I recently revisited a book I haven’t read since college, Ron Jenkins’ Acrobats of the Soul: Comedy & Virtuosity in Contemporary American Theatre. It is a time capsule from the late eighties, each chapter sketching a portrait of a variety artist or circus. Performers such as Paul Zaloom, Penn & Teller, Spalding Gray, Avner the Eccentric, and the Flying Karamazov brothers; Circuses ranging from Cirque du Soleil's then-nascent techno rock show to the scrappy one-ring Pickle Family Circus.
When I first read the book, I did so with the wide-eyed wonder of a teenager in Arkansas, amazed that such performers exist. Coming back to it about a quarter of a century later, as someone who follows in the variety arts tradition both as both a solo artist and as one-half of Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy, my appreciation for the performers and their acts is much deeper. Jenkins’ book is a great jumping-off point for further discovery, providing descriptions of acts and some script excerpts.
Where it fails for me is in Jenkins’ attempt to politicize the performers and acts. Granted, he doesn’t have to read much into the politically charged work of Zaloom or Gray, but his analysis of Cirque (as a for instance) feels particularly contrived. Jenkins is attempting to make an overarching point about the resurgence of variety artists in the ‘80s as a reaction to Reagan conservatism.
Without a doubt, opposition to the powers-that-be has always been and always will be a powerful motivator for great art. The fact that these same artists continued to thrive through the Clinton years and beyond speaks to a more fundamental quality, something that defies mere politics. And this is the greater lesson I take away from the book now: commitment to one’s craft, and active concern with audience engagement is more lasting than the heat of the political moment.
It speaks to our moment, as well. One of my greatest pet peeves is when performers make a meal out of low-hanging fruit. Going for the obvious gag, playing fan service to an audience who already thinks the way you do. Low-hanging fruit is at best a light snack; a fun size Snicker bar that gives you a burst of endorphins but little actual sustenance. The acts in Jenkins’ book had and have staying power precisely because they provide sustenance.
Off-the-cuff jokes about Reaganomics may have given audiences to The Flying Karamozov Brothers a jolt of delight; the mind-blowing synchronization of various and sundry objects passed between the “brothers” hits on something way deeper. The force of Zaloom’s stage presence, his lateral-thinking satirical observation is more resonant than the party affiliation of whoever is in the White House at the moment.
The lesson I take from Acrobats of the Soul defies the political patina Jenkins washes over everything. Rather, it’s the dialectic between Jenkins’ approach, and the longevity of the performers he profiled that reaches the slightly less wide-eyed adult who read the book most recently. Focus on your act and focus on your audience with fierce dedication.