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Juggler makes career of old-fashioned hobby

(Jennifer Priest Mitchell is a freelance writer in Beaverton. She can be reached at jnjmitchellyahoo.com.)

Quick wit and quick hands are among the hallmarks of local juggler Rhys Thomas. If you've ever seen an amazing and amazingly humorous juggler performing at one of the libraries in the area, you're probably already familiar with Thomas and his act. But, as with any good performer, there is more than meets the eye.

A hobby juggler for about 28 years and a professional for 17, Rhys (a Welsh name, pronounced 'Reese') Thomas started juggling, and continued to do so for a couple of very good reasons.

'When I was 16, I learned to juggle to impress a girl, and then lost the girl and juggled to forget,' he said.

Unlike some entertainers, Thomas is, as he puts it, 'purely a juggler and entertainer,' and he does not have what some might call a day job. He doesn't need one. This energetic, funny, and skilled artist performs a comedy juggling show for corporate banquet audiences nationally, a family theater show regionally, a festival show internationally and Science Circus internationally.

Science Circus tours schools and museums across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean teaching physics using circus tricks. Thomas puts on about 200 shows a year. Through OMSI's support, his physics shows served over 26,000 Northwest school kids this past school year.

'I've been making my family's living through performance for about 17 years,' Thomas said. 'I've performed as Artist in Residence at the Smithsonian in D.C., at the World Cup Street Performer Invitational in Japan, at the European Juggling Convention in Denmark, for the government of Trinidad, on cruise ships, in theaters and for fortune 500 companies.

'I'm particularly delighted to have received an Oregon Arts Fellowship last year. State recognition is very empowering, as an artist.'

His many juggling commitments come to him through various meeting planners and talent agents, as well as by being well known on the performance circuits.

When asked what he likes about his job, Thomas piped right up, 'I get to meet odd and wonderful performers and lots of delightful fans. I get to travel extensively in the Pacific Northwest and sometimes abroad. Mostly, I get adulation, money and a good workout almost every day of my week.'

While performing, Thomas said he feels, 'scared and powerful. I'm always concerned that something will go wrong and I'll come crashing down off some apparatus or my body will go 'twang' from overexertion, or I'll drop more times than I have jokes to cover.'

With all of the computer games, video games and other electronic sources of entertainment so popular today, one may wonder whether juggling is, in fact, as popular as it was in the past.

'Juggling as a sporting pastime is more popular now than ever before,' Thomas said. 'School PE programs teach juggling, regional juggling festivals are springing up all over North America, and anywhere with street performing has talented jugglers.

'I think the physical/mental challenges of mastering your body and juggling's patterns appeals to some of the same parts of your brain as some video gaming. People watch my juggling because it's going on while I'm delivering comedy. If I shut up and juggle they don't watch the pure form nearly as long.'

While he is obviously talented in the art of juggling, it is not something Thomas has the patience to teach.

'I occasionally teach workshops on ball spinning, plate manipulation and ball juggling skills. Mostly I let the really good teachers do that,' he said. 'I get frustrated with the short attention span of most students. The average juggling lesson goes like this: toss, toss, toss, drop, drop, drop. 'That's hard.' Walk, walk, walk.'

Though not a native Oregonian, Thomas said he loves the state.

'My family fled California when I was 7. I'm far more Oregonian than anything else. I've traveled a lot and Oregon is so wonderfully diverse in natural beauty and human creativity,' he said. 'I couldn't imagine settling elsewhere.'

For those who'd like to see a little more juggling or learn more about this art, the International Jugglers Association will be 'throwing' its annual convention in Portland this July.

'Object manipulators from around the world will convene to teach and share and showoff for a week,' Thomas said. 'It's a mind boggling kinetic wonder-world of amazing human tricks.' Go to the Web site www.juggle.org for more information.

Check your library system's Summer Reading Program performances schedule for many fun performers, including 'JuggleMania,' featuring Rhys Thomas. He said he will be at all the Washington County Libraries at one time or another in the next few weeks performing and promoting reading.

For more information on Rhys Thomas, visit www.jugglemania.com. His banquet show is available through Portland area talent agencies, and his Science Circus is available through OMSI outreach, http://www.omsi.edu/education/outreach/.