Advice for the Up and Coming 


by Harley Newman

In the good old days, the ones we keep hearing about, it only rained so we could tell stories about it.  The lot was always green and even.  The sky was always blue, even at night.  Nobody got too cold, too hot, or sunburned.  There were so many people in the midway, and every one of them just HAD to see your show.  They all stuffed money into your hands, and ran into the tent, not even waiting to get change!

But unless you were a prodigy of nature, it wasn't possible to just walk into a sideshow, and expect to be hired.

You might get hired, yes, but not for anything that required any great skill.  (Ladies and Gentlemen, here's where you'll see The Fakir...the Man Who Reclines on the Bed of Pain, Completely Impervious to a Thousand Sharp Nails!)

Then somebody would take you to the bed, and tell you how to lie down on it, maybe even show you.  And that'd be your act, with maybe ten minutes of training.

You'd be at the bottom of the ladder socially, and in terms of pay.  You'd be even farther down than the magician.  And since you did the act bareback, you hardly needed any costume, which saved money.  You could use an old shirt for a turban.

But it was a job. You'd be around other performers, and after a while, if they liked you, and liked your attitude, they might just teach you something new.  Sometimes you had to pay them, but they'd teach you.

You'd be off on a grand adventure, sometimes learning new acts, sometimes getting to put them on stage.  Hopefully it increased your value...the moreacts you knew, the more money you made.  After all, it's a show, but it's still business.

And you got a lot of practice...12 hours a day or more, in some places, of going onstage a few times an hour to amaze those gaping spectators with something they'd never seen before, and could barely imagine.

The good old days are gone.  Those shows are gone.  It rains a lot more.  Thanks to air pollution, things are warming up and we get more sunburned.  The show lots are full of folks who saw a weird dude do something cool on that Ripley show on TV, the other night, what was the channel?  The show lots are run by people who'd rather sell rides.

This creates a series of problems for those of us who continue to perform traditional stunts, and those who'd like to learn.  The on-the-job training, has all but disappeared.


Life's changed. Now we have the Worldwide Web.  Just do a search, and you can have more information at your fingertips in five minutes, than most people had available, a hundred years ago, for their whole lives.

Most of us, who read this, live in a place where a nominal form of democracy exists. One person, one vote (no money changing hands).  Information is supposed to be available, for the asking, so that we can
make informed choices.

Here's a rule for stunts:  WRITTEN INFORMATION, IS NOT ENOUGH!

I'm told that I'm an expert, whatever that is.  I make a living from performance, and I'm good at it.  I tend to push some of the stunts farther than my predecessors, and quite a few other performers have seen enough value in my innovations, that I'm frequently copied.

I learned the basics from other performers, NOT from books.  This enabled me to work with master performers, so that they could help me get past some of my personal roadblocks.  We all have those roadblocks.  (If you say you don't, you're lieing to yourself, a lot worse than you're lieing to anybody else, but you're the one who will suffer the consequences.)

Among other things, it enabled me to learn to do stunts as safely as possible.

Because I'm insatiably curious, I've read almost every book that's been written on these stunts. There are a few that describe parts of the stunts well, and parts of training for them, but not one hits the nail on the head.

Recently I read a posting in a discussion group.  Some of you will recognize the story.  Some will recognize the person.

A young man went to the library and found a book (I think I know which one) which described an old act called "The Man Who Can't Be Hanged".  He thought he'd learned the "secrets" of the act, and wanted to go right out and try it. So he jumped off a bench, with a noose around his neck, and wrenched his neck.

I know this stunt well.  I performed it for a number of years, before finally inventing a new style, where I like the presentation.  There are a couple of ways of doing it straight.  There are several ways to fake it. But it's dangerous.  If you do it right, there's still a reasonable probability of getting hurt.  If you do it wrong, you're in deep trouble.

The book the young man found, contains only part of the important information.  The young man's lucky that he only wrenched his neck.  He still thinks he has the "secret".  He still thinks he knows what he's doing.

I expect it's only a question of time before I read his obituary.


In martial arts, the student learns from the master.  The student doesn't have the opportunity to learn something new, until he or she is ready.  It's a way of insuring that the student will use potentially dangerous techniques, in a responsible manner. A "death grip" isn't taught to a 5 year old kid, in the first lesson.  It takes training and maturity, to prepare for the next level of work.  Sound familiar?


You can't learn that from a book.

In this work, I've gotten cuts and abrasions of various shapes, sizes, and locations.  I've ripped muscles, broken bones, had assorted burns of various degrees, damaged my eyes and lungs, and been hit a few times with a badly swung sledge hammer.  On several occasions, I've escaped suffocation by a hair.  And I know what I'm doing.

So what's my point?  Easy.  Please...don't think for a minute, that if you read something in a book, it's all you need to know.  It's not, not, not.  To learn this material right, you absolutely MUST learn it from someone who knows it well, who can help you through your personal roadblocks, teach you good stunt-technique, and help you learn how to present the material to the audience.

Forget the books.  Forget the internet.  Let them give you a dream of what may be possible, but find a professional for training.

Where?  I don't know of many places.  You don't want to go to somebody who just says "take this and shove it into the bodily orifice of your choice".  You don't want to go to a person who just started doing a stunt, and has very little relevant experience.

You should go to people who have been doing these things for a long time, who know the material inside and out.

You could go to the Coney Island Sideshow School.  Todd Robbins is their professor, and very few people have his breadth of knowledge, his passion for the art, and his ability to clearly communicate.  They have classes a couple of times a year.

You can contact me. I'm frequently hired as a consultant, for a variety of creative services, including stunt and performance technique www.bladewalker.com

Todd and I have different specialty stunts, different styles of showmanship, different focuses for our teaching.

I know of others who say they teach, but I'm hesitant to recommend teachers whose ethical standards or technical abilities, are unknown to me. This is, after all, a business where a lot of people build their reputations by tricking the public.

With a stunt, you can't afford to be tricked.


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