Private Thoughts and Other Lies is the newest solo work by performance artist and world-record holding sword swallower Roderick Russell. 

Combining the artistry of movement and the power of language with the timing of a musician and the psychology of a magician, Russell explores in a live, interactive format themes such as fear, manipulation, love and the role of perception in the construction of reality.


Through an offbeat and charming manner, Russell explores these challenging themes in short vignettes that are sometimes silent explorations in movement while at other times enlivened and passionate discourse.


Present throughout each presentation is his signature psychological artistry, allowing him to conjure wonder as he seemingly reads minds, predicts thoughts and influences choice; all with an eye towards sophisticated entertainment that is not afraid to tackle everything from corporate manipulation to our own deceptive perceptions.


Part culture jamming socio-political commentary, part visually evocative movement, Roderick Russell shifts from seriousness to satire, from highfalutin to farce and back again in this creative exploration of the very heart of human experienc
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What began as a question and answer session with Roderick Russell to address the topic of sword swallowing for his pitch book* Confessions of a Renaissance Faire Sword Swallower (available exclusively at faire events) quickly expanded into a much more detailed interview which we are proud to offer to our readers this month. 

 

* The short set of original questions about the inner workings of sword swallowing can still be found towards the end of the interview, now supplementing the larger conversation.

 


 

Roderick Russell:

 

is an original and unique form of entertainer. He controls his own mind with such skill that he accomplishes the astonishing while simultaneously influencing the minds of others to create the most powerful and profound types of personal experience.



Known the world over for his unique mind over body stunts such as his world record sword swallowing, he combines his self-knowledge with his understanding of human psychology to deliver sophisticated and artistic presentations unlike any other out there.
 
 

 


 

The above statement is from your website marketing, I would like to use it as our starting point.

 

SW: “An original and unique form of entertainer.”  Could you explain what original and unique mean in relationship to your performances and how your audience reacts to your presentation?

 

RR:  I see how it is.  You actually want me to justify my marketing!  Lucky for me though, the marketing is a result of a long, hard look at how my material plays on the stage, so it comes from a basis of truth.

 

The terms original and unique have been two that have plagued me since my earliest days.  I say plagued, because that’s exactly how it feels.  I have this disorder, a compulsion, to be original.  I suppose to a certain extent many performers do, but it took me an exceptionally long time to come to terms with the fact that even ”standards” become original when spoken through an individual performer’s own voice.

 

Though much of what I do on stage is indeed original to me and my performances, the terms original and unique as they are used here are really intended to transcend the question of choice of material and instead reflect the impact of performance.  Theater can be an enormously transformative experience for both performer and audience.  Done well, a thoroughly seasoned Shakespeare aficionado can walk away from a performance of Hamlet saying “I’ve never seen anything like that before”, despite it being his fortieth viewing.  To put it in sideshow terms, Todd Robbins doing Melvin Burkhart’s blockhead routine – complete and perfect down to the inflection of the voice – is original and unique.  Are they Todd’s words?  No.  Was it Todd’s idea?  No.  Did Todd improve upon the technique in order to be original?  No.  Hell, it’s not even Todd’s nail!  But nobody can deliver it like Todd can.  This comes from strength and conviction of character, from a powerful and impactful stage presence and an authentic attempt to communicate.  Very few people, given the same routine, could make it unique and original.

 

So to answer your question of how the audience reacts to my presentation, when I do my job properly, people often tell me that they’ve never seen anything like it – even when I know they’ve seen the same routine performed by others.  It is my hope that by delivering my material with conviction, I am able to not only entertain, but also to subtly encourage people to go out on a limb, reach for their dreams, foster a healthy skeptical attitude and, my greatest hope, to simply inspire.  Of course, that’s the ideal, and the nature of live performance puts us squarely in front of failure as a possibility.  That’s part of its allure.

 

SW: Are you saying being unique is a matter of taking ownership over the material, and then presenting it in such a way that it becomes and extension of who you are?  Is this what makes it new and original, and if so, how do you accomplish it?

 

RR:  I think that what I’m saying, actually, is that being unique has absolutely nothing to do with the material.  Naturally this view can be taken to the extreme, and I do accept for the fact that we’re all only human.  Frankly, some plots for material are by their nature simply hideous and would take a truly gifted performer to do them justice.  But when it comes down to it, the strength and uniqueness of a performance depends entirely upon the characteristics of the performer, not the material.

 

Consider Stevie Starr, for instance.  Stevie does a regurgitation act.  Regurgitation is, arguably, one of the more unique acts out their today.  I will be the first to admit that I am thoroughly and entirely entertained by Stevie, and I’ll also be the first to tell you that it has nothing to do with the regurgitation.  I feel confident that he could be just as entertaining playing the spoons.  It’s true that I’m amazed at the things he’s able to accomplish regurgitation-wise (did I really just say that?)  but his skill with the physical stunt has nothing to do with his skill as an entertainer.  If he brought his character and off-beat charm to any stunt, he would be successful with it.

 

Likewise, I can’t exactly say that I’m a fan of Michael Jackson or Madonna’s musical oeuvre, but it’s undeniable that they are truly incredible performers and I love watching them.  Why is that so, if I don’t like their material?  Because they exude originality, charisma and a gift for entertainment, that uniqueness of which we speak.

 

You ask if the material is presented as an extension of the entertainer.  This is a pretty accurate description, in fact, and it’s important to bear in mind that the entertainment really begins with the individual on stage.  If you begin with the material and try to infuse it with your personality you’re approaching it backwards – and it’s damn difficult.  You need to discover who you are first, and present that.  That’s what the people come to see.  Not another fire breather or glass eater.  That’s just icing on the proverbial cake.

 

SW: “He controls his own mind with such skill that he accomplishes the astonishing…”, I have heard many performers talk about mind control, what does this statement mean to you and why is mind control important to accomplishing your act?

 

RR:  Mind control in all its manifestations plays a very prominent role in every one of my shows.  On a very basic level, many of the routines that I perform require a great deal of personal discipline and one-pointed focus.  I would venture to say, and this probably goes for a lot of sideshow entertainers as well, that staying calm under pressure – especially as it manifests itself as personal risk – is one of the challenges that I face.  In many of my shows I utilize the subtleties of language and employ mnemonic techniques to create the illusion of miracles.  This too requires an enormous attention to detail, be it attentiveness to the words that I’m using to create an effect or the proper ordering of information in my mind for later retrieval.  And every interactive theater performer knows firsthand the discipline that it takes to run a show – from soup to nuts – while dealing with an interactive audience on-the-fly. 

 

Yet beyond the personal, the term mind control, as insidious as it sounds, applies to the psychology of creating an imaginative experience in the minds of the spectators as well.  This aspect is perhaps the most important one, for if you can’t induce an audience to go – mentally - where you’d like them too, you don’t have a show.  Not a very good one anyhow.  It’s not about what we do on stage, it’s about what the audience experiences in their seats, and that happens entirely in their head.  Stagecraft is not about learning how to walk, talk or move on stage, it’s about how to create beliefs in the minds of an audience.

 

SW: What kind of preparation and precautions do you do before you go on stage?

 

RR:  I make sure that my mic has a fresh battery, props are all in their proper place and that I’m hydrated.

 

Seriously though, speaking to the danger inherent in much of the material that I perform, I used to meditate to quiet myself, assure that I was hydrated (because there’s nothing worse than swallowing a sword when your throat is seized shut due to lack of water), and make sure that anything that I would be sticking in my body was cleaned and disinfected.

 

While learning to swallow swords it was absolutely necessary to stretch and meditate before practicing.  For a couple years after I learned, in fact, swallowing a sword at least once a day was a necessity, and I would take plenty of time not only before a show but also immediately before the swallow itself to quiet my mind. 

 

These days, since I do so many shows, I rarely if ever practice in between, and beyond staying hydrated (which is important for so many other reasons!) and (usually) cleaning my swords, I don’t do anything.  I’m very grateful to have conditioned myself enough such that raising the blade above my head serves as the psychological anchor to put me in that calm place.  If anything, I’m excruciatingly mindful while in the process of performing, but rarely now do I take time before a show.

 

SW: “While simultaneously influencing the minds of others to create the most powerful and profound types of personal experience.”  I have seen many performers on stage.  A good performer draws their audience into the energy of their show.  Is this what you mean by “influencing the minds of others”, and could you explain how this creates a powerful and profound personal experience for your audience?

RR:  You hit the nail right on the head.  A good performer creates an experience for the audience, and as I mentioned above, this experience is the show, not the stunts being performed on stage.  The real question which you hit on here is how do we create a powerful and profound experience?  We do that by drawing the spectator in personally, making what we are doing personally relevant to them as an individual, and by involving them emotionally.  Like any good drama, we appeal to their emotions as well as their intellect and give them a reason to care about what we’re doing.  Once we accomplish that they are no longer passive spectators sitting in their seats, but rather, individuals riding the imaginative roller coaster which you’ve designed for them – and you take them wherever you want to go.  Of course, it’s easiest if they like you first, which many on stage today don’t take the time to see too.

 

SW: What do you mean by “...if they like you first, which many on stage today don’t take the time to see too?”.  Would you explain why it’s important to make that connection with your audience?  How does that connection help your audience to become part of your experience?

 

RR:  Too many people are presenting “stunts” today, and are not entertaining.  I feel that many believe that all they need do after walking on stage is pace back and forth frantically, yell, be “wild” and then stick their hand in an animal trap - and people will scream as if they got the fright of their life.  Then they wonder why they don’t get repeat bookings!  That same performer will find that and audience goes wild when he sticks a lit torch in his mouth – unfortunately not because they think it’s great or amazing or filled with astonishment, but because they are hoping that the performer will burn themselves. 

 

Many don’t take the time to get the audience invested, make them care about what they’re doing.  Properly executed, a simple extinguish of a torch is accompanied by hushed silence by the crowd, and only after the feat do they respond.  What the audience exudes while applauding is an appreciation for beauty, subtlety and the remarkable nature of us as humans.  They appreciate the act in the here and now, and go away remembering it, perhaps even using it as inspiration in their own lives.

 

It’s the difference between seeing a car wreck and Cirque du Soleil.  But even those entertainers who are out for the “shock value” aspect of what their doing still need to give attention to their stagecraft and presentation.  Jabbing needles through your body is not so shocking if you don’t care for the person doing it.  It’s just a disgusting act that you’d rather not see.  On the flip side, one of the simplest stunts in a sideshow entertainers arsenal, the bed of nails, can be presented in such a way that spectators are riveted, completely enthralled with the impossibility of it and frightened to tears that what they are witnessing is truly horrific.  None of it is horrific in and of itself, of course, and there’s no reason to cry when Johnny reclines on the bed of nails, but the spectators can be made to experience and react nevertheless. 

 

Horror is psychological.  Establish rapport with your audience, make them like you and give them a reason to care, touch their emotions and move them personally, and you can create any experience for them you like – more intensely than any mere stunt – not just horror and shock. 

 

SW: “Known the world over for his unique mind over body stunts such as his world-record sword swallowing.”  What other stunts do you include in your act and is the statement “unique mind over body stunts” really what you mean, or is it a practiced skill, or a combination of both?

 

RR:  I could list all of the stunts which I do or have done in the past, but the ones that I most frequently do include the sword swallowing, escape art (most commonly a straight jacket, eighty feet of chain and two padlock escape) fire eating, fire breathing and, during the summer outdoor festival season, I perform and lead firewalks.  I also perform an original variation of a routine that I call the Russian Shell Game.  I’ve performed a lot of stunts throughout the years, but my current set list represents the stunts that are most valuable to me in the widest variety of venues with proven, solid presentations worked out through hundreds of performances.

 

Regarding your distinction between “mind over body” and “practiced skill”, I would argue that effective control of the body via the mind is a practiced skill.  I wish it were a gift that I didn’t have to learn!

 

SW: You’ve performed a lot of stunts throughout the years, but your current set represents the stunts that are most valuable to you in the widest variety of venues. I have heard many performers talk about having different stunts or performances for different audience. Is your set of stunts and the manner in which you present them acceptable for all audiences, and if not, what modifications do you make and for what audiences do you make them?

 

RR:  Well, the stunts I perform most often are chosen also for their convenience and repeatability – though lugging that much chain around can become a major inconvenience.

 

But yes, I perform different routines for different audiences.  Part of being an effective entertainer is first meeting the audience where they are psychologically.  Only then can you lead them to where you want to go. 

 

The inclusion of certain elements of humor is of course a consideration for every show.  A great deal of my material is entirely family appropriate, but some families are more conservative than others.  I feel them out, and adjust on-the-fly.

 

Often in resort, faire or festival shows I will include several routines designed to get children onto the stage.  Parents love to see their children as the center of attention, and during these shows I often intentionally take a step back and let them shine.  In fact, it could be argued (and would be, by me) that you should always let your volunteers shine, be they children or not, and one should never, ever treat them with disrespect. 

 

My theater show and theater audiences are radically different from my festival shows.  I’m controversial, outspoken and step on a lot of people’s views – in a nice, artistic way, as it should be.  Though there’s no “adult” material, it’s certainly not a children’s show, and I’ve eliminated many elements that are designed to appeal to a wide cross-section of the population.  My theater audiences are targeted, and my material reflects that.

 

In a theater environment I take full advantage of lighting and sound, and have accordingly changed the entire style of some of the stunts, such as the sword swallowing.  And in my latest theater show, I don’t do a single escape, which is the first time since introducing escapes that I haven’t included one.

 

SW: “He combines his self-knowledge with his understanding of human psychology to deliver sophisticated and artistic presentations unlike any other out there.”  How does your knowledge of human psychology help in your presentations and how does your act differ from others in the business today?

 

RR:  Psychology does more than help in my show, I’d say.  In fact, it could be argued that the show is the psychology.  If it were not for the innumerable subtleties, I think that all of my material would fall flat.  Watching someone get tied up or draw a picture (for my mentalist friends) really is not all that exciting.  It’s the psychology that creates the investment on the part of the audience, which in turn fuels their involvement and ultimate success of a routine.

 

The question of how my act differs from others in the business today is a very difficult one.  One with which I have struggled for years, in fact.

 

As I mentioned, much of my material is just plain original in its presentation and/or plot.  But then, we also dismissed that as the deciding factor regarding originality.  I also mentioned that I do perform some “standards” as well.  Yet in every case, I would argue that it’s how I perform it that makes it so radically different from others in the business.  And that’s not to say that it’s better than others in the business, only different.  I’ve had to work long and hard to find my own individual style and voice, and that is what comes through on stage.

 

For instance, many sword swallowers – heck, most sword swallowers – have a standard presentation that begins with them standing in front of the crowd verbally building interest in the stunt they are about to perform, after which they swallow the sword - and then proceed to swallow more swords of differing lengths, shapes and numbers.  I don’t condone that, and in fact, perform my own “stand-up” sword swallowing routine as well.  But when I’m performing my theater show, I do no such thing.  I don’t say a single word, in fact, while performing the sword swallow, yet I speak volumes. 

 

My theater routine - entitled Tango in E minor – is exactly that, a tango with the sword.  It starts in silence, proceeds to an instrumental introduction which has me conversing (with my body language mind you, not words) with an unseen partner, picks up on the first note of the melody with a sudden revelation of the sword as my heretofore unseen partner and progresses into a sensual, frightful, erotic and humorous dance which culminates with me fully embracing the sword – by swallowing it.

 

Several years ago I created and toured a theater show in which I did the sword swallow as set to a t’ai chi routine and taiko drumming – complete with very dramatic lighting and an entire storyline, though not one word is ever uttered.  The sword is dramatically revealed - on the first loud drumbeat – suspended in the air.  I am revealed in a squatting position behind the sword on the second drumbeat.  The routine builds from there and is a truly intense, edge-of-your-seat experience which hits you with surprise when you least expect it.

 

These are both very dramatic routines, and both are unique.  It is sword swallowing as presented through my voice which I have personally found on the stage – which ironically is vocally silent in these two examples.

 

It is through presenting my ideas in this way that I believe my work is different than others in the business today.


SW: Now let’s step a few years back in time and learn what is was that influenced you to want to learn the acts. What are your first memories of show business and how did they influence you?

 

RR: Truth be told, it wasn’t until I was a late teenager that I became interested in “show business” at all, and it was for entirely utilitarian reasons.

 

I’ve always been interested in communicating more effectively and more creatively, and it is this interest that drove me to become a musician, fueled my love of literature, led me to teaching and, ultimately, to the stage.

 

We’re all on an enormously wonderful journey, discovering new things all the time and all progressing to a more full understanding of who we are and what our place in this universe is.  It’s my hope that by performing, I can share some of what I’ve learned, pose questions which are intriguing me, and learn from the audience of their own experiences and progress down this path of life.  It’s a cooperative journey.

 

SW: So the teacher is the student and the student becomes the teacher.  What do you gain from your audience as the student and what do you teach your audience as the teacher?

 

RR:  Well, it’s hard to claim what I teach the audience.  I think that it’s different for many people, but it all probably revolves around universal principles of human potential.  I’d hope, however, that I can also present simple beauty and grace in some of my routines – does that teach anything?  But I am quick to point out that, even if one has a certain underlying message that they’d like to communicate, by no means should you beat your audience over the head with it.  If you do that, then you become no better than a caricature of a late-night infomercial.  Instead, if you truly believe and live what you’d like to teach, it will come out naturally, effortlessly and without a “hidden agenda” feel to it.  The people will be seeing you, and that is the message.

 

Then there’s the question about what I learn from the audience.  The real question should be what don’t I learn from the audience?  I learn more and more about myself each time I do a show.  I learn about how my ego works and affects me (perhaps how it doesn’t work).  I learn how to cooperate, negotiate and yes, even coerce.  I learn about what we take for granted and presuppose – and I learn how to exploit it.  What, you thought that it would all be on the up and up?  No, I learn about both the good and the bad.

 

More than anything I’ve learned through speaking and sharing with so many people, is that each and every person, regardless of social, ethnic, racial or any other divisional category, has deeply felt and intense concerns, each person is an individual and people are, on the whole, very decent and kind people.  I often take this view for granted myself, but then occasionally catch myself making pronouncements about this or that group of people – the political right, conservatives, religious fundamentalists – and I have to step back and remember that even those that are part of groups and organizations that I don’t agree with are individuals too.  Oftentimes, and unfortunately, they have radically different priorities when operating as part of the group – but at the core they too are simply human.  I’ve forged profound connections – as a result of my stage work – with people who’s views I radically oppose.  We are nevertheless able to relate and inspire on a fundamental level.  And if nothing else, it’s taught me how to creep inside another person’s head and view the world through their eyes, helping me to understand motivation behind actions and appreciate the world more richly.

 

SW: What was the reaction of your family when they learned about your interest?

 

RR: I left home at a very early age and never really had much of a family.  I’ve always been close with the one sister that I have, though we’ve often gone years without contact, yet despite that she seems proud of the things that I do – and probably gets a kick out of telling her friends that her brother is a sword swallower.

 

The one (non-blood) family that I was fortunate enough in later life to become a part of have always accepted what I do without condition.  They worry for my safety, of course, but know also that I’m as safe as one can be doing what I do.  Let’s just say that, though they didn’t celebrate it, they did trust me enough to drag their children through the coals – literally.

 

SW: Did they try to talk you out of entering the business?

 

RR:  When I made the leap from a secure career with benefits and a steady paycheck into the unpredictable world of full-time entertainment, they had their doubts.  The reservations were entirely in regards to the financial viability of it.  I’m glad to say that they no longer have any reservations – and neither do I!

 

SW: You say you don’t have any reservations.  Do you have any regrets, and if you were to do things again what would you change?

 

RR: I have not a single regret.  Surely, I could have done things better, but as they say about hindsight…  If I were to choose one thing to change regarding the path I took to a career on the stage, I would choose to do it sooner than I did.  I certainly didn’t come to it late in life, but when I consider the creative lifestyle that I lead today, it seems obvious that this is where I am supposed to be.  But then, everything comes in its own time…

 

And a quick note about regrets…  One should never regret, unless it’s regrets about not learning from your mistakes.

 

SW: What were the first stunts you learned and why did you choose them?

 

RR:  The first thing I learned was actually juggling, and that’s what I performed for my first audience as well.  I was constantly seeking to add more and more to the juggling.  More balls, more clubs, more variety, and so on.  I’m sure that anyone who has become obsessed with juggling at any point in their life knows what I’m talking about.

 

But the more, more, more also led to more and more dangerous.  Knives, torches, and then assorted bladed weapons such as sickles, axes and so on.  And then I started doing them blindfolded, on stilts, and on, and on, and on.  It seemed that there was no end.

 

While juggling one time in upstate New York, ironically passing torches with a partner over a “No Smoking” sign at an antique boat museum, the person that I was juggling with taught me how to extinguish a torch in my mouth – in theory at least.  But that one demonstration and academic (rather than practical) education was all that was needed.  Thus was born a new obsession.

 

I devoured everything I could on the topic, read and studied every passing reference in every book I could find, talked with numerous people of varying skill levels and took my first precarious steps into the world of fire manipulation.  I remember well the first time that I tried to extinguish a torch on my own.  I practiced for endless hours just placing the unlit torch in my mouth, trying not to touch any skin, lips or tongue.  When I finally lit the torch for the first time and lowered it towards my mouth, the heat was extremely intense.  I watched the flame closely as I lowered it closer and closer to my mouth.  It disappeared past my nose and the heat was excruciating!  I was convinced that it had gone all the way in my mouth, but not quite brave enough yet to close my mouth around it I pulled it back – very triumphantly – and turned to the person supervising the situation and asked “did it go in?”.  To my dismay I was met with a “no, it was still about two inches away from your mouth”. 

 

Since then my torches have tripled in size, I gratefully slobber fuel and fire all over my skin and - though I have a healthy respect for fire (as all fire performers should!) – perform all manner of manipulations without a second thought as to the intensity of the heat.  It’s amazing how perceptions change with time and experience.

 

Developing almost simultaneously with the obsession with fire, however, was escape. I pursued the usual path of fire – eating to breathing to walking – along with the usual path of escape – ropes, chains, locks, cuffs, jackets and so on.  I would spend endless hours picking locks, and trips to the hardware store with my friends became a special delight, because I’d always bring home one of every type of lock they had in stock.

 

Sword swallowing, though arguably my signature act, came later in the process once I began performing more regularly and started putting together a stage show that really embodied my thoughts and ideas.  Unlike many of the other stunts that I do – which resulted from logical progression and subsequent obsession with the topic – the pursuit of sword swallowing was a very conscious decision and represents by far the most prolonged, studious and intense learning process.  In contrast to the other stunts, which I enjoyed learning, sword swallowing was uncomfortable each and every single day and never once did I enjoy the training process.  I was obsessed with the idea much more than the actual physical act, but that was more than enough to drive me to achieve success.

 

SW: You have learned much in your career, what would you recommend to a person thinking about learning the acts?  What is the safest and best way to go about learning and what are the consequences and long-term effects on your/their health?

 

RR:  I suspect that my sentiments would echo many others out there; learn from an experienced professional in a hands-on environment.  Supplement that training with the most thorough research you’ve ever done.  Pursue it for the right reason (and know your reasons!).  Risking your life to breath fire or swallow a sword is an exceptionally ridiculous way to discover that all you need is a little attention.  Beyond all else, remain mindful and safe. 

 

You ask about the long term effects on health, and this is a very serious consideration.  I use many toxic chemicals in my fire routines, and I often ingest a large volume of them.  What people don’t see is all the work that goes into protecting my body prior to the show – and I suppose that I didn’t mention this when considering the question you asked about the immediate pre-show preparations, because it extends into my daily life.  I take care of my body.  I make sure that it is healthy and functioning in top form.  And when I drink those chemical concoctions, I do all I can to assure that I absorb as little of them as possible.  This is probably getting more personal than you had hoped, but post-show, I make sure that the chemicals leave my body as quickly and effortlessly as possible as well.  Yet none of this is assurance against danger, and that’s the kicker.  You can do everything you possibly can to protect yourself, but when it comes down to it, at the end of the day you’re still swigging a carcinogenic chemical cocktail.  Imagine the possibilities if you add to that a disrespect for your body!

 

As soon as these dangerous stunts become your full-time profession, the variables change.  It’s suddenly no longer about how big of a fireball you can blow or how many “tricks” you can do with the fire, but what you can afford to do for the show and the audience over the long-term while minimizing chemical burn, limiting your ingestion and remaining safe today.  When you’re an amateur you can afford to do more wild things, because you’re not doing them twenty times a day every day.  Your priorities change when you become a professional, and for some people, their ego can’t handle it and they then find themselves in the emergency room. 

 

All this talk is of course of only one stunt as well!  The dangers extend far beyond the long-term chemical dangers.  In fact, fire performing is one of the fastest and surest ways to injure yourself.  Unfortunately, because it doesn’t seem like rocket science, it’s extremely accessible for people to try without proper instruction.  That’s why there are so very many injuries in the field.  It’s a result of unmindful amateurs seeking to do something “cool” to impress their girlfriends – they abandon reason, common sense and reality, and find themselves crashing back into it very hard.  I know firsthand (and foot, and mouth, and arms!) that burns are not fun.

 

Other stunts, such as sword swallowing, are thankfully less accessible to amateurs.  It takes dedicated daily practice and years of intentionally inducing discomfort, which just isn’t a formula for stupid people injuring themselves.  Most wouldn’t put that much effort into it.  Still though, there are those…

 

SW: Where did you start performing?  Was it for your family, friends, school?  How was it received and was it a driving factor in you becoming a professional?

 

RR:  I began performing the stunts for close friends.  They were exceptionally supportive, and I would take every opportunity to try new material and techniques.  If it were not for friends and the endless hours that they spent tying me up, I’m certain that I wouldn’t be performing today.

 

My first show was a charity event, before I had even considered performing at all.  I juggled for recreational purposes, but when a group organizing a local charity event heard that I was a good juggler, they asked me to do a show.  I put a little something together, and immediately caught the performing bug.  It was at that moment, with all of the questions that followed the show, that I realized that performing represented an unparalleled opportunity to communicate ideas. 

 

I seized the opportunity to perform at a few more small venues and events, free of charge, to help me decide whether or not what I was experiencing was repeatable and personally worthwhile, and it was the continued success of performing that led me to the pursuit of better material, better presentation and better venues – and a paycheck.

 

My first official show as a paid performer was a corporate event for Inc. Magazine.  Though I’d never been so nervous in my life, it was an exhilarating experience and I felt as if I’d found my home.  That, and the paycheck was nice.  Following that I did more and more corporate events and started doing private high schools.  It wasn’t long before I realized that I could make this my full-time profession.

 

SW: Speaking of charitable events, I’ve heard from a lot of performers that they are asked to perform for free or for “the experience” at these events.  And if it’s the media (television, documentaries, etc.) they are told it’s for the “exposure”.  What has your experience been and how have you handled promoters and the media?

 

RR:  When you’re first starting out as a performer, you should certainly perform wherever you can.  It’s not about a paycheck, it about experience.  And it’s also not about exposure.  When you’re starting out, exposure is the last thing that you want!  You want experience and a place to be bad.  We all need a place to be bad, and it’s best if it’s not in the wider public’s eye.

 

But as you progress and begin to perform for a living, you naturally can’t afford to do very many “free” or “charity” shows.  There’s something to be said for donating to a charity, and in that sense, if there is a charity that you genuinely believe in and would like to donate to, go for it - it’s your donation.  But don’t do it for any other reason - not exposure, not publicity, not experience.

 

If I do a charity show today, I get paid.  Sometimes I’ll discount my fee a bit, but I still make sure that it’s absolutely worth my while.  But I do go out of my way to help them find creative ways of raising the money to pay for me.  Ticket sales, sponsorships, raffles and so on.  I’ll even sit for a limited number of media interviews to help garner support for the charity.  But I’d never do it without a guaranteed fee.  It’s business.  They are paying me a fee to attract attention and provide entertainment that will result in raising even more money.  It’s business for them too.

 

SW: A lot of performers start by performing clubs, on the street and at Renaissance faires. Have any of these venues been a part of your experience and how do the audiences differ?

 

RR:  I can’t offer up any insight into the club and street scenes, as I must confess I’ve never done them, but I am a regular at Renaissance faires.  You mention that a lot of performers start by working these events, but with me it’s been quite the opposite.

 

When I was younger I had always loved events like Renaissance faires and was an avid “gamer” – Dungeons & Dragons primarily.  I believe that a stage performer needs to have a very vivid and active imagination, and this has always been true of myself.  Couple this love of fantasy worlds and Renaissance history with the ability to deliver a stage show, and there you’ll find a Renaissance faire entertainer.

 

After a few years of performing full-time I discovered that, though I was finding financial security in my new profession, I did have a large chunk of time during the summer that was largely empty.  The college, theater and corporate performing seasons run primarily from the fall through the spring and keep me active during that time.  But I discovered that I really don’t like going very long without performing, and so I looked into the possibility of performing at Renaissance faires.  Though I would be presenting shows that were the polar opposite of my theater shows, dressing up, playing a character, camping and having fun with thousands of people every day – all while getting paid – seemed like a fun, almost vacation-like way to spend my summers.  I took the plunge.

 

The Renaissance shows really are an entirely different animal from my normal work, but the psychology and stagecraft translates nicely.  And where the conditions force me to change the style of stagecraft, I do so with delight, learning and growing all the while.

 

My biggest concern was that, in a faire or festival environment, I’d naturally have to let go of a lot of the stylistic choices that make my work what it is and resort instead to down and dirty tactics to get the crowd, keep them riveted and show them a good time.  I really felt that I’d be performing for the “masses”, and that means not only the good crowds, but also the really bad ones.  My biggest fear was that I would find myself catering to such a wide variety of people within a show format that does not allow for much development, that my own thoughts and subtleties – what makes my art mine – would be lost.  For better or for worse – and sideshow veterans know this all too well – you really have to be a salesman in these environments, and there is a decidedly MTV-like mentality amongst the crowd – a desire on their part to be entertained, have no demands placed upon them and have continuously rolling stimulation.  I feared the loss of my self amidst the entertainment.  But what I’ve discovered has delighted me endlessly, and the truth is much more different than what one would expect.

 

You see, we do all have a much more limited attention span these days – and perhaps not only these days, perhaps it’s been with us all along – and you do have to impress them quickly, hook them, if you will.  But if you hook them, drag them into your magical world of wonder where you are constructing a personal experience for each and every spectator, and you establish your character strongly enough such that they like you, trust you and you seem open and honest, but with a little something extra being held back to make them intrigued and keep them curious, you can have all the suspense, all the riveting silence, all the drama you want – even in a five minute show.  So you see, even though the routines are different, the stunts play out in a radically different way and I have twenty five minutes rather than ninety, it’s still possible to create that transformative experience for each and every spectator.  It matters not if I’m “sophisticated” and “intelligent” or “folksy” and “down-to-earth”, the result is the same, and it comes through the power of conviction and authentic performance.

 

But the proof is in the pudding.  After each show at the Renaissance faires I am swamped with people saying “I’ve never seen anything like that before”, despite the fact that they saw another entertainer do a version of it on another stage an hour earlier.  And the questions after each show often keep me busy until the next, for everyone wants to talk about what I did, why I did it and, most importantly, what it means for them in their lives.  While at these events I hear story after story from spectators of personal triumph, hardships, experiences along the road of life, questions of an oftentimes profound nature and the drives and motivations of each and every person who speaks to me.  It’s truly inspiring to know that I’ve touched people in this way, touched them so much that they want to share, to learn and to not only take away something from the show, but give something back to me as an individual, for sharing so deeply with them.  I grow with every person that I speak to.

 

Notably absent from all questions is any mention of how.  Sure, some people have questions regarding the mechanics of sword swallowing, for it’s certainly an intriguing subject, but never do they care how I create the magic that they experience.  Only that I did.  That is very telling.

 

So in sum, do the audiences differ?  Sure.  Different sorts of people go to different sorts of events, and are drawn towards different types of entertainment.  I’ve had to radically alter my shows to fit audience style, theme format and time constraints.  But if I do my job properly, the outcome is the same.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that this surprised me.  Delightfully so!  And now I look forward to my summer vacations wearing Renaissance clothing.

 

SW: What provides you with the biggest challenges?  Why and what are they, regarding both safety and performance?

 

RR:  Regarding safety, it’s all a challenge.  Every time that I step on stage and raise a sword above my head – tip in my mouth ready to go down my throat – it’s a challenge.  It’s an act of extreme mindfulness, and it’s tempting to let the mind wander.  It absolutely can not, and it’s sometimes challenging.

 

It’s also tempting to continually give the audience more and more.  It’s not necessary.  The overriding point I think that I’ve driven home is that it’s not about the stunt, but the performance.  But when you do these acts day in and day out, you sometimes become a bit jaded about the stunts – it becomes easy to forget that they are less important than how you present them.  At that point, the stunt becomes old and tired and you begin feeling as if you should make it just a little more dangerous, for the crowd.  When you step back and reassess, you realize that it’s not for the crowd at all – they are as happy as can be – it’s for the performer, and for all the wrong reasons.  I often push the envelope in my show, but continually remind myself to step back and question why exactly I’m doing so.  If I can’t achieve that objective witness state, or if I realize that I’m doing it only for me (and for all the wrong reasons), then I’ll tone things down.

 

We can continue along this theme into the performance challenges as well, for there is always the question of why I’m doing it.  You bet I do it for me!  But, for me, I also want to have a good show, and a good show depends not only on how I feel about it, but most importantly how it is received.

 

Success on the stage is defined by many variables, and which ones are most important to me may shift slightly day-to-day, depending upon my mood.  But there is one overriding difference between a stage performance and a static work of art – it’s interactive of course.  My theater shows tend to reach a middle ground between static work and interactive performance.  Some people may not like Rembrandt, that is, he may not appeal to them personally due to style or interest.  But none would dispute the greatness of his art, even if they don’t personally care for it.  I’ve intentionally created some great, pseudo-static pieces that may not be liked for the same reasons, but none would dispute that it’s good art, and those stage pieces are not necessarily about how they are “received”, as the composition of the audience changes (though truth be told, that’s why I do those pieces in the theater – the crowd is already mostly in my camp).  But the non-static performance pieces, the pieces that live and breath and find their life in the interplay between audience and performer – which is the majority of my theater work and the entirety of every other show that I present – finds its success in the response of the crowd.  One of the largest challenges, but also most interesting and engaging challenges, is learning how to push and pull, tweak, change and subtly (or overtly!) change the show entirely on-the-fly to meet the demands of an audience.  Challenging, yes, but extremely rewarding as well.

 

SW: You mention that sword swallowing, out of all the acts you do, defines you. Why do you feel that way?


RR:  I didn’t say that!  I said that it’s arguably my signature act!  I’m defining it as I explore its presentational possibilities!

 

Seriously though, all humorous nit-picking aside, I do have a very special affinity and relationship with sword swallowing.

 

Sword swallowing is the epitome of extreme acts.  It’s difficult, dangerous and practiced by very few.  I am very proud to be among the small number who present this feat. 

 

I’ve spent years perfecting this art, and have endured countless hours of physical discomfort and inner exploration – both physical and spiritual – to be able to present this.  To say that I have an intimate connection with the blades that I swallow is an understatement.  They are the implements by which I risk my life every time I perform, and I have a profound respect for them.

 

On the surface, sword swallowing is a grotesque art.  It’s a horrific display that makes people want to look away while simultaneously feeling compelled to watch.  Some go so far as to question the authenticity of it, to allay their own discomfort with the thought of its possibility.  It is a feat which puts us all, performer and audience alike, face-to-face with our deepest, most profound fear.  The blade pushes into the unknown, past and in some cases against the very engine of life – our heart.  Its effects on this central organ are unknown.  Can the performer safely negotiate his way past the obstacles of life – and what a curious way to put it - , or will he rupture and destroy the delicate membrane which separates life and death?  Symbolically, it pierces the veil of our unknown inner self, forcing us to confront that which we like to keep buried, hidden and forgotten inside.

 

It is this fear which pushes me to explore the presentational aspects of the art.  Each time I perform this dangerous feat, I am myself placed squarely in front of my fear – and if a performer tells you that he doesn’t experience it, then he should not be performing it.  It is a sobering experience, and profound in its simplicity.

 

My decidedly new and innovative presentations of the art are my attempt to explore, interpret and share with my audience the deepest, most universal thoughts, feelings and concerns that we all face.  But more than exploring only the dark, disturbing side, I attempt to bring to the fore the empowering aspects of the art.  I take this concept of fear that is at the heart of the art form – which is at the heart of so much – and show how it can be transformed, folded-in upon itself into the whole gamut of emotions and experiences – from love to hate, war to peace, humor to the utmost of seriousness.   When I swallow a sword, I’m not performing a stunt, I’m interpreting life.

 

So perhaps it’s my signature act because the entirety of my performance, of my and our lives, is being summed up in one simple, double-edged moment of rapture.

 

SW: You said earlier that sword swallowing was not easy or pleasant to learn, but you pursued it anyway.  I think that I can now see why you did.  You have found a lot more in it than the idea of simply swallowing a sword.

 

RR:  Exactly.  It’s a powerful metaphor for a lot in life, and it is this that I like to explore.  Even more than that, executing an act of such danger with grace and beauty, transforming it into something entirely unlike the simply grotesque forms that it usually takes on, forces me into a state of moving meditation.  I face an untold number of fears while performing these routines, the least of which, ironically enough, is the swallowing of the sword.  It’s a true exercise in letting go and simply being in the moment.

 

I should mention that, though I talk about lifting the art out of the “simply grotesque”, my presentations are not all “happy and carefree” either.  By no means!  In fact, they are all eerily sinister in their beauty.  I suspect that they will never shake that feeling and the call back to grotesque – that bizarre undercurrent – but that’s just because of my personality, not because it’s impossible.

 

SW: Let’s talk about sword swallowing specifics.  You mention that there are not that many people performing as sword swallowers today.  Realistically, how many are there?

 

RR: I typically say that there are less than fifty people performing as sword swallowers in the entire world, but the truth is that after the last official count – performed by the Sword Swallowers’ Association International – there is actually fewer than forty people – in the entire world!

 

The roster of living sword swallowers hovers around seventy to seventy five worldwide, but that includes very old-time sideshow performers who can perform the feat but are retired, as well as others who have done it but due to unfortunate accidents or other health concerns have stopped actively performing it.  Even so, seventy five worldwide is an exceptionally small number, but less than forty of us are actively performing the feat today.

 

SW: That’s an amazingly small number! 

 

RR: It is, but it makes getting together easy.

 

SW: Getting back into the specifics again, how long did it take you to learn?

 

RR: I did an enormous amount of research prior to starting, which is absolutely essential in all the feats that I perform.  Even though I perform some of the most dangerous feats possible, I also insist on doing them as safely as possible.  The research alone before even picking up a sword went on for months and months.

 

Actual practice with the blade consisted of daily practice, three times a day for well over a year before I was able to swallow my first blade to the hilt.  And even then, the blade was only twelve inches in length, which doesn’t even officially qualify as a sword.  It was several months of continued daily practice beyond that point until I was able to consistently swallow the longer blades.  So all told, the entire process from conception to full sword swallow took perhaps two years.  Working with the blade itself took perhaps a year and a half.

 

SW: Do you still have to practice that much?

 

RR: For years I would make sure that I swallowed a sword at least once a day.  Oddly enough it became part of my bedtime ritual.  I’d swallow one just before going to bed.  But now, due to the number of years I’ve been doing it and the number of shows that I do, I usually don’t swallow them at all between shows.  I perform upwards of two hundred or more shows per year, so the continual performing keeps me in practice.

 

SW: How long are your swords?

 

RR: I use many swords of many different lengths, but the ones that I swallow most often range in size from twenty to twenty four inches.  The only time I swallow smaller blades is if I’m doing a multiple sword swallow routine – which isn’t often.  Typically the only time that I swallow longer is for special occasions such as film and television work.  Truth be told, twenty inches is plenty visual enough for stage work and it’s very comfortable for those times when I’m doing a lot of back-to-back shows.

 

SW: I’ve seen many of the sword swallowers performing today and I can’t help but notice that your swords are pretty big compared to most, and exceptionally wide as well.

 

RR: It’s true.  And my swords range in width from one to one and a half inches.  But the reason that I don’t swallow smaller swords is kind of funny.  It’s not because I have anything to prove – though the bigger they are the more visible on stage they are – it’s just that swallowing the smaller swords, and especially thinner swords, is difficult for me.  They actually tickle, which makes me want to cough.  It’s not that way with everyone.

 

SW: Speaking of coughing, tell us about the gag reflex.  Do you have one?

 

RR: Absolutely!  In fact, I often gag when I brush my teeth at night!  I actually have a very well-developed gag reflex, but as you know, that’s not compatible with swallowing swords.  A good portion of the time spent learning was spent in serious concentration and meditation learning to mentally suppress that reflex.  It’s not that I don’t have one but rather, when the sword is raised above my head I am instantly able to put myself into a self-hypnotic state where nothing exists but me, the sword and my throat.  Through extreme concentration I am able to control whether I gag or not.

 

SW: Are you aware of the people around you then?

 

RR: Extremely!  I’d venture to say that I’m in fact hyper-aware.  But I am so extremely focused on the task at hand, that a bomb could go off next to me and I wouldn’t flinch.  I can’t, else I’d be in serious danger!  Instead, I’d calmly have to remove the sword and only then react to the situation.  That’s why flashes of cameras and applause do not bother me, though I’m aware of them.  I should mention that this is NOT an invitation to test my ability to remain calm!  Sword swallowing is an extremely life threatening activity and I ask that every audience member stay put, do not approach the stage, do not throw anything and do not, under any circumstances, touch me while I’m doing it.

 

SW: Have you ever been hurt and if so, what happened?

 

RR: Once, and it was my own fault.  I had swallowed a particular new sword far too many times and didn’t pay attention to the increasing difficulty of doing so.  I was wearing the lining of my throat thin by swallow the blade so often and didn’t give attention to the signs.  Eventually, I wore two tracks through my throat – holes if you will – straight down the sides of my esophagus to the level of my collarbone.  The scary thing is that I didn’t know about it until hours after it happened.  In fact, I had a wonderful evening filled with good friends, good food and movies.  I spent the entire evening having a good time as if everything was perfectly normal; all the while I had a hole in my throat.  It wasn’t until I brushed my teeth before bed, spit into the sink and discovered that it was all blood that I realized there was a problem.  The next day I couldn’t swallow at all, and I was confined to a liquid diet and extremely strong antibiotics for a long time.  It was several months before I swallowed another sword.  There’s no surgery that can help an injury like that.

 

SW: What have you learned from that experience and how has it changed your approach to the acts?


RR:  I often say that I have hurt myself seriously once and only once with each and every stunt that I perform.  Though the learning phase of any new stunt leaves a student extremely vulnerable to injury, it’s oddly never been during this period, but rather after I’ve been performing a stunt for some time, have gained proficiency and brought it to the stage that I then injure myself.  I attribute this to the comfort that develops after performing a stunt often enough.  It leads to a certain cockiness and brashness that inevitably leads to injury.  I become too comfortable with the routine, become less mindful and end up injuring myself.  What I have learned is to consistently maintain mindfulness, always treat the stunt as if it’s the first time you’ve performed it, and never become indifferent to the danger – regardless of how comfortable with it you are.

 

SW: I have asked this question to many performers and always receive the same answer - “don’t get into the business.”  If we all listened to those words there wouldn’t be even forty sword swallowers in the world today, so what advice would you give to an up-and-comer?


RR:  These arts are for the serious minded.  Unless you have a genuine drive to become a stage performer – and give it all you’ve got in the process – then don’t even consider trying any of this.  Out of respect for the art, for those practicing it and for your own self, stay away and do not dilute the field with your amateur experiments.  In many fields, it is dedicated amateurs that drive innovation and evolution.  It’s not so with these performance arts, and in fact is quite the opposite.  This isn’t ham radio, people!  Amateurs in this field lower the value of the art by performing it poorly and are largely responsible for the high incidence of accidents, which often involve not only themselves but also unwitting audience members and venues.  The only time that I would condone an amateur with no serious professional dreams experimenting in this arena is in the case of serious self-exploration, which should nevertheless remain a hands-on learning experience and must never be performed in front of an audience.  If I ever hear anyone bragging that they swallow swords and they are not a performing professional, then they are dumb.

 

So to sum up the point – don’t do it unless you’re serious.  And if you do ultimately want to be on stage, there are a million other things – even within the same industry – that you can perform first to gain stage experience.  Start with those things.

 

I’ve worked myself to the bone and risked my life to become a sword swallower.  In my opinion, the fewer sword swallowers in the world the better.  But I’m not going to tell anyone to stay out of the industry, whether they choose sword swallowing or any of the other arts (but let me give you a hint:  the other arts are easier, choose those!).  But I really can’t stress enough to people out there who want to take to the stage:  make for damn sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons, and please, for the sake of everyone, elevate the art, don’t drag it down.  If I see another cocky kid jumping on stage and making a fool of himself while jamming a nail up his nose to get attention, I will gladly hammer the nail in for him.  He won’t want to do it again.  Unfortunately, each time that happens the literal nail represents yet another metaphoric nail in the coffin of our industry, nails that professional performers have to work double-time to pry back out.

 

If you do it, do it well – else get off the stage.

 

SW: Where would you suggest a person start and what would be the best and safest way to learn the?

 

RR:  Oh, now you want practical advice, eh?  Starting with inner soul searching wasn’t enough?

 

I suppose that in light of my “…else get off the stage” comment, I should clarify things a bit.

 

I said earlier that we all need a place to be bad.  This is equally as important decades into a career as it is at the beginning.  Artists are always evolving and even a seasoned professional needs some place to try out new material.  An amateur looking to gain experience and become professional needs the stage time even more.  But the catch-22 in what I stated above is probably obvious: if you’re not good, you need to be on stage practicing, but if you’re on stage not being good, you should get off.  How then do you become better?

 

There are plenty of venues and opportunities to be bad and gain experience.  Local venues that are away from the media.  Some charity events and most private events.  Even clubs.  Work them.  Learn your craft.  Even if you are good, it would be hard to be noticed in these places, so you don’t need to worry about ruining a reputation.  Moreover, if you’re just starting you don’t have one yet. 

 

The problem with today’s world is that we can, with a minimum of effort, broadcast our activities to the world instantly.  With a minimum of know-how, we can create world-class marketing material and sell our show with it.  On the strength of a well-edited video and professional-looking print material, we can sell ourselves to bigger clients where there will be a media spotlight and national attention.  But don’t let the fact that you can create this material and convince someone to buy your show fool you into thinking that your show is ready for it.  Stay small, stay local and don’t attract undue attention until you’re certain that you have gained experience and have solid material.  As tempting and lucrative as some of these contracts may sound, don’t take it before you’re ready lest you embarrass yourself, reflect poorly on the industry and potentially damage your reputation before you have one.

 

But enough of that, let’s get back to the question. 

 

The safest way to learn is always hands-on and should always be accompanied by enormous amounts of research.  Where should someone start?  Well, develop a relationship with a professional.  I can’t tell you how or where to go about that, as it’s a highly personal thing, but a relationship needs to be there.  If someone contacts me out of the blue looking to learn a stunt – and this is true of most in the industry – I won’t give you the time of day.  Get out there and perform – anything.  Remember, the art is in the performance, not the stunt.  So put together an act that is safe, repeatable and can get you experience.  By the time that you’ve learned enough to move forward, you’ll have undoubtedly developed some relationships with professionals – you’re performing after all, so we’re bound to run into each other!  Maybe then we can talk.

 

SW: I have heard it said by many Carnival Managers and Fair Board Members that sideshows and sideshow stunts are no longer in vogue and they don’t want them on their midways or in their shows. Where do you see the industry going in the next few years and how do you plan on keep up with the trends?

 

RR:  I entirely believe that event managers are, as you say, pushing sideshow away.  But then, isn’t that why we call is sideshow?

 

Sideshow stunts and stunt shows in general are absolutely not out of vogue.  And even if they were, they could be presented in new ways so as to remain in vogue.  Too many are obsessed with the idea of remaining “true” to the historic sideshow – all the while presenting their material in historically inauthentic ways!  Sideshow is an art and art evolves.  Entertainment changes with the times.  As much as I too am in love with the romantic vision of old-time sideshow, the truth is that it can change radically and be presented in new ways for a new world and still be sideshow art.

 

Some of my own markets are actually perfect for sideshow, and I don’t anticipate that changing for a long, long time.  Renaissance faires and the college circuit are especially open to it, and those two circuits alone could sustain a large number of performers and troupes.  It just so happens that to be successful in those markets, you really have to work hard, so hopefully that would weed out the bad shows.

 

Though I certainly don’t want others moving into the market with me, theater has enormous potential.  But then, I don’t know why anyone would want to be there…  Yeah, on second thought, it’s not all that great…  Best to stay away…

 

Seriously though, sideshow can play anywhere and be met with extraordinary success.  Yes, some venues will be more difficult than others – and I myself often avoid certain venues.  But when it comes down to it, if you have a good show, you have a good show.  And if you’re a good entertainer, you can play anywhere.

 

One of the biggest obstacles facing solo performers and troupes today is the fact that many are poor business people.  You’ve heard it said that there’s a reason that it’s called show business.  And I’ll be honest with you, I’ve seen some of the marketing of folks out there and the content of their shows, and it’s not uncommon for them to portray themselves inappropriately for the venues they are trying to book.  They create material that appeals to only a highly unusual minority and are surprised when they don’t get booked.  If your show only appeals to a select few then you won’t be able to attract a crowd and the venue isn’t going to bring in the money they need to stay afloat.  End result?  You don’t get hired.  Even if the owner of the club loves your stuff, if you can’t draw a crowd, you won’t get booked.

 

If the industry takes a serious look at how their material is not only presented (which is step one!) but also at how it is represented, there will be no end to the work available, in all venues.  What’s holding the industry back is not the consuming public, but the very people trying to push it forward.  Especially the newest entertainers, who have many mistaken assumptions.

 

SW: Do you think it will create more competition and less chance for young people to enter the industry and why? 

 

RR:  I certainly think that with better acts and more venues booking good material there will be more competition.  But that only helps to improve the overall quality of shows and their performers!  There’s no obstacle for young people. 

 

SW:  Even now there are not a lot of professionals that will teach the skills and there is also a caution and unwillingness to share routes and gig dates because of the feeling that they might lose a gig or be undercut for a performance.  Have you ever had the experience of being undercut, (you know a lot of people think a Sword Swallower is just a Sword Swallower) has this hurt you and what impact has it had on the overall industry?

 

RR:  Certainly I’ve been undercut.  But frankly, for those events that are looking for a bargain price, I’m not the right entertainer anyway.  I am very upfront about being expensive, and why.  And there’s so much work out there that, if one event doesn’t work out, there will be others to take its place.  I stopped worrying a long time ago.

 

But since you mentioned that some people think that a “sword swallower is just a sword swallower” (which is true), I have to call back to some of my previous statements and reiterate that I’m not marketing a “sword swallower”.  I may use it as a hook, certainly.  But what I am marketing is me.  When people hire me, they are not getting a “sword swallower”, they are getting Roderick Russell.  And I’m not being big-headed here; it’s really about the person.  I don’t watch Woody Allen for the jokes, I watch Woody Allen for Woody Allen.  He could be telling someone else’s bad jokes, but by virtue of the fact that he’s Woody Allen, he’d make them funny.  It’s him as a character that I want to see, not the material – original, stock or otherwise.  Give a dinner menu to George W. Bush and one to John Kerry and ask them both to read it aloud.  The material is the same – and not all that interesting.  Which would you rather see?  Why?

 

SW: We have explored you, the act, the sword and the audience.  How do each influence and contribute to who you are as a performer and how does this relate to your performance?


RR: It’s all one vast circle of learning that’s constantly going ‘round and ‘round.  Or perhaps I should refer to it as a wheel, for occasionally the learning process is difficult and I feel as if I’ve been run over.  But life continues, I learn from my audience, they inform my performance, my performance informs me and I feed that right back into the cycle.  One doesn’t work without the other, and art isn’t created in isolation (that’s a whole essay in and of itself). 

 

I’ve tried to take one or another element out of the equation and it’s extremely difficult.  This past year I spent close to six months working on an artistic grant.  As a result of that, I trimmed back my performing schedule and instead spent an enormous amount of time at home and in local café’s writing and considering new material.  With six months of uninterrupted time before the first preview performance, I had a lot of time to not test my material on an audience.  The end product turned out fantastic, but what I took six months to accomplish could have been done much more quickly if I had an audience there regularly throughout the process.

 

SW: What other words of wisdom and encouragement do you have?

 

RR: For the performers out there – worry less about what you’re doing and more about how you’re doing it.  And be proud that you’re the ones keeping the magic and mystery alive for the world – it’s a monumental responsibility, and an honor.

 

SW: Is there anything else you want to share or anyone you would like to thank?

RR:  People to thank?  Oh gosh, there are so many!  Let’s keep it limited to the context of the interview for the sake of brevity (is that possible?).

 

I’d like to thank you, John Robinson and Sideshow World, for this wonderful opportunity.  My fiancé Toni-Lee Sangastiano for putting up with, well, everything!  I’d like to thank the sideshow community, without whom we’d have no reason for speaking.  I can’t speak highly enough of the family-like quality of the industry, and I’m proud to be a part of it and have such incredible brothers and sisters.  Finally, I think we should all thank the audience, the reason we’re doing it all. 

 

 Interview by John Robinson

 


Link


Title Image and Other Original Artwork

 

Artist: Toni-Lee Sangastiano

 

Roderick Russell Sword Swallower
Oil on Wood, 3ft x 4ft

© 2002

 

Triptych
Oil on Canvas

 30in. x 108in.
© 2003

 

Reflection

Oil on Wood, 16in x 20in

© 2002

 

Roderick Russell - Master of Mind & Body
Banner Commissioned for ' Tranceformations'

a two-man theater show starring

Roderick Russell and Steve Taubman
5ft x 7ft
 


 

Photographs

 

Roderick Russell

Private Thoughts and Other Lies

 

Roderdick Russell

On stage in command of his audience

 

Meeting Members of his Audience

Roderick shakes hands with young man on stage,

 

Firewalk across burning embers and fire at the Phoenix Roost Tavern Beltaine Feast.
Just as coals in a campfire look white during the day while the fire is burning,
the coals here, in the presence of the fire and flash, do not show their beautiful
radiance. However, the bed of raked out coals is extremely beautiful to behold at
night, and the vast enveloping cloak of heat that it emits is powerful beyond compare

 

Courting Sword on Stage

Roderick Russell on Stage work with his Sword

 

Roderick Performs

A juggling routine at a medieval event very early in his career

 

Roderick Carder-Russell
Extinguishing a torch in his mouth

Hey, man, got a light?

 

Straightjacket Escape

 2004 show at the Mass College of Art

 

Roderick Russell Frontal Chest XRay while Sword Swallowing
Photo first published in Maxim Magazine
Photo: Ellison Badger
 


Sword Swallowing
Roderick Russell swallows 26 inches of steel at the VT Renaissance Festival

Image courtesy of Eric Tetreault and the Connecticut Renaissance Faire

 

Roderick Russell Blowing Fireball

Courtesy of Eric Tetreault and the Connecticut Renaissance Faire

 

Double Fireball
Roderick Russell and Glenn Crawford blow a very large double fireball

 

Roderick Russell and Toni-Lee Sangastiano

at the White Box Annex in NYC during her 2004 MFA show

 

 

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.

 

Featured Interviews

 

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