David Straitjacket - 1/1/04

 

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 started 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 Martin 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 be alive.

 

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 life?

 

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 muscles!). 

 

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 your income?

 

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 years.

 

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 with. 

 

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 out?

 

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 take 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 flame. 

 

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 on camera. 

 

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 over most other 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 The Freakshow. Does having your own website actually generate bookings for you, or is it more for your own personal enjoyment?

 

A. 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 website at www.thesjc.com and then through The Freakshow Website at www.thefreakshow.co.uk

 

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 operate a 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 reach before. 

 

On the down side there is too much information out there, especially bad information. For instance there are several forums where magicians are calling acts like the blockhead a trick, telling people, often young kids that it is really easy to do, then giving very poor advice on how to do it. Sooner or later one of those kids is going to give themselves a serious injury or worse. It's the same with fire acts. I have even seen sword swallowing referred to as an 'easy trick anyone can do'. Not only does this damage us in the short term, it could be catastrophic in the long term. I often wonder about the mentality of the faceless people offering such stupid and irresponsible 'advice'.

 

On the other hand though, I can't say enough about how much I think sites like this one are helping the industry. I think that without the internet and websites like Sideshow Central, the history, the stories and the life would be all but lost to most of the world. Sites like this one are keeping it all alive.

 

Q. To finish up, is there anyone that you would like to thank for helping you get to where you are today?

 

A. Firstly, and most importantly, my partner Nikki. Without her love and support I would be nothing. I would also like to thank Martin for putting up with me and my stupid ideas, all the people at Slims and The Sideshow Discussion Group who have helped me along the way, yourself Derek, and everyone else at Sideshow Central, both on a personal level, and for the support you give to the whole industry through your excellent work here, and finally my friend and mentor Don Driver, who is quite simply a class act.

Interview by Derek Rose

 

For more information on David Straitjacket visit: www.thefreakshow.co.uk  

For more information on The Straitjacket Circus visit: www.thesjc.com

Plus, don't forget to stop by and check out David's Sideshow and Escapologist Discussion Website

 

Each month we will try and interview a new performer for the site.  Because of the logistics of it face to face interviews are tough to come by.  A good percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail or telephone.  If you are interested in being interviewed for the site drop us a line.

 

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