Karen Quest does tricks with ropes and whips, wears leather and, yeah, lives in San Francisco, but what she ultimately does is really a family act. Quest, a kind of career graduate student of circus arts, is concentrating these days on Wild West rope tricks and cowgirl humor. She'll be bringing her show to the 16th Street Mall this weekend for the sixth annual US West Buskerfest.
Quest's history in vaudeville unravels slowly and colorfully in conversation like a Morris Louis painting. A theater major in college, she first learned how to juggle at age nineteen. "I learned from a woman who was a mime," she says. "I was a really bad clown at the time." She also mastered fire-eating, which she says is something "you have to have a burning desire to want to learn." She studied at the Ringling Brothers' clown school and was once a member of the Pickle Family Circus. Quest now teaches at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, which was started by the Pickles and is the only academy of its kind in the country. "I teach Circus 101--the smorgasbord of circus skills," Quest says. True to her life-student status, Quest also studies Chinese acrobatics with Mr. Lu Yi, a Beijing transplant she calls a "master trainer ingenious Chinese God-man."
But Quest's solo shtick, for the moment, has her decked out in suede and fringe and, like most street performers, in a constant state of learning new tricks. She picked up her first rope tricks at a juggling convention in Akron, Ohio. "After that, I stopped going to the juggling conventions and starting going to the Wild West arts conventions," she says. Of rope trickery, she adds, "I haven't mastered it yet. I've been doing it on and off but have only gotten serious in the last couple of years." She insists she can't do most of her favorite tricks yet---the ones the old pros do at the conventions, with romantic names like Texas Skip and Ocean Wave. "I'd sure like to be 55 or 60 years old," she says admiringly. "Those guys are great. They don't make 'em like that anymore."
If it seems like she's had a wildly varied career, it's all in a life's work for Quest. "It all adds up," she says. "I couldn't isolate one thing. Every experience I ever had adds to my ability to perform. The beauty of live performance is that you keep finding new stuff."
For Reid Belstock, a local performer beset by learning disabilities, learning to juggle was much more than developing a skill--it was therapy. "It was like a large glowing door opening, begging me to come in," he says, noting that once he did it, he never again wanted to do anything else. Belstock and his partner, Aaron Schettler, both Ringling graduates, are the Stoolies, a clownish pair that performs a combination of physical comedy, juggling, unicycling and balancing tricks. Belstock says the two are a true example of teamwork in action: "We really get along--he's the calm, cool-headed, in-control thinking man, and I'm the neurotic, paranoid, hyperactive, funny, short, geeky guy."
Belstock has few qualms about playing a goofy character. "I've been called a cross between Pee Wee Herman and Mr. Bean," he says without a hint of pain. "I come off as such a nerdy guy, people wonder if I'm that way in real life. I like to let 'em live in suspense." But, he adds, "sometimes you're just so dead tired after a show and you say, 'This is enough. I think I'll just be me for a while.'"
John Higby, another local Buskerfester, is a few minutes late for his appointment. "Sorry I'm late," he says. "I just rode my unicycle over to my bank, but the security guard told me I couldn't bring a bike inside, so I had to go to another one." Sweet-faced and relaxed, with an unspoiled demeanor, the 23-year-old Alaskan is both matter-of-fact and amazed that he seems to be making a living doing yo-yo tricks.
Higby stands in his overgrown backyard, unceremoniously whipping two yo-yos in the air like a couple of whimsical afterthoughts. He does all the standard tricks in succession: Whirlybird, Milk the Cow, Walk the Dog, Around the World, Splitting the Atom. The hardest to do, he says, is a two-handed Reach for the Moon. "I can't do it two-handed yet," he says. But he's working on it.
How did Higby pick up his unusual skill? "When I was eleven, my grandpa gave me a yo-yo from the '50s that was still in its package," he says. Gramps taught him the basics, and he took it from there. What does he think about when he's yo-yoing? "I focus on the trick," he says. And can he yo-yo in his sleep? "Sure. I've woken up with a yo-yo in my hand." Right now, Higby's learning to yo-yo from a prone position.
Higby attributes part of his success to a huge yo-yo craze in progress worldwide. "Denver's a little slow," he says, "but in Phoenix, there are yo-yo stores in the malls." He squats on the walk and opens up one of his yo-yos to reveal a ball bearing and tiny brake pad inside. "Yo-yo technology is really crazy right now," he says.
As for the Buskerfest, Higby, who's performed for the festival since its first year, can't say enough good things about it: "It's great. It got me started doing what I do. Before that I was doing birthday parties and daycare centers." Now a spokesman for Playmaxx, an Arizona yo-yo company, Higby sells his own yo-yo trick book and hand-colored yo-yo string, works with schoolkids and does his street show here and all over the world. He's been to the world's largest street-performers' fest, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and another gathering in Singapore; next on his slate is a trip to Japan.
"I think the fact that I do something different is what gets me into a lot of festivals," he says. "Lots of these performers all do the same thing--you know, the six-foot unicycle, the flaming torches. This year there are only a few jugglers at the Buskerfest. Street performance is changing. And every festival I go to, I'm practically the youngest performer there." Youth, however, is not a liability for Higby. You get the sense that he knows he's got time to develop his art. "I'd like to branch out--to go with yo-yos but take it to the extreme," he says, adding that he'd like to incorporate more physical movement into the act. "A lot of performers you see do a beautiful, tight twenty minutes, but when you see them five years later, it's exactly the same twenty-minute routine. I think I'll always be changing."
US West Buskerfest, June 26-28, 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square, free, 478-7878.