I’m going to teach you a magic trick. You should do this magic trick somewhere it doesn’t matter if it gets wet. Maybe outside. Or in a paddling pool. Start with an empty glass. Hold it with your arm hanging loose by your side – the back of your hand should be pointing forward with the glass behind it facing upwards. Practice spinning your arm backwards from your elbow (or your shoulder if you have enough room). Make sure you can make a fast, smooth circle. Now fill the glass with some water (not too much). Repeat your circle. Wow! The water stayed in the glass!
I learnt this last year at a workshop run by the performer of What Does Stuff Do? – Robin Boon Dale. Of course, it is not magic. It is physics. It is the inertia of the water trying to travel in a straight line in the direction you are pushing it, and the glass preventing it from doing that.
Juggling can often seem like magic, but really I think it is more like the antithesis of magic – there is little illusion and seldom misdirection. Instead juggling often seems like it’s trying to assert its own reality – Look! There really are this many objects! I really am doing these things! – while our disbelieving minds declare it impossible.
Boon Dale’s lecture feels like it reaches the height of this impulse, drawing back the curtain on the mechanics of juggling whilst expanding these mechanics to a life philosophy. Boon Dale really embraces the performance lecture form – seeming sometimes more like he is delivering an academic treatise to students of the philosophy of circus than performing a show, with complex language delivered at a pace as impressive as that of the flying props, and a completely rigorous approach to following through his ideas both theoretically and practically. It is utterly intellectually compelling but just as utterly hilarious. If Boon Dale doesn’t shy away from complexity, neither does he shy away from foolishness – theoretical points are illustrated with slapstick routines, while assertions on the nature of space are backed up by invading the audience.
A simple thing that shows What Does Stuff Do? to be not just an impressive juggling routine but a fantastic show is what happens when things go wrong – when hours of practice fall short and muscle memory becomes useless. Boon Dale is a master of these moments, from clown-like gestures to improvised tricks to haranguing audience members into returning props – these ‘mistakes’ become a core part of the fabric of the show. Completely true to the show’s focus on how different elements of the world affect each other, Boon Dale is always alive to nudges from things in the room (whether that’s an overbright light or the several minutes-long laughter of the audience after a man declares ‘pretty good’ mid-trick) and keen to cheekily nudge them back.
Boon Dale’s investigation is into how objects and people interact, and how we can find new ways of interacting through close examination of the qualities of different objects. And the show is rigorous in pursuing this question, in a way that makes seemingly mundane questions of how you can use a wine glass seem profound. In a way that is rarely directly touched on until the end, the show feels deeply political as well as philosophical – that it could just as easily be a lecture on radical political intervention as juggling. It is a show about how material circumstances control people and their surroundings, and a show about questioning what behaviours space and objects encourage us into – it feels like the suggestions it puts forward could just as easily be occupying public space, or reclaiming oppressive structures. And it creates all these rebellious propositions while talking almost exclusively about ping pong bats and flip charts and padding pools.
A problem I can often have with performances that take on the structure of an essay is that the conclusions feel too easy. And Boon Dale’s could be seen as a little twee, if it wasn’t so completely earned by what comes before, and so cheekily undercut by the epilogue.
*mild spoiler alert*
This conclusion – a seemingly simple call for people to question the way they interact with each other – is complicated and layered by the show it is in. Because we can see onstage that for every place that Boon Dale has questioned the relationships between objects and his body, a change of behaviour has come not just from this questioning but repeated and gruelling practice, from precision and hard work and still enduring failure. It shows that what the show is calling for is not easy at all, and it does it without ever lecturing the audience.
*mild spoilers over*
What Does Stuff Do? is the perfect mixture of serious provocation in a form that is massive fun. It has something for audiences ranging from fellow jugglers to circus ingénues, from those seeking philosophical tangles to those looking for a great night out. Whatever the stuff in this show does – it is very, very good.
What Does Stuff Do? ran at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol, from 3-6th April. It tours the UK from June through to October. More info here.