April 2016


The travails of a professional whip-cracker

By Ailsa Wild
Small stages and curious kids are both occupational hazards

I never thought I’d become a professional whip-cracker. And when I did, the difficulties that arose were certainly not ones I had anticipated.

It’s not that easy, for instance, to find somewhere to practise. Circus-training warehouses are full of gorgeous aerialists overstretching to Adele, gaggles of seven-year-olds not pointing their toes, and juggle geeks counting clubs. No one wants their routine to be accompanied by the irregular gunshot of a cracking whip. (Factoid: the whip was the first human-made object to break the sound barrier.) Other location options include the street – where you scare the bejesus out of the neighbours and make enemies for life – or, my only choice really, the park.

Which leads to another unexpected problem. It turns out that a woman swinging a whip in public is asking for random sexual overtures and smart-arse innuendo. And if it’s not lewd comments interrupting my practice, it’s boys (including man-boys) who want to have a try. Cracking a whip in a park on a sunny day always attracts a line-up of fellas asking, “Canniva go?”

They’ve done it before – sure they have – and certainly don’t want any tips from a girl. They all aim directly at the dirt, which screws with the leather and halves the whip’s life expectancy. And they flail their arms like they’re trying to throw my whip to the horizon.

My teacher swung her whips gracefully, with gentle wrists. This one-time Australian Junior Whip-cracking Champion, hailing from Queensland’s cattle country (plenty of room to practise), could crack a pair of whips to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ or Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand in My Pocket’.

When my first pair of whips arrived in the post, I practised until I had blisters. An old stockman had made them with plaited kangaroo leather. They were so beautiful that I used to keep them hung for display in my house, until I realised they frightened visitors.

While 6-foot stockwhips are OK in a park, they can be a problem in theatres that host small-time independent performers like me. I have spent many tech rehearsals trying to find the exact point on the stage where I wouldn’t hit the profile lights above, knock over any of the props behind or get so close to the audience that I’d make their faces bleed. My long-suffering performance partner would sit in the front row, fingers in her ears, as I took baby steps towards her, swinging whips.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

She’d wince and nod when I was as close as safely possible. Then I’d mark the spot with an “x” and stand on it religiously throughout the act. Once I performed at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre, which is a deeply charming lunch box. To fit on the stage I had to borrow some guy’s shorter “mistress whip”.

For a while I toured schools, performing in their halls, demountables and even libraries. The great thing about school shows is that teachers squeeze in as many kids as possible. And they always sit the tiniest humans at the front. This can be exciting, because if anyone is likely to wriggle their bottom over the safety line so they can get closer to the action, it’s little Otis in Grade 1G. I’m now quite adept at getting an audience of 400 children to shuffle backwards, while I remain in character and keep the show rolling. I’m also not too bad at ditching half my tricks at a moment’s notice, for the sake of safety.

Which brings me to public liability insurance. You’ve got to have it, even though the only person you’re ever likely to whip in the eye is yourself. (I did once; I blinked in time, but you should have seen the shiner. Not to mention the muddy layers of concealer to make me look “normal” onstage the next day.) So while I know I’m not going to hurt anyone else during my act, no self-respecting event programmer will employ an uninsured whip-cracker. Even those who don’t respect themselves would probably think twice.

Public liability cover from my insurer comes in three brackets. The cheapest includes roles like “public speaker” and “character performer”, followed by the slightly more expensive “dancer, aerialist, acrobat” bracket. Sword-swallowers fall into this bracket, too. Then there’s the most expensive bracket, which includes angle-grinding acts, children’s party hosts and whip-crackers. Riskier than sword-swallowing. Go figure. For the past eight years I’ve been insured to the sum of $20 million. What do they think I’m going to do? Whip-crack the house down? Generate exorbitant psych bills? No, I spend five minutes onstage, harmlessly swinging plaited leather while audiences look at me with wrinkled faces and fingers in their ears. I often think, Is this insurance bill worth it?

Lately, I’ve had plenty of other performance projects on my plate, and I nearly didn’t pay the whip-cracker premium. But, to be honest, while most of my friends can stand on someone else’s shoulders, not many can snap a pair of whips at the same time. Every carnie needs her speciality.

Ailsa Wild

Ailsa Wild is a Melbourne-based physical performer and the author of the Squishy Taylor children’s book series.

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