Balancing Act

By Julie Barzilay

As a 5-year-old boy, Jack McFadden-Talbot ’09 had remarkable balance.

Granted, he wasn’t using this skill in as dazzling a way as his fellow performers the renouned Flying Wallendas, but Talbot’s plate-spinning abilities were just striking enough to land him a two-week stint in a bona-fide travelling circus, known as “Circus Flora,” at the age of 7.

Talbot’s road to the Big Top started when his mother was in graduate school. His mother had long harbored a love of all things theatrical and circus-related, and in graduate school befriended a woman in a comedy troupe who would later start her own circus.

The next puzzle piece slipped into place around Talbot’s 5th birthday when, on a family trip to Paris, Talbot’s mother purchased a circus kit including a set of spinning plates. In his early years, Talbot’s father gradually imparted his talent for balancing objects on his chin, nose and finger to his son.

Working his way up from holding up a long pool net on his finger to objects with much lower centers of balance, Talbot’s skill set expanded rapidly.

Ages 5, 6 and 7 were colored by Talbot’s drive to master the art of spinning plates. He worked diligently to keep his plates rotating on thin sticks as he walked – first with plastic plates then slowly but surely transitioning to breakables.

“It was so frustrating before I got really good at it,” Talbot said. “It was something I really wanted to be able to do, so I pretty much worked on it for a year until I mastered it.”

Talbot’s mother was planning a visit to her graduate school friend in Arizona and happened to offhandedly mention her son’s blossoming talents. Much to Talbot’s mother’s pleasure, her friend enthusiastically invited Talbot to be a guest performer in “Circus Flora” for a brief period in the summer. And so, before he reached the age of 8, Talbot had his own trailer among an eclectic fusion of circus performers.

During the show’s grand opening and closing, Talbot spun plates in a miniature clown outfit complete with wild colors and bright buttons. Talbot also walked across the arena with a pig on a leash while a complex trapeze sequence unfolded overhead.

“I don’t really think anyone was watching me down on the ground during that part,” he laughed.

The stars of the show were without question the famed Flying Wallendas, a family of trapeze artists and tightrope walkers who are renowned for soaring through the air and undertaking precarious, risky stunts with no safety nets. Talbot remembers being aware of a recent accident in which many members of the Flying Wallendas had been killed in a performance.

“That was like life and death, what they were doing,” he said. “They were way too busy to make friends with me, but I definitely watched them and was in awe.”

Talbot had better luck getting to know some of the circus animals – not only did he walk a pig across the tent-ground each night, but he remembers vividly an elephant ride and some fun afternoons playing with horses.

Talbot also soaked in the circus atmosphere by taking rola bola lessons from a clown. A rola bola is a board laid over a cylinder upon which one tries to balance, and in the wings between performances Talbot took his turn imitating his clown instructor. This skill was easily merged with his other equilibrium-related talents, and he began to spin plates atop the rola bola (sometimes balancing the stick with the whirling plates on his chin, for good measure.)

Living in a trailer with his mom, and later both of his parents, for two weeks as a circus performer was a wild, exciting glimpse of a completely different lifestyle, Talbot said, although he is sure everything seemed ten times larger than life through the lens of his seven-year-old worldview.

“I remember being thrilled by it and trying to be very professional,” Talbot laughed. “I would wake up early and watch the Flying Wallendas practice their intense stunts every day—then I’d go practice my plates and take it really seriously.”

Being in the circus at such a young age, Talbot doesn’t really view it as an experience that he was able to judge with any real-life perspective, but it certainly opened his mind and his world to exotic skills and the striking work ethic of the Flying Wallenda children.

“I was too young to see any of the cons at the time,” he said. “It was just fun.”

In hindsight, the discipline and work ethic Talbot displayed in mastering his tricks directly parallel his work ethic in becoming an accomplished violinist and composer today.

“It was something I really wanted to accomplish and did without being forced by anyone,” he said. “It’s definitely a similar drive that motivates me to grow as a musician and composer.”

When Talbot got home and started school, he performed for “Show and Tell.”

“I spun plates and threw them at an assembly, and my friends thought it was cool,” he said. “They thought it looked relatively easy, then they tried and failed.”

Nowadays, Talbot’s mother teaches a course at USC in which students learn to embrace inner insecurities and utilize them to create comedy. In other words, Talbot said, it’s like clown and slapstick comedy 101.

She also taught some classes at the Harvard-Westlake summer acting workshop SIAW this past summer.

As for Talbot, his skills are especially useful in entertaining young children or impressing friends. He still pulls his plates out fairly frequently, and says that, oddly enough, as time goes by he seems to get better even when he doesn’t practice.

He has taught some Harvard-Westlake friends, and recently photographed himself undertaking quite an astonishing feat: he balanced on his rola-bola with a plate spinning on his chin—while playing the violin.

“My mom was so mad,” he said. “I’m pretty glad I didn’t break the violin or anything.”

If nothing else, maybe his experiences knocked the childhood urge to run away and join the circus out of Talbot’s system.

His appreciation for performance art is definitely heightened, he feels, whether due to his stint with Circus Flora or not.

“That middle school assembly with the Chinese performers a few years ago was amazing,” he said. “It was so choreographed, so precise—that kind of group discipline can be grueling but at the same time they’re working together to create something amazing, which must be rewarding.”