For those of you who might not be aware I would like to preface
this interview by mentioning the fact that David Straitjacket and
The Straitjacket Circus are based in the UK.
Q. To begin let's talk a little bit about your Straitjacket
Circus. How did you meet up with Martin Cole?
A. I met Martin at college in
the early 90's, we were both studying drama. At the time I had
visions of being an actor, and was there to learn. However the
thing I really learned was that I could not act to save my life, I
was very, very bad at it. Martin wasn't though, he was, and still
is, a damn good actor. We became good friends at college, and I
still kind of like him to this day (though don't let him know
that!) But it was a few years down the line before we started
actually working together.
Q. Did you guys decide to start the Straitjacket Circus
right out of the box or was it something that happened little by
little along the way?
A. Actually, Martin and
I didn't found the Straitjacket Circus it was founded by myself
and my partner Nikki, who is an artist and dancer. Martin had gone
on to university to continue training as an actor, Nikki had
finished her degree in art and I had gone to circus school to
train as an acrobat and trapeze artist. My circus work up until
then was as a juggler, Nikki and I used to practice for several
hours a day so we got pretty good! But I just couldn't see myself
doing it as a full time living. It was after I left circus school
and had started getting jobs in the circus that Nikki and
I founded The Straitjacket Circus. She has a son and could not
tour with the big tops so we decided to set up on our own. The
idea behind it was, and still is, to be a small scale circus
focusing mainly on outdoor shows, street festivals and similar
events. I had a solid half hour solo show of my own that I had
built up through months of street performing, which consisted
mainly of being heckled, booed and laughed off stage until I
finally learned to work the crowd. In that game you either give up
fast, or learn to entertain even faster. Being stubborn I chose
the latter. I was also a pretty good stilt walker at the time so
we decided to create some exciting walkabout characters for the
street festivals. As we
to get more stilt walking jobs we realized we needed an extra
stilt walker and Martin needed some extra cash. So I taught him
how to stilt walk and Nikki designed him a great new costume.
That's pretty much how he got involved.
Actually the story of how I learned to
stilt walk is pretty funny. We had done stilt walking at circus
school and I had never got my head round it. The instructor used
loose fabric ties to attach the stilts and I never felt secure
with them, it made me hate it. We used to have two lessons going
on at once a lot of the time. When we were learning stilt walking
one side of the room was doing stilts, the other side doing
trampoline. We were divided in half and did an hour of each, so I
used to just stay at the trampoline and hope no one noticed, if
they did they never mentioned it.
Anyway, a couple of weeks after I had
left the school I sent some details to a couple of agents. The
phone rang and one of the agents said they needed someone who
could juggle and make balloon animals whilst on stilts and could I
do it? I was about to say no and he mentioned the figure, which
was pretty decent, so I said of course I can! Now at this time I
had already been working as a juggler for several years, but
balloon animals and stilts? I was scared witless of stilts and had
never touched a modeling balloon in my life. No matter, I got a
book on balloon animals and borrowed some stilts from the local
circus club. I was terrified learning but once the stilts were
attached tight with tape, rather than the loose fabric straps at
circus school it came pretty easily, two weeks later I was plenty
good enough and the job went great, I could even make some pretty
convincing balloon dogs and juggle well on the stilts. Just goes
to show what a person can do when you mention money.
Nowadays I love stilt walking, I can
run, walk, hop, climb stairs, slide down banisters and more, you
would have a hard time getting me off them. On a side note the
balloon modeling also gave me a good living while we built
everything else up. I pitched the balloons on the street for
months and used to make some good money doing it. If you know how
to sell them, a 3p balloon will go for 50p to £1 all day long,
with a bit of twisting and a bit of verbal spin, again the promise
of money makes you learn fast. (in US dollars this would be
about equal to selling a 3 cent balloon for 50 cents to $1.00)
Q. The Straitjacket Circus seems to be an all out chaotic
experience showcasing one death defying act after another. Is it
as chaotic as it seems or is it more like organized mayhem?
A. Well, it certainly seems
that chaotic most of the time. Our house (mine and Nikki's) is
usually an uproar of costumes, equipment and papers. Plus the room
I am in now is usually littered with hammers, nails, sharp objects
and other exciting things, often to do with a new idea I am
working on. On top of that we have a large garage and shed which
are both filled to the top with a trapeze, two tightropes, stilts
and loads of other stuff. It's a constant battle to find space,
especially with an expanding act like ours.
As far as the shows go, we always have
a set list, much like a band. We structure a show that suits our
purpose at the time. For instance if I am doing a solo gig opening
for a band, the idea is to fill the dance floor and get the crowd
excited, so I will start with some fire to get them on the floor,
then build up the 'size' of the stunts to work them up and build
up the tension and excitement in the room. This works well for
shorter sets of 20 - 30 minutes and leaves them hungry for more.
With a longer show like a 90 minute theatre set it is more
complicated. Rather than trying to build up the energy constantly
throughout the full 90 minutes we try and structure a show that
takes the tension and excitement levels up a few times, then
brings it back down again with a more comic routine. Each time we
take the level up, it goes a bit higher than it did before
finishing with the highest spot.
Circus shows are often constructed
this way, using changes of tension and tempo to create a roller
coaster effect. It works well. That said we don't really rehearse
the actual routines much, (except for a couple of them which need
careful structure for music and lighting timings, such as the
crucifixion) preferring instead to go with the flow and listening
to the audience.
Q. Nikki, Martin and yourself seem to bring an entirely
different set of skills to the table. Martin seems to offer the
more, well, bloody part of the show and you offer a more "extreme,
but without as much blood" style. What effect do you feel this
contrast has on the success of the show?
A. We all have our roles to
play, that's true. Nikki is responsible for seeing that everything
runs smoothly while Martin and I share out the stunts in a way we
feel will make the best show. We can both perform a lot of each
others stunts but we have our own preferences about what works
best for us with the audience. Plus
has a far above average pain tolerance, he had a serious accident
some years ago and spent months in the hospital. The experience
left him able to handle pain a lot better than the rest of us. If
you take a close look at some of the photos on our website you
will see that Martin has a scar that runs from the front of his
ear, right over his head to his other ear. He had massive head
injuries and several other badly broken bones, he is very lucky to
Oddly when I do something bloody, for
instance the occasional staple I take in the forehead, it goes
over as big as Martin taking multiple staples. I think it is
because we set up the dynamic that you describe, the audience
expects to see something they perceive as skilled from me, such as
sword swallowing, and they expect Martin to do something that they
perceive as unskilled, but more gruesome and more extreme, such as
human pincushion. So when I do it, it shocks them. By the way I
don't mean to say that one is any less skilled than the other,
just that I feel the audience can often view it that way.
Q. Before meeting up with Martin you had a history of
performing sideshow style stunts as far back as childhood. As I
understand it you even became the "kid that everyone loved to
dare" because they knew you would do it. What was it that made
performing such shocking stunts so appealing to you early on in
A. Yeah, I used to do the
stupidest things. It amazes me that I never really hurt myself as
a kid apart from a few black eyes, a couple of stitches, bloody
noses and concussions. I was a crazy skater for one thing. I used
to challenge people to road races then beat them by taking red
lights and running up against traffic. They used to get scared and
stop but I just carried on. I lost a few boards that way and once
went straight under a moving truck. Plus I used to like jumping
from railway bridges and catching trees on the way down, leaping
from roof to roof at 20 - 30 feet up, challenging people to tie me
up so I could escape (I did that a lot!), standing in railway
tunnels while the train went past inches from my face, jumping off
roofs, letting people punch me in the stomach (I had good stomach
I took pretty much any reasonable dare
that came my way. I once got dared to jump though a first floor
window in a derelict house so I just threw my coat over my head
and ran at the glass, how I escaped that one I don't know. I fell
about 15 ft with glass smashing all around me. I have some great
stories about some of those stunts if you are interested. Though I
wouldn't recommend anyone try them, they were very stupid indeed.
At the same time I was reading a lot
about old circuses and sideshows, and doing some early experiments
with sideshow stunts. But the bulk of what I learned came much
later. As for why I did such stupid stuff, well I guess I just
wanted to be noticed, I always liked being the center of attention
and still do.
Q. Do you feel that a lot of what you do today is an
extension of your early desire to shock people?
A. To be honest I don't really
have a desire to shock people, I never really did, I just wanted
to stand out and I was pretty much fearless as a kid. What I have
is a desire to entertain, shock is just a way to do that. I could
be just as happy being a stand up comic or fronting a band as long
as people liked the show and took something with them.
Q. You attended college to study drama. Did you initially
have plans to gain a career in acting?
A. As I said earlier I did want
to act, but I just couldn't. I was always good at it as a kid, but
somewhere along the way I lost the talent for it. While I was at
college I was working very hard on my juggling and took a lot of
what I learned into my first real performance work.
College was still very useful though,
I learned a lot about audiences and working on stage, even if it
didn't translate into an acting career.
Q. After college you went on to study theatre as well as
attending Circus School which led to a career with the circus. How
much time did you spend with the circus before going out on your
own to start your own sideshow?
A. Actually I worked for a
couple of circus's for a while at circus school and afterwards,
but I have never wanted to work for someone else, so we started
The Straitjacket Circus very soon after I finished circus school.
I also went back to college to do more
drama after circus school. This time I had no pretensions about
acting, I was there to learn more about stage craft, I am also
interested in writing and wanted to look at scripting plays, I
have written a couple but have never tried to get them performed.
Maybe one day I will.
I ended up dropping out of college
though and never finished the course. The tutor was hardly ever
there and had developed a habit of adding circus training to the
syllabus, and then leaving me to teach the lessons. I was there to
learn and I was teaching for no money instead!
Nikki and I were forming The
Straitjacket Circus at the same time and focusing on that was a
better option. I never really set out to start a sideshow, we
formed a circus which drifted towards sideshow along the way. I
always performed sideshow stunts such as broken glass stuff in my
solo circus act, but this was alongside tightrope routines or
acrobatic stunts. As time has gone on there has been more sideshow
stuff added and purely circus stuff taken away. It will always be
a mixture of both though.
Q. Were you able to make a living from your sideshow
performances right away or did you hold other jobs to supplement
A. When we made the decision to
start the Straitjacket Circus we decided that it would be our only
work, we knew it would be a struggle, but we felt that if we had
any safety net it would be too easy to fall into it if times got
rough. It worked out well, though only now are we starting to make
any kind of real living.
Before that when I was a teenager I
apprenticed in dry cleaning of all things, but professional stain
removal was never going to be right for me. I also had a string of
sales jobs, menial jobs and worked as a bicycle courier. All that
was before I started performing, since then all the money I have
earned has come from performing in one way or another, or by
pitching balloon animals which I did for a couple of years. I
haven't had what society would deem a 'proper' job in about 12
Q. Getting back to the show itself again, you seem to have
a knack for taking normal acts and pushing the envelope. Instead
of just escaping from a straitjacket you escape while hoisted by a
crane one hundred feet in the air. Instead of just walking on
stilts you manipulate fire while doing so. What is it that makes
you say "hey, why stay on the ground and escape this straitjacket
when I can be one hundred feet in the air and escape?"
A. I have always liked trying
to take things further, in every area of my life. It is never
enough for me to just do something, there always has to be a
bigger thrill, a better applause, or a louder laugh at the end.
That's just my nature. It gets Nikki and Martins back up a lot
though. Every time we talk about a routine I have come up with
some new complication to add on weeks more work for everyone,
especially me. Plus Nikki knows she will have to deal with me
being in the worst mood for ages while I bash my head against
walls trying to figure out how to do whatever it is I have come up
For instance we just did a big show in
Manchester, the finale was going to be the human pincushion. Nikki
and Martin wanted to do a semi traditional routine, the twist
being Martin ends up with 25 needles through him and tied to a
crucifix with barbed wire. They liked it that way, but for me it
wasn't enough. So I came up with the idea of attaching tubing to a
bunch of the needles and as a finale pumping water through them,
so it came out of Martin like a human fountain. Well they fought
me on it for ages, telling me it was overkill, and that the
routine stood up without it. It took me two months of work and
about £300 (about $500 in US dollars) to do it but we did
it, and it worked. The pay-off was huge. The audience went crazy
for it. Many of them were heavily pierced themselves and while
they were entertained they were not all that impressed with the
pincushion by itself, but when the water started spraying
everywhere and 'singing in the rain' came over the PA system they
went crazy. It finished the show perfectly.
Now when I have an idea that they
think is going too far, I just remind them of that and they
usually let me have my way.
Q. Are there any acts that you have tried to make even more
death defying by adding additional elements that just didnít work
A. Every day! Most of the ideas
I have are dumped as soon as I give them a couple of minutes
sensible thought. I keep trying to come up with ways of combining
tightrope or trapeze with sword swallowing. But while I am
perfectly able with both tightrope and trapeze I just don't have
the extreme levels of skill it would
to ensure even a reasonable level of safety if I did either while
swallowing a sword. Can you imagine what would happen if you fell
off a tightrope with two foot of steel down your throat? It
doesn't bear thinking about.
When we first started out Martin and I
had a blindfold knife throwing act where Martin would hold a
wooden target (about the size of a dartboard) and I would throw
the knives. The twist was that he would move the board around and
shout out left/right directions to me. Martin never got hit but I
once got my thumb slashed by a knife as it left my hand, apart
from that there were also a few really close calls. A couple of
times a knife fell out of the board point down towards Martins
toes, also I would occasionally hit the board right at the edge,
an inch more and Martin would have caught a knife the hard way. We
soon realized it was far too dangerous and dumped it. The stunt
described below might also end up in this category eventually.
Q. Are there any new acts youíre working on right now that
you care to talk about?
A. Right now I am working on my
skateboarding a lot so as to be able to pull off just one stunt.
The idea is that I skate along and do a heelflip over Martins head
as he lies face up on the ground. For those that don't know I will
describe a heelflip. The board is ridden along the ground and when
you come to an obstacle you jump the board in the air (an ollie)
and them kick the corner of the board with your heel making it
rotate through 360 degrees below you. When it is the right way
round underneath you, you slam your feet back on the deck, land
and ride away. This is going to be dangerous enough for Martin,
think about a fast moving piece of wood with 12 stone guy riding
it slamming you in the face. But to make matters that bit worse
Martin will breath fire as I go over him. Engulfing me in the
I never did any skateboard stunts when
I was a kid, just fast road skating, so this is all new to me. I
think it is going to take at least a year to get the skills to do
it, all for a stunt that we will probably only do once to get it
That's the kind of person I am though.
If I want to do something like that I just keep on trying until I
can. Also Martin is not at all keen on the idea! But I think he
will change his mind as my heelflips get better and he starts to
see that it is possible. Alternatively I have some handcuffs he
has never tried escaping from and I am bigger than him...hmmmmm...
Q. Youíve performed your acts in front of many different
audiences and in many different settings such as colleges,
festivals, nightclubs, the list goes on and on. Does the show
change from event to event depending on the venue?
A. The basic format stays the
same but it is adaptable, it really depends on the audience.
Sometimes I have a clear idea of what to expect before I get to a
venue, other times I just try and feel the audience out before I
go on stage. I like to spend a little time being part of the crowd
before going on stage. You can learn a lot just from wandering
round. Are they drunk? Sober? Maybe they are loud and excitable,
or quiet and reserved. Once you have picked up on the vibe you can
then pitch the show accordingly.
It also depends on what the booker
wants. For instance if I am performing in a nightclub where the
people are quiet and the owner of the club wants them to go crazy
(crazy people buy more beer, stay later and dance more) I will go
out all guns blazing and try to fire them up. Alternatively a
booker at a conference might want them to be quiet so he can get
on with his speeches, so I will go on stage, take some time to get
them seated, and give them a much calmer show.
Q. Having performed in so many different settings you must
have a pretty good handle on what the crowds are looking for and
the reactions you will get. With that knowledge is there one
certain setting or venue that you enjoy performing in the most?
A. All venues have there share
of surprises, both good and bad. Personally I prefer rock clubs
venues. I like performing loud and crazy to loud, crazy audiences.
Plus I pay to go to rock clubs, so to get paid to be there, given
a dressing room and free drinks (after the show!!!) is like my own
bit of heaven.
Q. You and your show have also been featured on TV as well
as in magazine and newspaper articles. Have you ever sat back and
just thought "wow, thatís me theyíre talking about!" or does it
just go with the territory after awhile?
A. I still feel pretty new in
this game so any coverage is great. I don't think I will ever get
over seeing my name in print, or my own face in a magazine. Every
time it happens I feel like I have arrived.
Q. What was it like reading an article about yourself for
the very first time?
A. There haven't really been
many to be honest. What there has been, has been good although I
usually spend most of the time complaining that they have spelt my
name wrong or that the promised contact details in the article
have failed to materialize. It's always great though.
Q. Nowadays it seems everyone has a computer sitting in
their living room or office. I would imagine this has allowed you
to reach out to a more widespread audience by way of your website
Freakshow. Does having your own website actually generate
bookings for you, or is it more for your own personal enjoyment?
The website does generate bookings. In fact I would
say that it is in some way directly responsible for 75% of our
bookings. We have had a website for about 6 years, which is about
as long as anyone I know. Firstly through the Straitjacket Circus
and then through The Freakshow Website at
Both have been excellent as marketing
tools. We have tons of photos as well as video clips for visitors
to see on the website which helps. As for my own enjoyment, well
personally I hate working on them. I do all the design work etc
myself, and look forward to the day when I am earning enough to
pay someone else to do the work.
Q. In addition to the websites you just mentioned you also
Sideshow and Escapologist Discussion Website. What made
you decide to take on even more web related work and put it
together and what benefits do you think it offers?
A. I started the discussion
group because I was fed up with seeing sideshow and escape secrets
discussed on open forums where anyone could read them. The idea
being that there would be an open area and a restricted area, so
that there would be somewhere open for general discussion,
and somewhere private, so people in the business could have a
place they could discuss secrets without the marks listening in.
I don't know if there is a carny word
for this, but wrestlers used to use the word 'kayfabe'. If a
wrestler said kayfabe it meant that a mark, or someone outside the
industry was within earshot. 'Breaking kayfabe' meant coming out
of character, and possibly exposing secrets. For instance two
wrestlers might be sitting down to discuss what to do in their
next match, or 'breaking kayfabe'. As far as the marks are
concerned these guys are major enemies, in real life they are
probably best of friends, but anyway they are making their plans
for the match and in walks a mark, as soon as someone sees the
mark wander through the door they say 'kayfabe', and suddenly the
wrestlers go into character, shouting abuse at each other and
maybe exchanging a few blows. This system helped wrestling to keep
its mystique for years, it's something we can learn from.
Everyone benefits when only the
performers know the secrets. Having an area on the net we can
comfortably 'break kayfabe' in seems to have worked well, I hope
it grows to be an extremely useful resource for everyone.
Q. All in all what influence do you think the advent of the
internet has had on the sideshow industry as a whole?
A. Well, it's been good and
bad. We work in a business where it is sometimes difficult to meet
and communicate with our peers, especially if you are outside the
U.S. like I am. The net has helped greatly with that.
As a marketing tool it is also
excellent. I think ten years ago if someone was looking for
entertainment, say for a party, they would most likely pull out
the yellow pages, call up an agent and get a traditional
entertainer. Few people would have had the imagination to think of
tracking down a sword swallower or a light bulb eater, and even if
they did where would they find one? With the net people seem to be
broadening their horizons. They
might type entertainment into Google, and up pops a variety of
things, including a sideshow act which they might end up booking.
It helps us to reach audiences we would not have been able to