Mark Hayward juggles a lot in his entertainment career: TV appearances, speaking engagements, world-class competitions and stage shows in which he serves as emcee.
And, of course, there’s that actual juggling stuff.
A Madison native, Hayward is a familiar face to audiences who will likely pack into Kids in the Rotunda at the Overture Center Saturday to see his yo-yo tricks and comedy.
He’s also an anticipated presence for fans who come to the Barrymore Theatre each January for the variety show jokingly known (each year) as “The 47th Annual MadFest Juggling Extravaganza.” This year’s family-friendly show — with a Vaudeville-style lineup that includes plenty of physical comedy, astounding stunts and high-quality home-grown talent — takes place Jan. 14 and features Hayward as emcee.
Hayward, 44, has two world titles to his credit: He has won the Masters Division World Yo-yo Championship and was part of The Mad 5 juggling team out of Madison that won top honors at an International Jugglers’ Association competition. (He’s still in pursuit of a “personal triple crown” and hopes to someday be named the world’s spin-top champion, too.)
He created and performed his trick with a mousetrap and flying marshmallow on the David Letterman show, was featured at the Kennedy Center and more recently had an appearance on the “Late Late Show with James Corden.”
On stage, Hayward has a droll wit that tends to be charming rather than sharp, and a calm, measured delivery that keeps both child and adult audiences hanging on every word. He weaves his world-class mastery of the yo-yo and the spin-top into his shtick.
“He’s really great at working with the kids, and also really captivates the adults, too,” said Alanna Medearis, coordinator for Kids in the Rotunda. “One thing I really appreciate about his performance is he’s pretty matter-of-fact with the kids. He does his performance in a way that’s funny and thought-provoking.”
“He’s a very good entertainer,” agreed Melonhead, one of Madison’s best-known jugglers and a founder with Hayward and others of the annual MadFest show.
“Juggling is just one of the tools that he uses. He has a very good rapport with the audience. He’s got this kind of kind-hearted, smart-aleck sort of personality, and people respond to that.”
Hayward — despite an online bio claiming he was raised by chimpanzees — grew up in Madison. In his junior year at West High School, “I got a yo-yo in my (Christmas) stocking and one of my friends got a how-to-juggle book. So we started a juggling club,” he recalled.
“For some reason, two of the guys in the club decided from the very beginning that they must become professional jugglers.” They launched their show — and careers — at the high school’s Fine Arts Week.
“We got to the end of it, and even though I was terrified and sweaty, it was the best thing I’d ever done,” he said. “So I was hooked.”
Hayward went on to UW-Madison to study art — and met his future wife there — then spent a couple of years in graduate school studying metalsmithing.
But juggling gigs started paying more than being a student, and in 1997 Hayward went pro.
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His art degree from UW-Madison “was a huge help in creativity skills and also the building skills, so I can make my own props,” he said.
Pennsylvania became his base after his wife got a job as an art professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Hayward now travels for gigs, which include serving as a keynote speaker for large corporate meetings.
“It turns out that there are things the business world can learn from a professional yo-yo man,” said Hayward, who performs tricks as he speaks on the topic of “The Art of Failure.”
“There seems to be a national, cultural epidemic of fear of failure right now,” he explained. “So I talk about how — obviously, you don’t want that to be your end result — but that you have to have a whole string of small, and sometimes not so small, failures in order to get the goal that you want.
“And juggling and yo-yoing is the perfect example of that,” he said. “B ecause when you juggle, every single drop is a little failure. And if you choose to be defeated by that failure, then you’re done. But if you soldier on and push through it, eventually you’ll be juggling and you’ll learn a bunch of tricks and have a good time.”
Hayward honed his own showman and comedy skills “through brute force,” working for years at Madison farmers’ markets, he said.
“You’ve gotta get out there and look like an idiot, a lot, before you can look and feel smooth,” he said. “In street performance, the general consensus is that the first hundred shows don’t count. So you have to get out there and be terrible 100 times, and then you can start to do something worth watching.”
It took Hayward “a ton of work to be able to be funny, and more importantly, to be able to relax enough for the audience to relax and to see me as funny,” he said.
His laid-back style is not the typical approach.
“Most entertainers tend to be more high energy, and I tried that at the start of my career, but it doesn’t really fit with my personality.”
Hayward says he loves the intergenerational shows he does at Kids in the Rotunda. There, his humor has to delight preschoolers — and also their grandparents. And those ages don’t always find the same thing hilarious.
Next week comes the MadFest Juggling Festival, where 200 to 300 jugglers — and anyone who wants to walk in off the street — will gather at O’Keeffe Middle School for workshops and practice sessions. Hayward will be there, and is also producing the MadFest show at the 850-seat Barrymore.
“It’s consistently, if not the best, one of the best, gigs of the year for me,” said Hayward of his long-time run as MadFest’s emcee. “To have a big, friendly crowd even before I come on stage, and to have such a great show with so many great performers, it’s truly a pleasure.”