Attendees from around the globe visit Gunn High to showcase juggling, balancing tricks and more.
From newcomers tentatively trying their hand at juggling for the first time to professionals managing to keep seven balls in the air at once, Gunn High School’s juggling festival Jan. 20-22 drew people of all ages and skill levels.
The Game of Throws (a play on the hit TV show “Game of Thrones”) brought hundreds of people from the region and around the world to Gunn’s gymnasium in Palo Alto for circus arts workshops, demonstrations and friendly competitions. Professionals on hand showcased for attendees of all ages everything from cigar box juggling and lassoing techniques to 20 tricks with a baseball cap.
Led by Gunn Japanese teacher Matt Hall, who has been juggling internationally for two decades, this was Game of Throws’ fourth iteration and the first one since the pandemic hit. It was hosted from 2018 through 2020 at Palo Alto High School, where Hall previously worked as the student activities director.
Zachariah Strassberg-Phillips, a 2017 Paly grad, has come to every one. Strassberg-Phillips remembers walking into Hall’s homeroom class on the first day of his freshman year in 2013, surrounded by other nervous students and seeing his new teacher beaming at the front of the room.
“His way of breaking the ice is to give us a full ‘Cirque Du Soleil’ level (juggling) show,” Strassberg-Philips said. “I just remember being so flabbergasted by it and being like, ‘Wow, I need to be a part of this.'”
He decided to join the juggling club that Hall led, which at the time was mostly comprised of seniors. After they graduated, Strassberg-Phillips spent his sophomore year recruiting new students to rebuild the club.
The first Game of Throws was held the year after Strassberg-Phillips graduated, but he’s made sure to attend each one. This year, friends from the juggling and unicycling club that he built at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, came to Palo Alto for the festival.
The positive community that exists among jugglers was a theme that came up repeatedly for festival attendees. Michael Karas, a professional juggler from New York City who performed at Saturday night’s gala, said that part of what drew him to juggling is the openness of the community.
“Everyone loves teaching each other new tricks, new ideas,” Karas said. “None of it is held very close to the chest. It’s very free sharing.”
Hall said that juggling stands out among the many hobbies he has taken up throughout his life, a list that includes break dancing, aikido, BMX and surfing.
“I’ve been a part of all these different subcommunities and subcultures,” Hall said. “Certainly I would say juggling is the most positive, the most giving, sharing.”
Hall’s own juggling career includes winning the silver medal at the 2003 International Jugglers’ Association Championships and performing in various countries, including Australia, Denmark, Germany, Israel and Mexico. But at the end of the day, Hall added, teaching is his vocation and he enjoys getting to share his juggling hobby with his students.
Gunn High School junior Anastasia Slyusar was among the juggling newcomers who decided to come to the festival. Slyusar is in one of Hall’s Japanese classes and attended Gunn’s lunchtime juggling club once or twice last semester, but said that it was at Game of Throws that she gained confidence juggling three balls. For Slyusar, part of what she’s enjoyed about juggling so far is being able to focus and get into a rhythm.
“It’s just a state where you’re having fun doing something that’s requiring a lot of attention,” she said.
Game of Throws included options for people to participate at all levels. Saturday night’s gala show featured 11 elite performers, many of whom are professional jugglers, Hall said. During the day Jan. 20-22, there were free workshops covering a wide range of juggling skills. Also available was a “Construction Zone” staffed by Paly and Gunn students, where anyone could pick up one of the myriad props on hand and get instructions on how to use it.
The afternoon of Jan. 22 featured a “juggling Olympics” where attendees competed in various challenges, including juggling seven balls, hugging a partner and juggling behind each others’ backs and doing situps with a club balanced on your head.
Roughly 450 people attended the festival, with 550 turning out for the Jan. 21 gala, Hall said.
Gunn sophomore Nicky Devincentis, who volunteered to work at the registration table, started out juggling his freshman year but has been more drawn to the diablo, also known as the Chinese yo-yo, where an hourglass-shaped prop is spun and thrown using a string connected with two sticks.
“You can do all these really cool tricks and it’s so dynamic,” Devincentis said. “I think that part is my favorite.”
Kathryn Carr and Janna Wohlfarth, both professional jugglers, hadn’t ever met in person before last month but said they had followed each other online for years and were excited to cross paths. Wohlfarth lives in Germany, while Carr resides in Maryland. The two took time on Sunday afternoon to record themselves juggling hats together. Both said that they enjoy performing for others and inspiring audiences with their tricks.
“It’s very playful and it’s fun to share that sense of play with people,” Carr said. “And it can be very beautiful as well.”