COLUMBIA — He drove 1,500 miles from Maine to Missouri with nine unicycles in his trunk. Randy Judkins, circus artist, is putting these very unicycles to work at Stephens College.
Class was about to begin Thursday in the dance studio in the basement of the old Stephens College auditorium. Several women and a man — all theater majors — trickled in wearing sweatpants in various colors. They were obviously ready to move. They milled around for a bit, chattering, until suddenly, a clear whistle sounded and everyone fell into the center of the room, around Judkins.
Judkins began teaching the circus arts and miming as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. Now, he’s the world dance visiting artist at Stephens College.
In his class Thursday, his students ran through a skit called “Sick,” about a student who fakes all kinds of illnesses to evade another day at school. It demonstrated the character work that goes into circus acting: over the top and funny.
The students ran it once and then Judkins gave them advice.
“You all are individuals with different experiences,” Judkins said. “Let’s make it a patchwork of voices.”
They tried it again.
“That was two minutes and eight seconds of absolute chaos,” Judkins said.
Chaos is appreciated in this setting.
Then, the scarves came out. Each student grabbed three scarves out of the pile and began throwing them in the air. An iridescent polyester-blend rainbow cascaded from the ceiling.
Next, Judkins choreographed a juggling routine. After his demonstration, the students tried it. A chorus of shrieks, laughs, “oohs,” “ahhs” and grunts of frustration followed.
Judkins devoted the end of the class to miming. He taught his students to tug-of-war without the rope.
“Whatever you create, you have to preserve the illusion,” he said.
Through teaching, Judkins said he has furthered his own education in the circus arts.
“You get an insight into the craft as soon as you start taking it apart for someone,” he said.
Judkins also taught at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College. The curriculum there was a pressure cooker, requiring practice six days per week, 10 to 12 hours per day. Judkins said he was amazed and excited that people dedicated that much time and energy to earn a touring contract with the circus making “peanuts.”
Judkins also had a stint at Julliard. He chuckled while recalling the phone call from the school. His former wife answered the phone and upon hearing an accented voice, thought it was a gag call from one of Judkins’ pals.
It turned out to be a Julliard representative asking him to teach a master's class for second-year students on physical comedy. The Julliard students were highly motivated, he said. His class aimed to teach them how to make their bodies evoke laughter without using speech.
Judkins found his calling at 17 years old, he said. During his high school’s production of “Carousel,” he was waiting off-stage when he saw a girl juggling three tennis balls.
“I thought ‘Wow! That’s how you do it,’” Judkins said.
Being an athlete, Judkins said he was really interested in anything physical and wanted to give it a try. Since then, he has juggled items as dangerous as knives and torches, and as harmless as top hats and rings. He even juggled five-gallon water bottles.
Despite his physical talents, his passion lies in character work, Judkins said. He uses his physical skills to serve the eccentric characters he enjoys creating. He said they are more like alter egos.
“I have a whole bag full of them,” he said.
Carol Estey, head of the Stephens College’s dance department, saw Judkins’ work 10 years ago in Maine. When she asked him to serve as Stephens’ world dance visiting artist, he said, “Well Carol, I can’t teach dance.”
“Well I can, but it’s going to look like people are falling down all the time and running into things and slapping things,” he added.
“I thought they’d love it,” Estey said.
It seems she was right.
“He’s great, so full of energy, a breath of fresh air,” said Jessica Gorman, a senior theater major. “He’s our favorite.”
“We wish we had a dad like him,” said Simone Elyse, another senior theater major.
On Friday, Judkins held a lecture demonstration at the Warehouse Theater with the Stephens College Dimensions Dance Troupe. The audience included students from Stephens Children’s School, university students and the general public. By the end of the demonstration, many were laughing.
He and the troupe demonstrated balancing acts, ball juggling, rolling and walking, hat tricks and riding unicycles.
It wasn’t a show about perfection; it was a demonstration, he said. “Every once in a while, you drop because the floor loves these things,” Judkins said about dropping balls while juggling.
People in the audience found themselves participating as well. They were just as much a part of the show as Judkins and his dancers. Judkins brought up children and adults to help him show off the circus skills.
At the end, someone asked what was the craziest thing he’d ever balanced.
A 40-foot extension ladder, he said, on his chin. He said he balanced it on his chin for about five seconds, but that was enough to give him a goofy posture for a few days.
Finally, the routine came to an end — what Judkins calls the exclamation point, a fitting term for a man with nine unicycles in his trunk.