A Lot to Juggle
Sara Felder's one-woman play balances heavy issues and light humor.
by Mary Wilson

Published: May 8, 2007

BALLSY: For the past 20 years, Sara Felder has been performing comedic juggling routines that deal with issues like LGBTQ rights, faith and politics.

Calling Sara Felder an exper juggler would be a understatement, and not just because she can juggle knive while balancing on a rola bola For Felder, who learned her craft at UCLA, juggling is no mer party trick, and excellence ha nothing to do with how many ball you can keep in the air at once

It's an art like any other, one that mirrors life and the myriad emotions that go with it. And, as this Philadelphia-based artist's blend of circus and theater proves, it's also a way of bringing people together — in laughter, suspense and the mutual fear that the juggler might cut herself (which she has).

After years of juggling in prisons, halfway houses and theaters, Felder figured out that her art could be a powerful means of communication. "I started performing when I was getting really involved in some political groups, and I found that people listened to what I had to say as long as I was juggling, and I realized it could be a really useful tool politically." Then one day someone laughed, and Felder knew she was on to something. "I just really believe in juggling and humor as a way in, as a way to bring people into material that they may not otherwise be open to. That's why we go to the theater instead of a lecture. People are laughing together and that creates community, and it's pretty amazing in this day and age to have people come together and laugh together."PAID ADVERTISEMENT

Not anyone could perform a comedic juggling routine that deals with issues as divisive and complicated as LGBTQ rights, faith and politics, but for the past 20 years, Felder has been pulling it off with the same graceful confidence she exudes when juggling portable radios. Her latest one-woman play, Out of Sight, is one of her most ambitious projects to date. With the new addition of shadow puppets (courtesy of Morgan F.P. Andrews of Philly's Puppet Uprising), the play tells the loosely autobiographical story of a mother and daughter driven apart by their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the background is the story of the mother's blindness, the result of staring too long at a solar eclipse.

With the desire to see forming an intricate metaphorical backdrop, the play explores the collision of politics and faith within an intensely personal framework. "That story of the eclipse has always held great drama for me," says Felder, "and so I knew I wanted to tell the story of her blindness. I put it into the context of this play because in a sense it's about the two of them being able to see each other — let alone nations being able to see each other."

This may not sound like a narrative that lends itself to comedy, but Felder has a knack for squeezing lightheartedness out of serious subjects. "I try to take what to me is difficult material, or something I'm personally struggling with ... and find the humor in it, which also means finding the human side of it. Because humans are hilarious."

Felder herself is no exception. As a queer woman and a Jew, she understands the need to combat hatred with humor — whether it be by juggling latkes at Hanukkah or reciting her version of "Red Fish Blue Fish" for her son ("one dyke, two dyke; red dyke, Jew dyke"). Tradition, as she sees it, can always be changed, reclaimed and rerouted when necessary, and it doesn't have to be a violent act. It can be a funny one. "A friend of mine once told me that if you have something really important to say, you should put it in a badly rhymed poem," says Felder. "So I wrote the circumcision poem, and then I put it to juggling really large knives."

This casual style, which often conceals a critical edge, is typical of Felder's performance style. But as she repeatedly stresses, "Comedy is a means to an end, but it's not an end in itself." So what is the end? "Comedy of engagement as opposed to detachment, that's what I strive for. Even the political humor in America, it's not about anything. It doesn't make you want to get up and do something; it allows you to think you're doing something because you're laughing at it, but it's all about distraction and disengagement. I want to engage."

Juggling, as a metaphor and a means for that engagement, remains Felder's "first language." With the danger of a knife juggle to add excitement, the delicate art of contact juggling (rolling an object around the body) to suggest intimacy, and the dark forms of shadow puppets to strain our eyes, Felder weaves a story of great emotional — and political — range. And she drops sharp objects only occasionally, so don't be afraid to move up to the front row.

Runs through May 27, $15-20, The Shubin Theater, 407 Bainbridge St., 267-350-9188, www.sarafelder.com.