Zak McAllister Interview

Zak McAllister is certainly one of the brightest stars in the juggling community at the moment. At the 2019 IJA Festival, he won the Individuals Stage Championships, the Teams Stage Championships (with Delaney Bayles), the People’s Choice Award, Numbers Ring Passing (with Delaney Bayles), X-Juggling 4-5 Balls, X-Juggling 4-5 Rings, one of the Game Show Night competitions, and Huggling (with Jonah Botvinick-Greenhouse) in Games.  And to top off the year, he finished second in the Top 40 Jugglers of the Year poll behind eleven-time winner Wes Peden. David Cain interviewed Zak about his journey in the world of juggling.

DC: Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself apart from juggling?

ZM: I grew up an hour away from Austin in a small town called Temple, TX.  Before I got into juggling I had a number of brief hobbies such as skateboarding, gymnastics and other various activities.  I currently study at Circadium School of Contemporary Circus in Philadelphia and will be graduating in the spring.

DC: How and when did you learn to juggle?

ZM: I was first introduced to juggling in a 5th Grade gym class.  The teacher was trying to teach us all two balls in one hand. Unfortunately, I was one of the kids in the class that came out of the class unsuccessful. I went home and asked my dad to teach me and he tried to show me how to juggle 3 balls.  The next couple weeks, I watched tv while working on juggling 3 tennis balls.  I don’t remember exactly how long it took, but I remember reaching 30 catches after 2 weeks of attempts.

DC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a juggler?

ZM: Juggling started off as a fun activity that I really enjoyed doing.  After about a year and a half of juggling, I saw Anthony Gatto perform in Cirque Du Soleil’s La Nouba.  This was the point where I shifted from viewing juggling as fun to just becoming obsessed.  I went online for the first time after seeing Anthony perform and discovered the WJF.  My immediate goal became to compete in the WJF.  Everything I wanted from that point forward was to become as good as all of the jugglers I had seen in competition (ex. Doug, Lauge, Vova).  So, as a result, I watched a bootleg full video of WJF 7 on YouTube nearly every day while I practiced.  Fast forward a couple years.  In 2013 I attended my first festival, Austin Jugglefest, and learned about an entirely new side to juggling.  I met Wes Peden, Thom Wall, Patrik Elmnert, and a handful of others.  I didn’t realized just how diverse the world of juggling actually was up until this festival.  It blew my mind that you could actually create your own material and tricks and up until then it just never occurred to me.  The entire next year I watched Synthetic on loop while practicing.  I found myself starting to goof off more and more, as opposed to working strictly on numbers and siteswaps.  2013-2014 was definitely the most important time for me in juggling, because this is when I felt like I learned how to create.  I came to the realization that I won’t ever be as good as Anthony Gatto, so why even bother trying?  Instead I put all of my effort into trying to create as much original material as possible.  This choice to attempt to create new juggling is what led me to my current style today.  I love how juggling is seemingly infinite.  There’s always new tricks to be discovered and I am very excited to be a part of that discovery.

DC: What are your favorite types of juggling to work on?

ZM: I love to just turn on a really good song and just throw balls around.  Multiplexes are always a favorite but I’ve recently been into a lot of ball stuff that involves the balls rolling all over the body.  

DC: What was your preparation like for this year’s IJA competitions?

ZM: In terms of Individuals and Teams, I definitely put in more effort towards Teams as the competition was closing in.  Most of my training for both acts was to run through all of my patterns and sequences multiple times to try and get them as solid as possible.  There were a number of tricks in each act that were very risky, as in, no matter how much we trained them, there was always a 50% chance of it failing.  This definitely upped the stress for me, but I realized pretty quick that it was better to attempt the tricks for the difficulty they came with rather than to discard them entirely.  All in all, prep for the competitions was a mixed bag of excitement, frustration, uncertainty, and nerves.

DC: How did it feel to be so successful at this year’s IJA Festival?

ZM: The IJA this year went better for me than I ever would’ve thought.  Apart from the competitions, I had a lot of fun participating in things such as XJuggling, Game Show Night, and Numbers.  It was the busiest I have ever been at an IJA, but it was definitely worth it!  That week was one of the most physically and mentally rewarding weeks I’ve ever had.

DC: Who are your favorite jugglers from the past and from the present and why?

ZM: My favorite juggler from the past is probably Sergei Ignatov.  Any footage I ever saw of him online has always blown me away.  I love his look, style, props.  The whole package!  In terms of current jugglers I would have to say that, for me, Jay Gilligan is the most important juggler to me.  His sheer output of material and concepts has always given me endless inspiration, but the way he thinks about his craft is such an amazing thing to hear.  After years of hard work and research, it seems he has acquired a level of understanding in juggling that seems unmatched anywhere else.

DC: What are your current plans for your juggling future?

ZM: I hope to graduate from school with an act that will push what I do out of hobbyists based work and more into a professional scene.  I have been working very closely with Kyle Driggs on developing a ring act. I plan to present it in March of 2020.  In terms of research, I just released a feature length juggling film, “MR DISCO”, and I plan on reverting back to shorter video projects on YouTube for the next year.

DC: What do you like the best about the juggling community?

ZM: The part of the online community that has always inspired me are the video makers.  On YouTube, there is a large number of jugglers who create videos of their own juggling work.  Some names include: Wes Peden, Jackson Ford, Jonah Botvinick-Greenhouse, Matan Presberg, Delaney Bayles, Joe Fisher, Haavard Hvidsten and many others.  A juggling video usually consists of walking to and from a camera, b-roll, juggling and a lot of character.  These videos were the thing that got me initially hooked into the community.  

DC: What are your favorite online videos of yourself?

ZM: My favorite videos are ones that I had a lot of fun filming.  Platforming is a great example of this.  Research wise I believe my favorite video I’ve released is Diamonds.  It consists of a lot of shape based work with 4 rings that I am very proud of.  

DC: What is your advice to young jugglers who really want to be successful?

ZM: Figure out what about juggling makes you the happiest and steer your training in that direction.  Diversifying your skills is important, but don’t get too hung up on things that you aren’t interested in personally.  It’s more important to truly cultivate juggling that makes you as a juggler the most fulfilled.

Delaney Bayles and Zak McAllister

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 16 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 twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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