“Troll sat alone on a seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone.
For many a year he’d gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by…”
Excerpt from Tom and the Troll, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Jester is half-mime, half-clown—if that’s possible. I mime and do all my normal tricks and gags as a silent illusionist, but also reserve the right to chat and chatter, and rattle off nonsense poetry.
Over the last few weeks, I performed in several May Balls, and I must say I had a pretty good time. The Ball goers were good fun, game to be entertained, and willing to interact with me—which makes it more magical everyone. I took more pictures with people than I ever have in my life, and heard many compliments from passers-by. Here are a few of my favorite interactions.
The Chess game
One of the earlier balls (Jesus College) I performed at had an Alice in Wonderland theme. It was, in my opinion, the most immersive ball; the theme was well executed all around the grounds. You were surrounded by it! There was a life size statue of a white rabbit, and a larger-than-life house of cards (nearly three stories). I. Felt. Home. The Jester is a very flamboyant costume, and I fit in perfectly. In the Queen of Hearts’ card kingdom, I was both joker and king!
Off to one side near the entrance to the ball was one of those oversized chess boards. I marked it early in the night, but didn’t know quite what to do with it. Most people were just entering the ball and wanted pictures with me and the white rabbit. Eventually the guests moved on and so did I. Eventually, though, I spotted a chess game in progress.
Two young men were playing; I sidled up, watching with interest. I accompanied them for a moment or two, gasping in horror at moves they chose, or cheering the wisdom at others (without really knowing if they were good or bad—I wasn’t paying attention). After Black moved a vanguard of pawns forward I recoiled, and leaned on White’s queen. The player chuckled and watched me for a moment, and I realized that I looked like I was suggesting he move the queen piece. Then (in gestures) he asked me if that was the best move. Oh yes, I nodded. He looked about to reconsider his own plans, and now I was playing with him. The queen! The queen! Use the queen! I pointed and nodded, gesticulated, winked and intimated. “You sure?” he asked. I had no idea! Yes! I silently insisted.
With a bold confidence he seized the queen and placed her square into the middle of the board.
To what end I will never know. I never actually thought he would do it! He was playing chess after all! Pitting his intellect against his Cambridge opponent! Why would you take advice from The Jester???
To avoid unwanted repercussions I quickly ran off…
Indiana Jones and the Mummy King
In another place I strode up a little mound of earth, as though I was mountain climbing: ropes, picks and the whole nine yards. A semi-inebriated ball goer at the top thought I was pulling him with a rope. “Oh no! He’s tied me up!” the young man exclaimed.
I can work with that.
I began to circle him and “wrap” him tightly, insisting arms be folded across his chest, and feet pulled tight together. He complied, his friends watching in amusement. Then I put a fake goatee on his chin, and picked out two twigs from the ground for him to hold like scepters.
Finally I donned a mime fedora, gave torches to myself and the female observant, and made her come with me–humming the Indiana Jones theme music the whole time. The group was laughing now, fully into it.
I lead the girl up to the mummy, and opened an imaginary sarcophagus (on which I had to cue the mummy to chase us). He lurched forward, and I bolted for my life.
I never saw those ball goers again… 😉
Magdalene was a classy ball, and I enjoyed the dignity of the set up. I also enjoyed a greater literary appreciation, because several of the ball goers could quote passages of my selected poems with me!
But one adult couple stood out. I stopped to entertain them (he or she could have been a Fellow), as they sat on a bench under a tree. They listened with polite amusement to my recitation/enactment of Tom and the Troll (see the first stanza above). They didn’t seem overly thrilled with the childish content, but they smiling to accommodate.
At the end of every poem I always give its title, and credit its author (in this case Tolkien). Immediately on hearing this the gentleman sat up straight: “Really?” he exclaimed.
“Indeed!” I replied.
His smile broadened and he sat back in delight and quoted (from about 7 stanzas earlier), “… ‘And meat was hard to come by!’”
That felt good.
Shunning the Bandersnatch
There’s one last poetry incident I shall recount. There was a group of younger ball goers, and I stopped them on their way somewhere. I don’t think I even gave them a polite intro. We were just in the wooded part of the Fellows Garden, and I accosted them with “Beware! The Jabberwock my son…!”
They clearly knew the poem (and could quote it), and were not therefor as amused as perhaps they could have been. I could read the sarcastic, “Here we go…!” look in there eyes.
So as I finished the first stanza, “ ‘…Beware the jub-jub bird! And shun the frumious Bandersnatch!’” one of the girls confidently announced. “Oh we’ll shun him! He will be shunned!”
On which I dropped all performance posture and pretense, and chortled professorily, “Well! My job here is done!” I turned on a heel and strode away.
They were so surprised by my abrupt departure they burst out in honest laughter.
You can’t always gauge your audience just right. On the street especially you have only a few seconds to win their attention, gauge their disposition, and deliver a punchline before they wander off. But an early exit from a trio that thought I was going to regale them with an entire poem was just what these ball goers needed.
Win for The Jester.
I would definitely do the May Balls again, given a chance. I deign that they often see repeat attenders, and so next year the trick will be to bring something fresh and interesting to the party. But that’s what keeps it from becoming stale for a performer too. I look forward to it!