Fighting misconceptions with juggling and humour
Jacob Weiss has a daily struggle with Tourette’s: his eyelids twitch; his wrists flex repeatedly.
Put him on stage with juggling balls and that all melts away.
“I get into that zone and everything just flows,” said Mr Weiss, whose troupe Playing By Air is part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts line-up. “The energy on stage is almost a vacation away from the tics. I think my unfiltered mind gives me a lot of creativity to create new tricks, and my wrists are already used to the rapidly flexing movements you have to do in juggling.”
Once a show is over, the tics return immediately.
It wouldn’t be unusual for him to spend long minutes zipping and unzipping his suitcase.
He was ten when doctors diagnosed his symptoms as Tourette’s. As is typical of people with the syndrome, the specialists also labelled him with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It was around the same time that I started juggling with my older brother Daniel,” the 36-year-old said. “We saw an article in a magazine and were determined to try it.
“We really enjoyed it and kept going from there. We loved to compete with each other to see who could juggle better.”
Interested in how technology could connect people and communities, he decided to major in computer science at Princeton University.
His brother was also a student at the Ivy League school. Together, they organised a campus juggling group — and started performing.
“People are often surprised that I’m a juggler with a doctorate,” said Dr Weiss, who earned his PhD in bioinformatics from Vanderbilt University. “Normally, bioinformatics is looking at computers and healthcare.
“My research was less about the tools and the hospital but more about including families, non-profits and groups in the community in a conversation.
“I was looking at how to design tools and programmes that can collaborate with one another. Sometimes organisations are so busy doing their own thing, they don’t have time to learn what else is going on.”
He started Playing By Air with Ted Joblin and Michael Karas in 2009.
“One of the first shows Playing By Air did was in Nashville,” he said. “Twenty-five different cancer non-profit organisations set up information stalls in the lobby of a theatre. People came for the juggling but got to learn about all the organisations while they waited for the show. It was also a chance for the non-profits themselves to get to know one another.”
Playing By Air has a charitable arm, and frequently performs for free in hospitals and schools. “One day we turned up at Ronald McDonald House for families with sick children,” he said. “It was raining, so most of the families were still at the nearby hospital. There was only one family in the house.
“We did a special performance just for them. It was so nice to see the smiles on their faces. Afterward the staff said: ‘You have no idea how much that family needed a break from their stresses’. That really made us feel good.”
The troupe also offers juggling workshops. Students at Northlands Primary School involved in Bermuda Education Network’s programmes will have the opportunity while they are here. “Juggling a great skill to learn,” said Dr Weiss. “Everyone starts at the beginning. If you learn with the right steps it’s not all that complicated.
“I think that is the biggest misconception with juggling, that it is difficult to do. It can become a confidence booster.
“A child might have a hard assignment in school, look back at how they learnt juggling, and know they can handle this challenge as well. That’s empowering. It’s about changing stories that people tell each other about what they can or can not do.”
• Tickets are sold out for Playing By Air’s performances in the Earl Cameron Theatre on Saturday and Sunday. For more information: bermudafestival.org or playingbyair.com
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