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
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 experience
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.
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
SW: What kind of preparation and precautions do you do
before you go on stage?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
summer outdoor festival season, I perform and lead firewalks.
I also perform an original variation of a routine that I
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?
Well, the stunts I perform most often are chosen also for
their convenience and repeatability
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
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
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
SW: You mention that sword swallowing, out of all the
acts you do, defines you. Why do you feel that way?
I didn’t say that! I said that it’s arguably my signature
act! I’m defining it as I explore its presentational
Seriously though, all humorous nit-picking aside, I do have
a very special affinity and relationship with sword
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.
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?
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!
It is, but it makes getting together easy.
SW: Getting back into the specifics again, how long did
it take you to learn?
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?
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
SW: How long are your swords?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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
I entirely believe that event managers are, as you say,
pushing sideshow away. But then, isn’t that why we call is
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
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
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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
Interview by John Robinson