By Siddharth Nair
Dressed in black, he pulls batons out of his rugged, black trunk and sets them alight. He then eats fire and juggles it, throwing the fiery batons higher and higher in a crescendo. For his finale, he swallows a sword and juggles the batons at the same time. Tommy Everson’s ringside street performance on Dam Square stands out to audiences for its “nerve-wracking” acts, but it satisfies him because it affords him the opportunity to entertain his viewers with his own, specially styled comedy routine. All while playing with fire and sharp swords.
Everson says he has tried stand-up comedy and enjoys making people laugh, but the pressure of the spotlight makes it difficult to express himself. “It’s you presenting your thoughts, which is much more difficult, I think,” Everson said, “On the stage you need to have something showy for the audience and in between, you can tell jokes and warm them up to you.”
Everson, now 28, came to Europe from his hometown in Melbourne and saw Amsterdam first when he was 20 and has loved the city and its many underground communities ever since. Moving between Melbourne and Amsterdam every six months to touch base with performers and community members back home, he began establishing a presence at Dam square as a circle show performer. “I began performing after I left high school,” Everson says, “I had always liked performing and theatre, and I met a Melbourne street group where the main guys were sword swallowers, juggler-acrobats, fire eaters.”
A self-taught artist who was also mentored by the world-famous sword swallowing acrobat Aerial Manx in Melbourne, Everson quickly learned to eat fire, manipulate fire on his skin, and swallow swords. He also credits his skills to the tightly knit street performing communities across Amsterdam and Melbourne where tricks and techniques are passed on from performer to performer from the early 1960s. “The environment is collaborative, not competitive,” Everson says.
He hosts performances at Dam square nearly every day, with almost two performances on each day of the weekend. “Initially it took a year or two to build a 30-plus-minute show, and over the years it’s improved and evolved to what you see now,” Everson says.
After his show is complete, he lets viewers pay him based on their own satisfaction with his abilities. “Something beautiful is that people pay after the show. They see the show, I ask for money and they give me money. It’s very honest and I don’t make people feel bad”, he says, “I make a decent living from it, and my show is for everybody even if you can’t afford it.”
Comedy plays an important role in Everson’s performances, and the way he executes his performances emphasises this. “It’s very raw in the way of, nobody’s expecting anything of you. They only stop if you’re good. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re funny or good or skilled.” In this sense, a street square performance can be less pressuring on the performer than the high-stakes environment on stage at a stand-up comedy show. “It’s a different school of entertainment, I think”, Everson says about stand-up comedy.
His jokes involve drugs being taken (away from you by airport police), children being used to test sword-sharpness, him running around with his hair on fire, and his un-bear-able puns (growl). They evoke a dark, gritty sense of humour that balances well with his extreme performance acts. “He maintains a natural dialogue with the audience,” Mikko Aoki, a college student who viewed the performance, remarks, “It’s the contrast and the interplay of his narrative and his acts, it’s both. I would say his dry and matter of fact humour plays sweetly with his legitimately nerve-wracking acts.”
Aerial Manx, Everson’s mentor, was very appreciative of his current level of skill and believes he is naturally gifted at performing. “When I first met Tommy he was very energetic, very acrobatic. He was a teenage young man, incredible at double nunchucks,” he says. Further commenting on Everson’s comedy, he says “Comedy is where he landed and he’s hilarious so more of that please. There’s a big inside joke and he’s letting others into it.”
As a performer who uses fire and sword-swallowing to convey awe and humour, Tommy Everson describes his act as a “comedy show with fire,” even saying “If the comedy isn’t funny, I guess you can look at the fire.”