SureFire Jugglers (Land of Odd)

The SureFire Jugglers are Jason Smith and Trenten Coy Espinoza. They juggle objects between each other, perform a two-person cartwheel, blow fireballs while unicycling, etc. They're from Kansas City, Mo.

Tell me about what you do.

Jason: We do everything. We do juggling, fire, fire spitting, fire eating, lots of dangerous stunts. A lot of stupid stuff, like two-person cartwheels, fitting ourselves through tennis rackets. Handstands. Unicycling. A little bit of magic.

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The SureFire Jugglers, Jason Smith (left) and Trenten Coy Espinoza.

Tell me how you guys got together.

Trenten: We were actually working at a toy store, U.S. Toy out on 103rd Street. We both started working there the same week and found out that we both did Crystal Stix.

Jason: Juggling sticks.

Trenten: The people back at the magic shop at U.S. Toy taught us how to juggle.

Jason: We both found out that we loved juggling. That was about five years ago. That's when we started, and it escalated very quickly. Just boom, boom, boom. Eventually, we lost that job. We quit at different times, for different reasons. Finally we quit any regular job we happened to have.

Trenten: About a year after that.

Jason: And started doing this full time and immediately became starving artists. You have to go through that first. We're working our way through slowly. It's a challenge but it's a lot of fun too.

Do you make a living off it?

Jason: We try to make a living now.

Do you work odd jobs too?

Jason: A little bit here and there, just to make things happen. Whatever it takes. But that's not where our heart is. We keep our main focus on this. All that extra stuff is just a little extra money, just to make it.

What's your schedule like?

Trenten: We started doing this last spring full time. Before that, we were part of a much larger fire group her in town. They were called Vesuvius. Then we broke off from them.

Jason: We split off because we have such different performing styles and we thought we'd have fun on our own.

Trenten: It's a different philosophy as well.

What's different about it?

Trenten: None of them were making this their primary job. They're just doing it as a side job. They could afford to spend money on props and things like that that weren't strictly necessarily, whereas we're very focused on the maximum output for the minimum input. We're starving artists, so we have to stretch it as far as we can.

Jason: That's when the most creativity comes in, when you don't have all that extra freedom, with the money and everything. You have to figure out what to do with the props at hand. We have a lot of props now, but we try to rely on building skill with the props and building material, just having fun with what we have so far. That's the real challenge. I think you probably get a more entertaining show out of it, because you're forced into that creativity.

Run me through a typical show.

Jason: We have two shows.

Trenten: Very separate, distinct shows. One of them is comedy juggling. We'll do some passing, some unicycling, handstands.

Passing?

Trenten: Throwing clubs at each other.

Jason: And catching them, and then throwing them back.

Trenten: We'll do a few stupid human tricks and then we'll end with a big trick.

Stupid human tricks?

Trenten: We'll do a two-person cartwheel.

Jason: Climbing through a tennis racket, an old freak show act. Then the two-person cartwheel-you just have to see it to understand. It's really goofy, but it's probably my favorite part of the show.

Trenten: But it's not all goofy. We do a lot of skill things as well.

Jason: At the end we:should we spoil it?

Trenten: We juggle torches.

Jason: We juggle torches in a very interesting manner, which we won't disclose. You have to come see us.

What's the other show?

Trenten: Our other show is completely fire-based. There's very little talking. There's still crowd interaction, but it's more on a physical level. We'll have music and it's just us lighting a lot of things on fire and blowing big fireballs while unicycling, and stuff like that.

Jason: Fire eating, fire breathing, fire spinning, tossing. Again, something you have to see. It's kind of hard to visualize what it is if you have never seen it.

Trenten: They're completely different conceptual shows. Totally different props, totally different costumes and a totally different attitude.

When did you guys break off from Vesuvius?

Trenten: We did our last show with them in October of last year. We've been performing full time since last spring, so a year and a half.

Is it hard to keep finding gigs?

Jason: That's the hardest part. The way it works, you find gigs by word of mouth, people hear about you or they get on your MySpace or whatever, and eventually over time you can build a certain clientele. Some people have festivals every year that they bring you back to, that all builds up and eventually you have a fairly busy schedule every year. But it takes a long time to build that reputation as a performer.

Trenten: It's just like starting a business. They say it takes fives years, usually, to turn a profit in a business.

Jason: Lots of investment of money, but mostly an investment of time. It takes a lot of patience.

Can you make decent money busking on the street?

Trenten: The most crucial factor is the weather when you're busking. If it's too hot, people aren't gonna stand there. If it's raining, people aren't gonna stand there.

Jason: It's a really good opportunity for us just to practice, because if you can get someone to stop and watch you-someone who wasn't planning on watching a show-and then convincing them to put money in your hat, a $5 bill or something, then you know you have a good show, because obviously they don't have to watch. If you're surviving as a busker and you don't develop a good act, you'll starve. So when you're out there you're forced to find what's entertaining. You're not gonna get a lot of people standing, watching you even though they don't like your show.

For an article that won the Pulitzer Prize, the Washington Post staged an experiment in which they got a world-famous violin player to busk. Everybody ignored him and he got really frustrated. Can it be a frustrating experience like that, when you're performing well and people are walking by?

Trenten: I read that.

Jason: That violinist, he's probably very skilled, but he didn't understand other skills that you have to have to busk, such as gathering a crowd in the first place. The expression on your face, first of all, the attitude, the clothes you wear. Once you get two or three people, which, you know, three people are a crowd, you start doing something small and simple that will keep their attention while people gather. They flock around. If they see two or three people watching something, they want to watch it too. There's this whole philosophy and technique on how to gather a crowd if you're out on the street. He just probably didn't know how to do that.

Trenten: It's just a different style of busking. Most of the buskers you see are musicians or magicians, but they just stand there and to their thing. People walk by 'em and they might throw in a dollar, maybe five. We actually put on a show. We can't just stand out there and do that for eight hours at a time. We go out and we do 15 minutes. We'll have 150 people, 200 people down on the Plaza standing around watching us by the end of our show a lot of times.

Jason: We can't even busk out at the Plaza anymore because they've cracked down on us. We get bigger crowds than any other busker out there.

Trenten: We almost got arrested earlier this year. That was fun. They passed an ordinance last year and they're enforcing it.

With a crowd of 100 people, how many of them drop some money before they walk away?

Jason: We wait 'til the end of the show to ask for tips. We say right before what buskers call a "hat line." It's just something clever, charming, or just to the point. Anything that says "give me money," basically. "If you like the show, let our hat know," or, "This is what we do for a living. One or two dollars is great. Five dollars really lets us know we did a good job. A hundred dollars, that's OK too." "Don't be afraid to ask for change." "If you don't have any money, that's OK, just come shake our hands. That's how we get rid of the sweat." There's all these things you can say, but the point is right before the end of your show-

Trenten: Even in the middle. I think in Kansas City, especially, because you just don't see that around here. People aren't educated on how busking works. They don't understand that we stand here, we entertain you, and then you tip us if you like us. You have to let them know what's going to happen, because a lot of people have never seen anything like this. Living in the Midwest, you don't see it that often.

Tell me about some of the more interesting experiences you've had.

Trenten: One of the hundred-dollar tips we got was last summer. We went down to Louisiana to visit a friend of ours who was working a fair down there. We were only there for one weekend, so we went out on a Saturday in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. We went out and were just walking around looking for a place. We were used to Kansas City, getting hassled. One of the guys was like, "Hey!" He called us over. "What's all that? Are you guys gonna light something on fire?" We're carrying all our tools. "Do it right here." They wanted us.

Jason: This guy was trying to get people into a nice Italian restaurant. He wanted us to draw attention for him, so it was a win-win situation.

Trenten: Later on a couple other businesses saw us and they came down.

Jason: He actually went over to the security guard to specifically ask for permission. He was in a nice suit and everything. Of course, they were like, "Oh sure, do whatever you want." I assume that if we asked the security guard, they may not have let us. So we got kind of lucky. We got to perform on Bourbon Street during the busy nightlife.

Trenten: Basically paid for our gas in an hour worth of work. The crowd was strange, because when a crowd gets drunk, they don't want to stand and watch a whole show. We ended up cutting it to where we were just doing 10 minutes worth of stuff and then passing the hat. Wait five minutes and then do 10 minutes more. (Jason) had his big, six-foot-long fire staff. He lit it on fire and was out there trying to gather a little bit of crowd before we started our next show. This lady who just got married came by and the photographer was like, "Hey, if you spit some fire behind her while I take some pictures, we'll drop a big tip in your hat." We were expecting maybe a $20. Jason goes behind 'em and he's throwing a staff in the air, and the guy's getting low shots and whatnot, drops a hundred-dollar bill in our hat.

Jason: It's hard to busk for drunk people in general, unless you just have the right act. They have a short attention span. And, obviously, their inhibitions are lowered, so they say more. You're more likely to get a heckler. Of course, hecklers are hard to deal with. Hopefully, you can take a heckler and make him part of a show. And make it even better if you handle it right. You can never predict some situations. You're more likely to not get a 100 percent show when you have a drunk crowd.

What have been some of your hardest experiences?

Jason: The first day of the Fringe Festival. It was 20 minutes before the show. We were all getting ready, scattered around like performers typically are before a show. They told us, "You can't do fire in this show, because the fire marshal came and found out about it and apparently it's not allowed in that building." So we had to end up improvising a whole lot and doing some interesting things. We weren't the only act in the show that did fire either. It was a show that we were not just doing a bit in, we were actually intermingled with the show. We had to go out and do some material that we don't usually do. I did some rope magic that I use in the street a lot but wasn't planning on using that night. Luckily I had it with me. There was another night when the emcee couldn't come, so we had to emcee/perform in that same show.

Trenten: We did that one trick we hadn't done in a year. The backbend.

Jason: We do a trick where he does a backbend and I stand on his hips while he's doing a backbend and juggle knives over his face. We hadn't done that for a long time. We did that for that show because we just didn't have anything else. We had to come up with a lot of stuff.

Trenten: I didn't have time to properly stretch, so I was hurting a little. But we didn't mess it up.

Jason: That's part of being a performer. We love that stuff. In retrospect, we think, "Man, we really learned a lot. We went through a lot and it's a good experience for us."

Anything else that's gone wrong?

Trenten: It wasn't a bad show, necessarily, the but the one I'm thinking of is when we went to a beer festival.

Jason: It was in a small town. It was probably in the Bible Belt. It was probably a bunch of pretty sheltered people. Not like Westport. Not like in the city.

Where was it?

Jason: It was in Kansas. Deep into Kansas, like four hours into Kansas.

Trenten: We went out and did our thing and-

Jason: We just got a lot of blank stares.

Trenten: People just like, "What was that?" It was very strange.

Jason: I just don't think they knew how to take it because it was something they'd never seen before right in front of them. I don't know what happened. Some of our dirty jokes too-oh man. There was complete silence there. That's one of those times you learn how to read the crowd a little bit more before you go out.

What's one of your dirty jokes?

Jason: When we're doing our finale and I get on top-I'm revealing the finale now. You got it out of me. At the end of our show, I stand on his shoulders. That's when we juggle the torches, and we often use a stage and some other props too that I won't tell you about. When we do that, he says, "You're probably wondering why he's getting on top of me." I'm actually the taller one, so it's a little bit weird. And he says, "Well, it's funnier that way." A tagline that I usually use is, "And I like it on top." I just got nothing from that. Usually you say, "You can laugh, it's OK. The kids don't get it. If they do, it's not our fault." Usually all that stuff's great and it's funny. Oh man. They were just-

Trenten: Blank stares.

Jason: Iron rod spine stuck up there.

Trenten: We were blowing a fireball and half of 'em weren't even clapping. The other half were like, "What was that?"

Jason: But this goes back to the whole drunk people thing. It was a beer festival, after all. They were probably all hammered. They were probably not only not clapping but drooling. I don't know. Sometimes you just have to read your crowd better. Sometimes you can't do anything about it.

Trenten: Just the wrong crowd for your type of show. We can adjust a little. With the burlesque girls we were doing the Fringe Fest with a couple weekends ago, we were much more edgy and risk-taking. Or we can cut that stuff out and be a little more family friendly. But there's only so much you can do. Sometimes it just doesn't work. You try and you learn. You take notes after every show and then you talk about what went right and what didn't go right. One of the great things about busking is you can go out and do eight or 10 shows a weekend. You're not gonna get hired for that many shows in a weekend. Even if you're working constantly, even if you get hired for two different shows, that's only two shows. But you can go out and work the street and get that much more experience. For us, that's what's made us that much better in such a short amount of time.

Jason: A hundred hours of practice without an audience is equivalent to maybe a half an hour in front of an audience. In our business, we're all about entertaining a crowd. If they don't react the way we want them to then we consider that our fault. Unless you have a crowd in front of you, you cannot know how your jokes are gonna turn out or what they're gonna think. It's all a matter of experimentation for us.

What do your friends, family, parents think about your unique profession?

Trenten: Our friends generally support us, because if they don't then they're not our friends. My family, my dad's side doesn't really agree with it. My dad keeps telling me to grow up and get a real job.

Jason: Like being a barber or a lawyer or a plumber. Something really exciting and fun like that.

Trenten: My mom's very supportive, though. She likes what I do. She doesn't like the way I look, but she realizes I'm an adult and I'm gonna do what I want. As long as we stay in contact, she's happy.

Jason: My mom likes it. She thinks it's really cool. However, my girlfriend's mom hates me.

Trenten: You do get that. My girlfriend's aunt hates me too.

Jason: She doesn't even know me. She met me once. I have gauged ears and she thinks that's a big deal. Sort of judged me off of the first impression, and she knows I'm a juggler instead of going to college and all that nine yards.

Trenten: Making something of yourself.

Jason: Since I'm doing something-I wouldn't even call it against the grain, it's just unconventional. She thinks that anyone who does art is a starving artist. It's not true.

Trenten: It's a risky proposition because if it doesn't work out you're kind of stuck. At the same time, starting a business, which is what we're doing, is a risky proposition. It's the same idea.

Jason: And it never ends. If it doesn't work out, you just never give up. There is no never working out. You can always make it work. You just have to look at what you're doing wrong if something's going wrong and fix it.

Trenten, tell me about the scars on your arms.

Trenten: It's what's called strike branding. He takes a piece of metal, heats it up until it's red-hot, and then burns. He does it a little bit at a time, about half an inch. Then he'll heat it up and burn another half an inch and then heat it up again, burn another half an inch. I did this whole arm (left) in one sitting and then I did this whole arm in one sitting. It's a couple hundred burns per sitting.

Where'd you get it done?

Trenten: I got all my work done in Kansas City at Freaks on 39th. There's a very nice gentleman there named Jeremy who brands you, which is actually legal in Missouri.

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