"Ok, Mark, what are you going to do tonight?" asks David Letterman on the air with performer Mark Hayward from Edgewood.
"I'm going to use a blowgun and mousetrap to eat a marshmallow," answers Hayward matter of factly.
Letterman bursts out laughing. "Ok, this is going to be some plane trip back to Pittsburgh."
The act, which was suspenseful and impressive after the first try or two, was a big hit with the audience and Hayward has since appeared again on Letterman's show. (See the video on his website here.)
The world-class juggler, known for his unusual props which are mostly spin tops and yo yo's, mixes comedy with his skilled performance for an unusual and highly entertaining act. Hayward is also a World Champion Yo-yoer who can, to name just one amazing thing, create the outline of Darth Vader with a yo yo string--quickly and with all the right sound effects.
“In college I would wake up and start juggling," says the 40-year old performer. "Now I live a fairly normal life where I wake up, walk my wife to the bus and walk my dog in Frick Park, and then
start juggling. I’ve done my main standard family show so much I don’t have to practice that one. But I started a juggling club, the Pittsburgh Show-Offs, so I’m forced to practice every week. I’m also working on a solo show with new material and I’ve had to practice that a lot.”
Hayward finds inspiration from science for his new moves.
“I recently found my brainstorming sheet for the routine I’m most well-known for, the mousetrap routine that I did for my first appearance on the David Letterman show in 2007,” Hayward recalls. “Mousetraps have immense unused potential. Have you ever seen the kid’s science project where each kid is given a mousetrap and they need to create a vehicle? The one that goes the farthest is the winner. So I was sitting there, trying to think of what to do with mousetraps. One idea had me wearing loose clothing and a partner throwing mousetraps so they’d grab on but that’s like playing with a bee. It might sting you.”
The blowgun-mousetrap-marshmallow idea was actually eighth or tenth on his list.
“It wasn’t original,” Hayward confesses. “I was trying to see if I could do something related to the greatest demo of nuclear fission I’ve ever seen in a high school science class film. It had 200 mousetraps in a mirrored box each with a ping pong ball. A single ping pong ball was shot in, like a proton, and it triggered the traps.”
According to Hayward, artists and scientists have a lot in common and he recently completed a yo-yo science teaching program in accordance with Pennsylvania science standards that includes a few post-show experiments for teachers. He includes the marshmallow trick to inspire creativity—and dedication.
The Letterman appearance currently holds the spot as his best show even though the trick required a few attempts.
“For a variety artist right now, being on Letterman as far as status and prestige go, it’s the best gig there is,” Hayward said. “The trick is so hard that I knew going into it there was the possibility I wouldn’t be able to do it, so to have nailed it on the air without anyone getting mad or impatient was amazing. The relief of not being embarrassed on national television is the most enormous sense of relief I’ve ever had.”
Juggling is nothing if not a lesson in persistence.
“TV is hard,” Hayward sighed. “In live performance, missing makes it better. It builds the suspense and tension, so when I hit it’s an explosive reaction.”
Hayward came close to giving up his chosen profession after another television experience in 2010 with the show America’s Got Talent.
“I knew I didn’t want to go on the show, they are so horrible to everyone,” Hayward explains. “A friend said the show was under new management and the abusive and manipulative practices were past. I had a flawless audition in Chicago and got to Vegas. I brought the traps routine and missed a few times but hit the big trick at the end. On air they only showed the misses, not a second of my success.”
It was a low point for Hayward.
“Worst mistake of my career. I was embarrassed. Humiliated,” Hayward recalls. “I thought about quitting but I couldn’t. I had gigs booked. Real people wanted me to succeed and were willing to forgive mistakes.”
But giving up is not something that the 1995 Masters Division World Yo-yo Champion does.
“You have to fail endlessly as a performer, especially in juggling,” Hayward said. “In order to become a performer you can’t give in to failure or you would’ve given up a long time ago.”
So Hayward continues to expand his creative horizons. He’s currently trying to win the world top spinning championship that requires a freestyle routine to music. His regular show includes top spinning tricks, but they aren’t hard enough to win.
“My dream venue isn’t a specific place, but it’s an enormous glorious theatre built in the days of vaudeville filled with people who are there to see what I can do,” Hayward describes. “There’s nothing better than a live enthusiastic audience. I recently did a show at the Greentree Library. Library shows are awesome. The audience is involved and inquisitive, my performance is witty and I love people who are excited about learning and thinking.”
Hayward hails from Madison, Wisconsin, but for the past five years has called Edgewood home. He and his wife, an art professor at the University of Pittsburgh, eagerly moved here after their first visit.
“Of course, our initial reaction was the same as anyone ignorant of Pittsburgh, ‘it can’t be good’ we thought,” he said. “But now we call it ‘Milwaukee with hills’ and that’s totally a compliment.”
Catch a live performance by Hayward at the Union Project
on December 1st at 7:00pm. He’ll appear with two other local performers--Mike Perry, another funny guy, and Howard Mincone, a gifted physical comedian and juggler.
To see Hayward's latest appearance on Letterman, where he and a friend demonstrate a unique way to light a match, click here
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen