"The juggling world is very conservative," Roy Johns was explaining. "If you want to be successful, you don't have that many places to go.
"There's the circus--which I have never been fond of. There's Las Vegas. But our roots are rock 'n' roll. We kept rubbing producers the wrong way. So I just said, 'Let's do theater.' "
And theater they've done. Opening Friday at Academy West in Santa Monica is "A Mum and His Symbols" starring Johns, Albie Selznick and Nathan Stein--the Mums.
For those new to the Mums (the name signifies "mind under matter"), the performances blend juggling, magic and acrobatics with storytelling, all in a highly stylized manner.
"A lot of critics expect us to be like Penn and Teller or the Flying Karamazovs," said Selznick, "but we do more. It's not just juggling and magic."
Added Stein, "A lot of the acts that incorporate magic and juggling are very presentational--like the circus, waiting for the applause. We hope to hear the audience reacting, but the show will keep going. The applause is really at the end of the show."
Johns nodded: "When I first started as a juggler, I wanted the audience to love me. But if you put your focus on wanting to be loved, you won't be able to concentrate on what you have to do.
"With our show, there are so many variables--steps, counts, lights, changes--that you almost have to put the audience on hold. If they love you, they love you; if they don't, they don't."
Local reception of their previous show--the dark and foreboding "The Mums"--mostly fell into the "don't love" category.
"It was sort of a mistake," Selznick shrugged, "but it was OK. We were all delving into ourselves for the first time, really getting into some of the feelings we'd had about performing--both the awful times and the good ones. So it was kind of a purge.
"We didn't give the people what they wanted; we did what we wanted and needed to do. But now with Paul (director and co-writer Paul Sand), he really makes us do what an audience wants to see. Paul wants to make everything beautiful."
"To me, they're like ancient theater, where the actors really used to be acrobats, jugglers and storytellers," Sand said. "My job is to get all their best work out. Everything that's not clear, I get rid of."
"This is the hardest show we've ever done: physically, mentally, coordination and production-wise," Stein said. "We have to move in the set, get it up and be able to strike it every night. So we're going to be as theatrical as possible in a very lightweight, move-it-in, move-it-out, Gypsy style."
Assessing the makeup of the group, Selznick said, "We're completely different people from completely different backgrounds."
At 35, San Jose-born Johns' training includes the Ossetynski Lab and working with Eugene Ionesco. Selznick, 27, studied acting with Peggy Feury and William Traylor--and learned juggling from Johns and Stein (whom he joined in 1981). Stein, 30, studied the trumpet at Stanford. Director Sand trained with Paul Sills and Viola Spolin.
"We're like a triangle," Selznick said, "with the power rotating. Sometimes it's just the person who talks the loudest, who's in a better mood. Sometimes, for a few months, one person will lead the way."
"Oh sure, we've been through the mill. Sometimes we just can't see each other. It gets really bad--then really good. But that's just part of our reputation for being extreme."