By Kimzyn Campbell
Jon Udry had an idea that dogged him–a creative itch you might say. Jugglers get these ideas from time to time and they can lead to many things, innovation in patterns, in prop design, or in Udry’s case, wrangling a juggling tour of 26 venues using the inspiration of the alphabet to guide him. It took him and his team 944 days to plan. Say what you will about the idea itself, that is commitment!
Like any well-documented, hare-brained scheme, it led to some gems, comedic moments (for the reader), trials for Udry as he bent his brain to accommodate strange venues, unpredictable audiences and sometimes inhospitable climates for a performer (wind, snow, rocking boat, a floor covered with hair, people who’d rather knit or skate) and other real world factors. But perhaps the biggest challenge Udry did not anticipate was the difficulty of coordinating the events in the first place. Any arts management professional would sigh at that, perhaps relieved to know that at least one performing artist in the world now understands their pain. Of course, for the reader, the joy of the journey is to learn of the adventures and mishaps as well as to see the growth that was self-imposed upon Udry by his own mission as he converts helpers to his cause along the way and writes endless cheery inquiry letters.
Part confessional, part tour mechanics, Udry’s book is decidedly behind the scenes, focusing largely on the journey and not so much on the juggling. Fortunately, there were frequent photographers on hand to document the venue and elements of the show itself, providing compelling proof for example that yes, fish are curious about flying objects.
Another interesting aspect of the book is Udry’s desire to take the show off of the pristine, controllable stage where all elements are set up for success, and to toss himself into the abyss of reality. It is a classic juggler move when you think about it; he added more layers of complexity to his routine, adaptation, distraction. And the challenges pile up, from limited population, to venues with no changing area, to poor lighting, issues most performers contend with early in their career to be sure, but also hilarious and unexpected obstacles that entail how to adapt each show to the unique venues and audiences. Udry did so with humor (in hindsight at least) and help from his small team, incorporating handcuffs into his jail visit and juggling wool balls for his knitting club venue for example. He pushes himself outside of comfort zones, like visiting a naturalist center and juggling naked with low ceilings (and stressing just a bit about having to bend over to pick up drops!)
Besides simple inspiration and laughs, some practical knowledge emerges from the reading of this book. For example, how to select and approach a venue (convincing a hair salon to open its doors for you is quite the feat), how, as a juggler or otherwise, to go with the flow (like when Udry sprains his ankle prepping for a rollerskating gig full of unimpressed skaters), or how to manifest an idea and how painfully tricky it can be to do so, but also fulfilling. From security guards to bobbing waves on a boat, the challenges just keep coming, and Udry’s honesty and sense of humor buoys him through it all–as well as his supportive team–a rotating group of devotees that are willing to skate and strip naked with him in every instance. For a solo artist, he admirably inspires teamwork among his crew and acquaintances, and I suspect that was a big part of the quest for him, to connect with his audiences in a more direct way.
This sleek and funny book from Jon Udry and Modern Vaudeville Press is both a form of entertainment in itself and also a blueprint/ cautionary tale (depending on your worldview and career stage) on how to DIY and how to keep performance challenging, interactive and above all, alphabetical!
Kim Campbell (they/them) is an editor, a writer and a dog trainer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Kim is the former editor of CircusTalk News and American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a current writer for the Chicago Reader and the web publication Third Coast Review. In addition to writing about circus for many circus publications, they were a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. Kim founded the Chicago based circus company Semi-Circus and is a member of the American Theater Critics Association. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano), in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards, and in 2022, they were on the jury of the Circus International Film Festival.