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Harley Newman
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Once again, we get "how-to" questions about performance of some of the acts. I wrote this piece for Sideshow World, and think it's a good thing to have here also, as a reminder.
                                                              

"EVEN THE SIMPLEST STUNT, IS A POTENTIAL DISASTER!"
Advice for the Up and Coming 

In the good old days, the ones we keep hearing about, it only rained so we could tell stories about it.  The lot was always green and even.  The sky was always blue, even at night.  Nobody got too cold, too hot, or sunburned.  There were so many people in the midway, and every one of them just HAD to see your show.  They all stuffed money into your hands, and ran into the tent, not even waiting to get change!

But unless you were a prodigy of nature, it wasn't possible to just walk into a sideshow, and expect to be hired.

You might get hired, yes, but not for anything that required any great skill.  (Ladies and Gentlemen, here's where you'll see The Fakir...the Man Who Reclines on the Bed of Pain, Completely Impervious to a Thousand Sharp Nails!)

Then somebody would take you to the bed, and tell you how to lie down on it, maybe even show you.  And that'd be your act, with maybe ten minutes of training.

You'd be at the bottom of the ladder socially, and in terms of pay.  You'd be even farther down than the magician.  And since you did the act bareback, you hardly needed any costume, which saved money.  You could use an old shirt for a turban.

But it was a job. You'd be around other performers, and after a while, if they liked you, and liked your attitude, they might just teach you something new.  Sometimes you had to pay them, but they'd teach you.

You'd be off on a grand adventure, sometimes learning new acts, sometimes getting to put them on stage.  Hopefully it increased your value...the more acts you knew, the more money you made.  After all, it's a show, but it's still business.

And you got a lot of practice...12 hours a day or more, in some places, of going onstage a few times an hour to amaze those gaping spectators with something they'd never seen before, and could barely imagine.

The good old days are gone.  Those shows are gone.  It rains a lot more.  Thanks to air pollution, things are warming up and we get more sunburned.  The show lots are full of folks who saw a weird dude do something cool on that Ripley show on TV, the other night, what was the channel?  The show lots are run by people who'd rather sell rides.

This creates a series of problems for those of us who continue to perform traditional stunts, and those who'd like to learn.  The on-the-job training, has all but disappeared.

Here's a rule: EVEN THE SIMPLEST STUNT, IS A POTENTIAL DISASTER!

Life's changed. Now we have the Worldwide Web.  Just do a search, and you can have more information at your fingertips in five minutes, than most people had available, a hundred years ago, for their whole lives.

Most of us, who read this, live in a place where a nominal form of democracy exists. One person, one vote (no money changing hands).  Information is supposed to be available, for the asking, so that we can make informed choices.

Here's a rule for stunts:  WRITTEN INFORMATION, IS NOT ENOUGH!

I'm told that I'm an expert, whatever that is.  I make a living from performance, and I'm good at it.  I tend to push some of the stunts farther than my predecessors, and quite a few other performers have seen enough value in my innovations, that I'm frequently copied.

I learned the basics from other performers, NOT from books.  This enabled me to work with master performers, so that they could help me get past some of my personal roadblocks.  We all have those roadblocks.  (If you say you don't, you're lieing to yourself, a lot worse than you're lieing to anybody else, but you're the one who will suffer the consequences.)

Among other things, it enabled me to learn to do stunts as safely as possible.

Because I'm insatiably curious, I've read almost every book that's been written on these stunts. There are a few that describe parts of the stunts well, and parts of training for them, but not one hits the nail on the head.

Recently I read a posting in a discussion group.  Some of you will recognize the story.  Some will recognize the person.

A young man went to the library and found a book (I think I know which one) which described an old act called "The Man Who Can't Be Hanged".  He thought he'd learned the "secrets" of the act, and wanted to go right out and try it. So he jumped off a bench, with a noose around his neck, and wrenched his neck.

I know this stunt well.  I performed it for a number of years, before finally inventing a new style, where I like the presentation.  There are a couple of ways of doing it straight.  There are several ways to fake it. But it's dangerous.  If you do it right, there's still a reasonable probability of getting hurt.  If you do it wrong, you're in deep trouble.

The book the young man found, contains only part of the important information.  The young man's lucky that he only wrenched his neck.  He still thinks he has the "secret".  He still thinks he knows what he's doing.

I expect it's only a question of time before I read his obituary.

Here's a rule: IT'S NOT A QUESTION OF "IF" SOMETHING WILL GO WRONG.  THE QUESTIONS ARE "WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN?" AND "HOW BAD WILL IT BE?"

In martial arts, the student learns from the master.  The student doesn't have the opportunity to learn something new, until he or she is ready.  It's a way of insuring that the student will use potentially dangerous techniques, in a responsible manner. A "death grip" isn't taught to a 5 year old kid, in the first lesson.  It takes training and maturity, to prepare for the next level of work.  Sound familiar?

Here's a rule:  THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT GOALS OF TRAINING, ARE HOW TO DO A STUNT, AND WHAT TO DO, WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG.

You can't learn that from a book.

In this work, I've gotten cuts and abrasions of various shapes, sizes, and locations.  I've ripped muscles, broken bones, had assorted burns of various degrees, damaged my eyes and lungs, and been hit a few times with a badly swung sledge hammer.  On several occasions, I've escaped suffocation by a hair.  And I know what I'm doing.

So what's my point?  Easy.  Please...don't think for a minute, that if you read something in a book, it's all you need to know.  It's not, not, not.  To learn this material right, you absolutely MUST learn it from someone who knows it well, who can help you through your personal roadblocks, teach you good stunt-technique, and help you learn how to present the material to the audience.

Forget the books.  Forget the internet.  Let them give you a dream of what may be possible, but find a professional for training.

Where?  I don't know of many places.  You don't want to go to somebody who just says "take this and shove it into the bodily orifice of your choice".  You don't want to go to a person who just started doing a stunt, and has very little relevant experience.

You should go to people who have been doing these things for a long time, who know the material inside and out.

You could go to the Coney Island Sideshow School.  Todd Robbins is their professor, and very few people have his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the art, and his ability to clearly communicate.  They have classes a couple of times a year.

You can contact me. I'm frequently hired as a consultant, for a variety of creative services, including stunt and performance technique.

Todd and I have different specialty stunts, different styles of showmanship, different focuses for our teaching.

I know of others who say they teach, but I'm hesitant to recommend teachers whose ethical standards or technical abilities, are unknown to me. This is, after all, a business where a lot of people build their reputations by tricking the public.

With a stunt, you can't afford to be tricked.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” -Mark Twain

www.bladewalker.com
T-RAY
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Thanks for the advice Harley! You're definitely one of the MASTERS!!! I hope to meet you in the near future.....if you know of anyone in the California area who is willing to teach, please let me know.
Doug Higley
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Newbies and valid seekers...if you have been sent here from other threads...thank your lucky stars and pay attention to the INITIAL post. It is GOLD.
Higley's Doug's Museum
Roslyn
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Hi,
Great post Harley!
Can we stick this thread to the top of the forum?
I think this is something that everyone should read.
Thanks again,
Ros
The Magic Cafe account of The Conwy Jester, Erwyd le Fol formerly known as Roslyn Walker.
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gsidhe
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I have never attempted something of a dangerous without seeking some sort of training. Later I found out, completely after the fact, that my "Instructor" was someone who read about how to do what they do on the internet or had no training for themselves from a pro, and very little experience performing. I saw them do the act, assumed (That is my big mistake here)that they were professional, and asked them to teach me.
Needless to say, my first attempt at retaining fire in my mouth wound up ending BADLY. I never tried it again.
That was about 12 years ago.
Since then, I have learned a bunch of fire arts (Painting, spinning etc...), bed of nails, glasswalking...From performers who have practiced their art and know the exact things that can go wrong.
Simply put, if you get a good, reputable teacher, someone who has done it before for a long time, very little can happen that is unexpected. If you get taught by one who is new themselves and has nothing real to base their knowlege on...
Well...
You get burned.
Use the Café to find a teacher, not as a teacher.
Gwyd
Daniel Santos
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Great stuff here. I agree that it should be a Sticky topic.
If it is to be, it is up to me.
Freak Prodigy
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Here here...
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http://www.bloudermilk.blogspot.com
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Slim Price
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Beginning Sideshow Arts
I sometimes get mail asking about how to start learning sideshow arts. This is my answer,
First you need to analyze your self, and your reasons. If you want to learn to impress the guys at the bar, or your frat buddies, or to get girls, forget it! By and large, the acts are dirty, invoke some pain, take years to learn properly and you will find that “normal” people will look at you as something less than normal. The acts will probably cause you medical problems later in life, or immediately. It isn’t like magic at all, the damage you do to yourself can last for years. I often think that in our current media society, people think an accident (there will be some) goes away at the end of the clip, or movie… This is not true. An accident can take weeks or months to recover from, and can even cause you permanent disfigurement… The best (only) way to learn is with a pro teacher who has lived this life. I don’t mean the kid at 7/11 who sucks fire from a Bic. I mean a working professional. Learning from a book is the worst way to get this knowledge. I think I have read most of the books on the subject, and I am often appalled by errors, missed points, plain lies and oversights, all of which can bite you! Even when you know it all, a pro can see a lot of things you will miss, and might save you a lot of damage to yourself or others. Slim’s notes are overwritten to prevent as much of this as possible, but sometimes surprising interpretations slip in. I remember writing several additions to a note to clarify putting a Band-aid over a thumbtack...
Most of the people who chose to start learning sideshow acts are young, impressionable, frequently misfits, and are looking to make some kind of mark. “See what I can do!” This is understandable, but the fact is that there are a lot of better, easier, cleaner, and more profitable ways to make a living. Working at McDonald’s will earn you more, and you won’t spend most of your time looking for the next gig. Even the best performers have dry spells.
Although most of the acts however, dangerous, are simple, few initiates realize the need for learning to be an entertainer. This is really what separates the tyros from the pros in every field, not just sideshow work. Theater skills are what will make the money and work for you. If you are still in school take advantage of your theatrical options, acting, stagecraft, voice, costume, scripting, learn anything and anything you can. If you are a “civilian,” do the same. It’s an investment sure to pay off…
Don’t try to learn everything at once...There are dozens of nuances in any single act that can only be learned by exploration. Mastering one act and doing it well, (and adding your own persona) will always serve you better than “shotgunning” several badly done stunts. When you begin working a sideshow act, the first thing you will want to do is ‘push the envelope.” This, more than anything else will get you in trouble… Give your art a little time to nurture, until you really understand it… Above all, learn from a pro mentor.

An after thought :
Learn to stop calling what we do "Geek Magic." That is a term that real sideshow performers find very offensive. Geeks were the lowest form of sideshow performers, Low drunks and junkies who would eat the grossest things. Live snake heads. Live chicken heads, for example, just to get a fix... Jim Rose is not a good example of true sideshow work. Although he introduced a whole new generation to sideshow acts, his methods of presentation leave, for me, a lot to be desired. Sideshow work does not need to be presented in a gross, frenetic manner as he does. Why do I mention him? He is, I think the person most likely to have misused “Geek”, as in his claiming to do “Geek Magic”
sanscan@tds.net



"I will never bitter be, as long as I can laugh at me!"



"The people who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music"
TheWhiteye
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I agree that a professional teacher is hands down the ONLY way to learn sideshow feats. For instance, after I'd been an accomplished professional magician for 4 years, I started to become facinated with what we called around the shop simply "freak magic"..condom thru nose, balloon swallowing, the razorblades...all the stuff along those lines. I was always fascinated by fire eating. I had read a book on the subject cover to cover quite a few times. I had studied videos and essays on the internet, and viewed them in person quite a bit. I had yearned to eat fire for 5 years, and was real close to attempting it on my own on several occasions, yet something always unconsciously held me back. Finally this year, I joined up with a magic club in my new town and impressed a fellow member with a coin routine. We got to talking about our acts and yadda yadda yadda, I shared some of my acquired coin sleights for a single fire eating lesson. And that lesson was more valuable than anything that can be written onto paper.

The true art of sideshow can't be bought, sold, or copied, it can only be passed on.
JAlenS
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WOW! I'm a bizarrist and not a sideshow performer but I do some sideshow effects. I've plugged Swami/ Mantra several times here at the magic Café but I wish I would have seen this thread before I did so. There's a serious lack of professionals to teach the proper technique for many sideshow effects so I try to do effects and not the actual act. Sticking big nails in my nose comes to mind. I don't think I've caused any damage but the potential for people to hurt themselves is there. Push just a little to far and . . .
Fire eating is something I would love to add to stage performance but without proper instruction I think I'll wait.
Thank you for this very responsible thread.
Destiny
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I have been fire-eating on stage for thirty years now since a stripper taught me way back when very few people did it in Australia. One thing I have to say drives me crazy - all the work and pain we put in to this art and now anyone who ever went to a folk festival or 'alternative' gathering swings a couple of flaming pois and calls themselves an entertainer!
carnevilcircus
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That bites the root on me too, I'm not the best at what I do, heck I don't even think I'm good at what I do, but I learned my stunts the hard way, by finding someoneto teach me.
anyway, I get asked to teach/train people after almost every show. I usually just tell them to give me 18 months of their lives to train them.... no takers yet.
thefire
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Not to sound controversy or contradicting but I've never had anyone to teach me anything yet I m very cautious ive been doing sideshow for years the first thing I learned was the block head and the very next thing I learned was swordswallowing believe it or not then proceded to learn all that I could (mostly from books and hard to find articles by college physics professors)
and I have had some bad experiences but I learned from them and being the hard way (like theres any other)
I have a greater respect for what I do
Butterfly Man
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Interestingly enough I believe Byron Bay (Australia) was the epicenter for this whole fire craze thing that has spread like (uh, that would sound stupid)...

I was down there after Brisbane '88 with Robert Heart ... we met a group of kids called themselves "ferels" or something like that ... I taught them club swinging and Heart taught them staff ... next year I went back to perform near Surfers (Brendon Foley's "StreetLive") and there was a "feral" on every street corner in Sydney spinning fire... I watched it spread through NZ and the UK and the early EJC conventions ...in the US it quickly caught on in raves South of Market (San Francisco) and even NYC had the "Fireman" ... (btw "Burning Man" was still at Stinson Beach, I think it had an impact but later on) from the rave thing it just seemed to explode with the slacker generation (I don't know what else to call them)...I see people hitch-hiking with staffs now.


When I teach ... I teach "Safety First" or I don't.
Magic isn't what it seems
It's found in thoughts and words and dreams
dio da goat
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I'm so glad this sticky is here.

I wish I could remove every single firebreathing tutorial from the internet. I was apprenticed for a while, taught the respect of fire, before being given permission by multiple instructors. I still perform it rarely because of the risks even when performed perfectly. But I see dozens of kids every year who "learned it from the net" or "figured it out on their own". Just a month ago another kid in my area was hospitilized and required a surgeons care. No one in the community had ever heard of him, so we all assume he figured it out on his own.

Da Vinci said "He who is self taught has a very poor teacher indeed." I'd like to ammend that to say "but not as bad as the internet-taught."
Elton Litzner
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Cheers to Harley & Slim!

That is the voice of experience talking. Do yourselves a favor and listen to these guys. A good teacher will teach you things about this buisness that you wont find in any book.
Decomposed
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Quote:
On 2006-04-19 13:19, Harley Newman wrote:
Once again, we get "how-to" questions about performance of some of the acts. I wrote this piece for Sideshow World, and think it's a good thing to have here also, as a reminder.
                                                              

"EVEN THE SIMPLEST STUNT, IS A POTENTIAL DISASTER!"
Advice for the Up and Coming 

In the good old days, the ones we keep hearing about, it only rained so we could tell stories about it.  The lot was always green and even.  The sky was always blue, even at night.  Nobody got too cold, too hot, or sunburned.  There were so many people in the midway, and every one of them just HAD to see your show.  They all stuffed money into your hands, and ran into the tent, not even waiting to get change!

But unless you were a prodigy of nature, it wasn't possible to just walk into a sideshow, and expect to be hired.

You might get hired, yes, but not for anything that required any great skill.  (Ladies and Gentlemen, here's where you'll see The Fakir...the Man Who Reclines on the Bed of Pain, Completely Impervious to a Thousand Sharp Nails!)

Then somebody would take you to the bed, and tell you how to lie down on it, maybe even show you.  And that'd be your act, with maybe ten minutes of training.

You'd be at the bottom of the ladder socially, and in terms of pay.  You'd be even farther down than the magician.  And since you did the act bareback, you hardly needed any costume, which saved money.  You could use an old shirt for a turban.

But it was a job. You'd be around other performers, and after a while, if they liked you, and liked your attitude, they might just teach you something new.  Sometimes you had to pay them, but they'd teach you.

You'd be off on a grand adventure, sometimes learning new acts, sometimes getting to put them on stage.  Hopefully it increased your value...the more acts you knew, the more money you made.  After all, it's a show, but it's still business.

And you got a lot of practice...12 hours a day or more, in some places, of going onstage a few times an hour to amaze those gaping spectators with something they'd never seen before, and could barely imagine.

The good old days are gone.  Those shows are gone.  It rains a lot more.  Thanks to air pollution, things are warming up and we get more sunburned.  The show lots are full of folks who saw a weird dude do something cool on that Ripley show on TV, the other night, what was the channel?  The show lots are run by people who'd rather sell rides.

This creates a series of problems for those of us who continue to perform traditional stunts, and those who'd like to learn.  The on-the-job training, has all but disappeared.

Here's a rule: EVEN THE SIMPLEST STUNT, IS A POTENTIAL DISASTER!

Life's changed. Now we have the Worldwide Web.  Just do a search, and you can have more information at your fingertips in five minutes, than most people had available, a hundred years ago, for their whole lives.

Most of us, who read this, live in a place where a nominal form of democracy exists. One person, one vote (no money changing hands).  Information is supposed to be available, for the asking, so that we can make informed choices.

Here's a rule for stunts:  WRITTEN INFORMATION, IS NOT ENOUGH!

I'm told that I'm an expert, whatever that is.  I make a living from performance, and I'm good at it.  I tend to push some of the stunts farther than my predecessors, and quite a few other performers have seen enough value in my innovations, that I'm frequently copied.

I learned the basics from other performers, NOT from books.  This enabled me to work with master performers, so that they could help me get past some of my personal roadblocks.  We all have those roadblocks.  (If you say you don't, you're lieing to yourself, a lot worse than you're lieing to anybody else, but you're the one who will suffer the consequences.)

Among other things, it enabled me to learn to do stunts as safely as possible.

Because I'm insatiably curious, I've read almost every book that's been written on these stunts. There are a few that describe parts of the stunts well, and parts of training for them, but not one hits the nail on the head.

Recently I read a posting in a discussion group.  Some of you will recognize the story.  Some will recognize the person.

A young man went to the library and found a book (I think I know which one) which described an old act called "The Man Who Can't Be Hanged".  He thought he'd learned the "secrets" of the act, and wanted to go right out and try it. So he jumped off a bench, with a noose around his neck, and wrenched his neck.

I know this stunt well.  I performed it for a number of years, before finally inventing a new style, where I like the presentation.  There are a couple of ways of doing it straight.  There are several ways to fake it. But it's dangerous.  If you do it right, there's still a reasonable probability of getting hurt.  If you do it wrong, you're in deep trouble.

The book the young man found, contains only part of the important information.  The young man's lucky that he only wrenched his neck.  He still thinks he has the "secret".  He still thinks he knows what he's doing.

I expect it's only a question of time before I read his obituary.

Here's a rule: IT'S NOT A QUESTION OF "IF" SOMETHING WILL GO WRONG.  THE QUESTIONS ARE "WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN?" AND "HOW BAD WILL IT BE?"

In martial arts, the student learns from the master.  The student doesn't have the opportunity to learn something new, until he or she is ready.  It's a way of insuring that the student will use potentially dangerous techniques, in a responsible manner. A "death grip" isn't taught to a 5 year old kid, in the first lesson.  It takes training and maturity, to prepare for the next level of work.  Sound familiar?

Here's a rule:  THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT GOALS OF TRAINING, ARE HOW TO DO A STUNT, AND WHAT TO DO, WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG.

You can't learn that from a book.

In this work, I've gotten cuts and abrasions of various shapes, sizes, and locations.  I've ripped muscles, broken bones, had assorted burns of various degrees, damaged my eyes and lungs, and been hit a few times with a badly swung sledge hammer.  On several occasions, I've escaped suffocation by a hair.  And I know what I'm doing.

So what's my point?  Easy.  Please...don't think for a minute, that if you read something in a book, it's all you need to know.  It's not, not, not.  To learn this material right, you absolutely MUST learn it from someone who knows it well, who can help you through your personal roadblocks, teach you good stunt-technique, and help you learn how to present the material to the audience.

Forget the books.  Forget the internet.  Let them give you a dream of what may be possible, but find a professional for training.

Where?  I don't know of many places.  You don't want to go to somebody who just says "take this and shove it into the bodily orifice of your choice".  You don't want to go to a person who just started doing a stunt, and has very little relevant experience.

You should go to people who have been doing these things for a long time, who know the material inside and out.

You could go to the Coney Island Sideshow School.  Todd Robbins is their professor, and very few people have his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the art, and his ability to clearly communicate.  They have classes a couple of times a year.

You can contact me. I'm frequently hired as a consultant, for a variety of creative services, including stunt and performance technique.

Todd and I have different specialty stunts, different styles of showmanship, different focuses for our teaching.

I know of others who say they teach, but I'm hesitant to recommend teachers whose ethical standards or technical abilities, are unknown to me. This is, after all, a business where a lot of people build their reputations by tricking the public.

With a stunt, you can't afford to be tricked.



Great stuff, thanks! Smile
Harley Newman
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Since starting this thread, I been teaching formally. So, there are two places where the material is taught as classes.

Todd no longer teaches at Coney. He continues to be a fount of information, and to find interesting ways of presenting it.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” -Mark Twain

www.bladewalker.com
Eric the Excellent
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I'd just like to chime in here, and to say that even though I live in the middle of Montana with hardly any sideshow people around, I have had no problems finding teachers.

For anyone who can't make it to formal classes, the "trick" to getting performers to teach you something is to be professional about it. The Café is not a good source to learn these things from, but it is excellent for networking with people who are.
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