, then he had some questions so I started telling him about different circus schools in Europe.  Then he went to Sweden where I was teaching, so that’s more or less when we started juggling together.

You two seem to work together pretty frequently.  What do you attribute your collaborative success to?

That’s a good question.  I’m happy I can answer it.  We were working on this show now, like I said, in Germany and we worked on it a lot, more than we normally do just because we had more time and opportunity.  So we started making a new show and we said “Okay, what are we going to do?”  We kind of had to figure out what’s our style and why do we work together and what do we want to do.  And we actually figured it out which was really cool.  Of course it influenced the show we made now.

I guess when Wes and I work together, the place where we meet with our juggling is that our concept is in the technique.  With performing, you can do a lot of different things; it’s not only what you do, but how you do it.  You can make a whole choreography where he’s got the three clubs and the top hat, and I want to get the hat.  That’s a whole theatrical concept, which doesn’t really have so much to do necessarily with the juggling.  I mean, the juggling is there and you can do a lot of crazy things with stealing the hat from each other or whatever.  But the concept is that it’s based on these two characters fighting or having a fake fight.  We figured out that our juggling together is mostly that the concept of the performance is in the technique itself.  So, the juggling tricks themselves have to demonstrate what we’re trying to do.  And therefore it means a lot of the stuff we juggle, like the concepts in the shows, they have to be really clear and simple.  So, we’ll pick a theme like assisted multiplex, so I’m going to throw multiplexes, but he’s going to help out by feeding objects into my hands.  So maybe while I’m juggling three balls, but on each throw of my right hand he’s feeding in extra balls.  So, I’m just doing a cascade, but he’s helping me throw these multiplexes.  Therefore, that’s an example of where the concept is in the technique itself.  So we just do these juggling tricks together, that’s more or less where we collaborate the best.  I mean, Wes, he’s also working with Patrik Elmnert, and I think they have probably the best duet juggling show like on the planet right now.  But the way they work together, is more the concept is more in the choreography.  They have these crazy pieces where they are just throwing three club double spins with each other but the whole choreography the way it is built up and structured and it loops and repeats that’s where the interesting part of the performance is.  Whereas with me and Wes, it’s more straight forward.  We do these tricks but you got to be able to see the concept and understand them from an audience perspective.  So, we’re not playing any characters or we don’t really have a story other than just the juggling.  In one way it’s the story of juggling, or the story of these new tricks.

Peden, Gilligan, and Nilsson after the show.

Peden, Nilsson, and Gilligan after the show.

For more information about the Shoebox Tour, check out their website.

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Nathan is a juggler from Southeast Michigan. He first learned to juggle in college, and has written for the website He previously served as Chairman of the IJA and also held various officer positions. When he is not frantically trying to learn new manipulation skills, he enjoys producing music, acting, and watching horror films.

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