The Olympia, Washington-based Mud Bay Jugglers are an extraordinary juggling troupe whose unique approach to juggling incorporates abstract movement, mime-like facial expressions and gestures, all aimed at emotionally expressive communication with the audience.
Comprised of Doug Martin, Alan Fitzthum, Mark Jensen, and Tom Gorski, (now a "satellite" member living in Los Angeles) and stage manager and sometime-juggler Harry Levine, the Mud Bay Jugglers have been performing together since the early 1980s, when they were all living in Olympia. Except for Gorski and Harry, who hail from the East Coast, they are natives of the Pacific Northwest.
Seeing the Mud Bay Jugglers for the first time at the Seattle Folklife Festival three years ago was a revelation - juggling and dance merged into a single theatrically expressive performance art. Their movements fluidly synchronize with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of accompanying percussionists. They communicate silently with subtle gestures and eye contact. In fact, their routines, which are carefully choreographed despite their free-flowing, spontaneous appearance, are completely nonverbal.
I caught up with the Mud Bays last summer at the Oregon Country Fair, a three-day hippie happening with a 22 year history that annually brings to life a Brigadoon-like village in the woods west of Eugene dedicated to creating a spirit of community and fantasy.
The Mud Bay Jugglers have never attended an IJA festival. In fact, Gorski is the only member of the troupe who has ever been to one, and that was about 10 years ago. "We'd like to go, really, since people keep telling us our act is so unusual," remarked Fitzthum. "But Olympia is pretty remote, and we simply haven't found the time and resources to get there."
Their isolation from the juggling mainstream may account, in part, for the distinctiveness of their material. "We wanted to develop a style that would be so unlike anything anyone had ever seen that it would be essentially uncopyable," added Martin. "Going to lots of conventions might have made that a lot harder."
The Mud Bays trace their roots to 1980, when Martin and Jensen first met on the campus of The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Their common interest in developing original material and their compatible juggling styles led them to quickly begin a street act at various Pacific Northwest venues. They named themselves the Mud Bay Jugglers after the southernmost tip of the Puget Sound, "until we could come up with a better name," said Martin.
Martin and Jensen joined forces with Fitzthum and Gorski at a circus in 1982 to benefit the Nisqually Valley Delta Association to save the valley from being developed into a supertanker port. Over the years, their juggling act has been everything form a hobby to a full time job. In earlier days they performed in a variety of fairs and festivals. In 1987 and 1988 they worked the college circuit, following a sometimes grueling schedule, racking up thousands of miles on their van, crisscrossing the country from campus to campus.
Since then their pace has slowed a little. Jensen left for several years to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in Arizona. He returned to the Northwest in the fall of 1988 and has since joined the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle. A few months later, Gorski left to pursue a career as a pilot first in the Midwest, then in Connecticut and California for regional air carriers.
Both Martin and Fitzthum, more immune to "careerist pressures," still retain the classic "Mud Bay look." They have long, flowing hair, drawn back in ponytails and thick, patriarchal beards that frame ageless faces rich in character and warmth, with deep-set, sparkling eyes. Both are jack-of-all-tradesmen, whose skills run the gamut from construction and mechanics to child rearing and organic farming. Fitzthum also raises honey bees.
The Mud Bays have a strong egalitarian ethic that places a premium on cooperation and originality. In fact, they even wrote into their nonprofit corporate charter that new material should develop by group effort, and that no individual member would ever serve as a director. Each of their diverse backgrounds contributes something to the ensemble - Jensen's training in classical piano and ballroom dance, Martin's experience as a theatrical stunt man and musical talents on glass harmonica, and Tom's studies of acting technique and experimental theatre with Jerzy Grotowski in Poland have all influenced the group's collective artistic vision.
Not surprisingly then, their show is an amalgam of juggling, music, dance, and gymnastics. During many of their routines, mime-like facial expressions and gesticulations create characters that interact with each other and the audience. Much of their virtuosity hinges on intricately choreographed passing patterns that weave, rotate, expand and contract. The focus is decidedly on their rapport and coordination as an ensemble, rather than on the flashy technique of individual members. "The root of our style derives from individual improvisations, supported by the other members," Gorski remarked. "We help each other to create stage personas that flow organically from our own personalities."
The overall impression of dynamic, sweeping movements and gestures is apparent to a general audience. More experienced jugglers can't help noticing how slowly they juggle. Their tempo may be nearly half the normal speed. This gives them the flexibility to dance around on stage, incorporate complex stealing routines, and experiment more easily with new ideas. Combine this deliberate passing pace with long passes (double or sometimes triple a typical passing distance) and the seductive Afro-Caribbean rhythms of their percussionists, and the overall effect is mesmerizing. The clubs seem to gently float through space in slow motion.
As interesting as the show itself is their basic philosophy of juggling. For the Mud Bays, juggling is a vehicle for creative expression and communication with an audience, not an end in itself. "We try to come up with a story line that develops through the juggling," explained Martin. "We don't follow the common 'sensationalist' approach to juggling."
Fitzthum continued, "In a sensationalist juggling style, the build-up is all-important. You're telling the crowd when to be impressed, when to clap. You're telling the crowd to tell you how wonderful you are. You're juggling for the sake of juggling. Juggling becomes an inwardly focused activity. For us, juggling isn't a build-up, it's a process. We focus our energies and attention outward, toward the audience. We make lots of eye contact with the audience, for example. So juggling becomes an act of communication, of communicating emotions. We're trying to reach out to an audience and share something magical, something of ourselves."
For example, there's a five-minute routine called "Bembe," after the rhythm the percussionists use for it, which exemplifies their novel style. Since it involves five clubs and three people, the routine typifies the different direction the Mud Bays take.
Bembe is a study of creative movement. Fitzthum stands in the middle, and slowly does a basic, mindless, three club cascade. Jensen creeps up on one side, Martin on the other, each grasping one club. Then Jensen, standing to Fitzthum's right, steals and replaces one of Fitzthum's left hand tosses. Three beats later, Martin does the same thing on Fitzthum's opposite side. Jensen and Martin each now repeat this steal and replace every six beats. Between successive steals, Jensen and Martin have six beats to play to the audience. In each of the six beat cycles, Martin and Jensen act out different playful and inventive antics - one time they might walk around like mechanical automata, another time like a dazed zombie, and sometimes they just jump toward the audience make a wild-eyed face, and freeze for four beats. They also dance, prance and swing their club around in silly ways. Each time around they do something different, while Fitzthum minds his own business, gently juggling his three club cascade.
At one point, Martin moves his club slowly across the front of Fitzthum's face. Fitzthum, as if distracted, turns his head to follow it. Later in the routine, the pace of steals quickens - Jensen steals every left hand toss, and Martin steals every right hand toss. Then Fitzthum, as if taking a big breath before going underwater, dramatically shuts his eyes tight, while continuing the same mindless three club cascade. Of course he doesn't need his eyes, because Jensen and Martin intercept every one of his tosses, and hand-place every one of his "catches" back into his hands.
Even though from a purely "technical juggling" point of view, Bembe is fairly simple-minded, they claim it's one of their hardest routines. The difficulty arises from fitting the steals flawlessly into Fitzthum's juggling tempo (accentuated by the percussionists rhythms) while making them fluidly merge with the ever-varying dance and theatrical characterizations that fill the intervals between them.
From the audience's perspective, this routine is perhaps one of the most effective. Despite the seeming simplicity of the juggling, so much happens theatrically that the audience is mesmerized by the beauty and creativity of the movements, and captivated by the theatrical personas.
Gorski commented, "Watching three people juggling five clubs, rather than one person juggling five clubs, is a good example of the combination of three human emotions dominating space typically occupied by juggling clubs alone."
The drive for greater expressive possibilities has led the Mud Bays to all but renounce street performance (which they say forces them into "sensationalism") and devote their energies exclusively to theatres, where they can control more directly the stage effects of lighting, props and music. (The Oregon Country Fair remains an exception.) "In a stage show, we can command the audience's attention more fully and develop more nuanced characterizations," explained Jensen. In other words, more communicative potential.
Their new show, which opened at the Capitol Theatre in Olympia last August and ran for a week at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, illustrates this theatrical direction.
"Did you ever wake up from a dream so beautiful that you had to share it with someone?" Martin asked. "That's what this show's about. We're trying to create a fantasy world, something that, unless you saw it in the real world, you'd expect to see only in a dream."
The show was inspired by the times they remember driving back home together in their van late at night, exhausted and drowsy after a show, hashing out new ideas. Entitled "Nodding Off," various juggling routines are framed by a central theme of a janitor (Fitzthum) and stage manager (Martin) cleaning and setting up the stage of a concert hall the night before a recital of a great concert pianist (Jensen). Despite the stage manager's cajoling, the janitor keeps "nodding off," and dreaming of (what else?) wonderful juggling routines.
What's next for the Mud Bays? Since each of the group's members is steadily occupied with extra-juggling pursuits, long range planning is difficult. "Given our various interests, careers and family lives, we will probably continue to take things a year or two at a time," said Jensen. "We try to take into account everyone's interests (and availability) when planning for the future. Several of us would like to tour Europe someday. Others think more in terms of weekend runs in various Pacific Northwest cities."
In any case, all of the Mud Bay Jugglers plan to perform together indefinitely. The Mud Bay's style, the joy they find in performing, and their commitment to developing original material make them one of the most unique and entertaining juggling troupes performing today.
Peter Mark lives and juggles in Eugene, Oregon, where he's finishing a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science.