Fire in the Disco
Photos by Brian Jacobson + Eric Walton
“Everyone calls me a magician. I don’t mind it so much, but – at least get it right.”
If you’ve lived through a summer in Milwaukee and you’re not a total shut-in, you’ve probably seen Marcus Monroe – he’s hard to miss on his eight-foot unicycle, juggling knives taped to torches (the “knorch,” Marcus’ own invention) with a firecracker strapped to a helmet on his head. The extreme juggler and performance artist has been a fixture on the local festival circuit since he was a teenager.
As a kid, Marcus “was kind of the goofy juggler,” he says. “But I wanted to appeal to a mass market. I wanted to start a new style of juggling … not the traditional sequined vest, crazy, ridiculous suits, colorful ties. I realized that there are no rules. I’m my own boss. I started dressing the way I would want to see a juggler dress. I wore what Justin Timberlake was wearing. I watched pop concerts to see what Usher was wearing and asked, how can this work on me?
“I looked good. And the juggling was good.”
When he was nine, Marcus saw one of his schoolmates juggle in a talent show – “just three balls, very poorly when I think about it,” he says. “But it was so inspiring to think about, someone that young … just a kid … juggling.” He spent that whole summer with his father learning the skill.
“It took me so long, but my dad and I were so into it. I surrounded myself with everything juggling. I went to juggling clubs at UWM, started going to conventions, buying books on juggling, performing, videos – I didn’t care about school. I wanted to focus on juggling and performing.”
His first performance – in overalls and a polka dot shirt, juggling to “Closer to Free” by the BoDeans on a boom box – was in fifth grade at the school talent show. Less than a year later, he was juggling at block parties, birthday parties, fairs and festivals. In high school he got a gig at Park Bar opening for bands, juggling fire, knives and glow-in-the-dark hoops. It attracted him a gathering of fans from Chicago and the attention of regional talent managers: by his senior year, he was doing TV talk shows and reality pilots and networking with young stars like Frankie Muniz and the Hanson brothers. He moved to New York after graduation to continue his education at Marymount Manhattan
College, but eventually found it difficult to keep up with school and the accelerating pace of his career.
“[I was] working at clubs, working with Boy George, doing random shows with people like Don Vido from Viva la Bam, meeting all of these weird people from New York. I was going to school, but at night I was staying up late going to shows, trying to get my name out there. It was tough.”
He took a year off on a gamble that he could start juggling full-time and support himself. It paid off. Marcus is in demand. He books lucrative gigs, opens for big stars, tours the high seas on cruise ships and travels Europe with New York vaudeville act Le Scandal.
“People always ask me, what are you going to fall back on?” he says. “That’s the rudest thing. I dropped out of school because I was getting so much work, and my dreams were coming true, and I was having so much fun.”
STREETS OF FIRE
While he can afford to be selective with the gigs he accepts, he still loves to street-perform at home in Milwaukee and around the world. It helps him hone his craft and reconnect with audiences, face-to-face.
“Even though it’s not the most glamorous gig in the world, and even though I could be somewhere else making a lot more money, I love interacting with people and I learn so much during those long summer days,” he says. “The street is such a raw environment – if you can control a crowd on the street and get them to stop for a half-hour and watch your show – think about the attention in a theater where people are forced to watch you.”
He’s obviously still a whiz kid, but with years of experience already under his belt, he’s wise about his art, with an energized thoughtfulness. “I don’t take myself as seriously [as I used to]. The show’s a lot better – I don’t worry about the small things.”
Which isn’t to say he’s less focused on transforming his chosen art form. “I always want to be innovative when it comes to my material. And creative. I want to make juggling something completely different from what we’ve thought about.”
THE HEAT IS ON
It’s a challenge to keep his act fresh and inspired, and with a sudden resurgence in neo-burlesque variety shows and modern circus art (see our story on Milwaukee’s own Dead Man’s Carnival on page 6), there’s new blood in the circuit – and more competition.
“There are a lot of variety shows out there, and that’s fine. It makes me work harder, and I work to separate myself from them. I’m not saying I’m better than them – even though I am. [Just] be different. Be yourself. Don’t be a character.”
And one of the most immediately striking things about Marcus, although his huge personality barely fits in the room, is his authenticity. It’s his philosophy– a code of sincerity – that makes his act so magical. When he’s on stage, he says, “that’s just how I am, turned up to a ten. Right now I’m a five,” he laughs.
“One of my biggest influences in life is Andy Kaufman,” Marcus says. “He never juggled … but Andy played with people’s real-life emotions. He was always one step ahead of everybody else.” In his act, Marcus includes Kaufman-esque elements – missed cues, awkward timing and last-minute saves. Kaufman’s comedic style taught Marcus that “there’s beauty in the broken. You can have a piece of jewelry with a few cracks in it, [and] it’s beautiful because of those cracks. Your show can have awkward pauses or mistake, but they’re supposed to be there.”
It’s a pitch-perfect summer evening on the Milwaukee River, and Marcus Monroe is home for his brother’s 19th birthday. Tomorrow they’re going to see Kanye West in Chicago; tonight they’re at Trinity, reconnecting and watching their friend Mark Ballini play music.
So what’s next for the wunderkind extreme juggler?
I ask what advice he’d give to a young, aspiring juggler.
“I’d tell him not to. Because then there’s competition for me. Play sports.”
But the tricks of Marcus’s trade are evident just from engaging with him: make it new, be yourself, work hard and be smart.
“You can’t be stupid,” he says. “You might see my show and think I’m not so smart because I’m juggling fire. But you can’t juggle for a living and be dumb.”
Marcus’ brother Lucas joins us at the bar. I ask him to describe his older brother in two sentences.
“He juggles,” says Lucas. “And he’s funny.” VS
Marcus Monroe will perform throughout Summerfest, busking on the grounds by day and headlining the Children’s Stage in the evenings on June 29 and July 6. You can also check him out on on MySpace or at marcusmonroe.com. Marcus also has lots of videos on YouTube, including this one, featuring Marcus’s roommate Sean Blue, which was filmed the night before this interview: