Area residents and visitors may have spotted a new show on the streets in Princeton — interactive juggling street artist and entrepreneur Will Imbert and his regular performances around town.
“Depending on the location, I’ll juggle bean bags, tennis balls, or sometimes balloons filled with sand. Then people will stop or notice, and I’ll encourage them to juggle. I would rather people enjoy themselves and try it themselves than perform,” says the 27-year-old entertainer.
Imbert — who decided to start juggling full-time more than a year ago and created the nonprofit juggling organization Play for Charity — recently received permission to work in Princeton between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and is required to stick to places that do not disturb the right of way. His “stages” include the courtyard next to the library, in front of the Princeton Garden movie theater, near the book reader statue at Palmer Square, and in front of the Running Company.
“These are the documents I have to carry with me,” he says as he pulls out a clear zip-lock bag with papers neatly folded inside. “This is a letter from the clerk’s office and a letter of incorporation with the governor’s signature stating I have permission to perform. I will have to file taxes at the end of the year.”
After reading the municipal code book in order to acquire the proper permits for his performances, Imbert debated getting a solicitors license. He then decided he was not selling anything and didn’t have intentions to sell anything because he thinks it corrupts the process. Any money he earns is from tips.
“I think it’s great to be able to give people the tennis balls and have them determine whether it is worth a dollar or not, and most people say, ‘Yeah, it’s worth a dollar because a dollar isn’t very much, this was really fun, my kids learned and they had a really good time, and we get to keep these tennis balls,’” Imbert says.
Growing up in Westfield, New Jersey, and moving to New York City with his parents, an older sister, older brother, and younger sister, Imbert began his hobby at a young age. He attributes some of his ambition to his Catholic school roots and following his older siblings’ footsteps to attend tennis camp at the age of seven. After seeing another coach at tennis camp show off his juggling skills, Imbert became inspired to learn as well. “I went home and practiced with oranges. After about three days of practicing, I could juggle three balls really well,” he says.
A graduate of Dartmouth with a degree in music, he lives with his parents, who moved to downtown Princeton after retiring from work in the legal field. About his current choice, Imbert says, “When I was a kid I really wasn’t thinking about providing for myself. I started thinking, ‘What is it that I can do?’ Since no one else really juggles, I was like ‘I juggle.’ I took an interest in that, and it’s something I like to do.”
For an extended period of time, Imbert traveled the world as a preschool teacher in San Francisco, then temporarily living in Zurich, Switzerland, where he moved in with his brother, who got a job there. In Switzerland he was able to practice performing keyboard, juggle in public, and make about 70 francs a day. “Not only are Swiss people rich, they like juggling too, and they have a tradition of craftsmanship. I think it was the best place to do it.”
After being in Switzerland for 90 days before needing a visa, Imbert moved to England for several months and stayed with friends. A YouTube video shows Imbert entertaining people in line at the Covent Garden by juggling, singing Britney Spears’ “Sometimes,” and encouraging them to come back for his audition later that week. Singing and juggling is something he hopes to do more in the future because the songs contribute to the act.
With other streets on his resume — in New York City, San Francisco, and even places in China — Imbert is no stranger to performing in public. However, he does not like to put on a show as much as getting his audience involved. Part of his philosophy is reeling people in with the intention of a fun time, rather than trying to sell them something. He also likes to work based on an honor system, where the audience members judge for themselves the value of his product.
Imbert has experienced more skepticism from the public without a tip jar, and prefers to have one with him when he performs. “Even though it sounds ridiculous, I think people actually enjoy giving money, like what’s giving a quarter to someone? People are more distrustful of you because they’re like, ‘Well, what’s this guy’s angle?’ So if you just have a tip jar it’s very easy to understand,” he says.
Obviously street performing income is unpredictable, and Imbert says, “A good week would consist of about $280, and that’s what I’m shooting for. I could contribute it to the rent; I could pay for my health care, student loans, and food. The most I’ve made in an hour so far is $42, so that’s pretty good.”
Imbert stresses the importance of street events as part of a healthy community, and such activities benefit adults and children alike. “It’s really important having community events going on that people don’t have to pay for. It should be more having chalk out for kids, balls, music, or dance in public, which Princeton does a lot of. The big thing is kids get to play together, and people get to play together.
“When you do something like this, you get to invite people to join and try. It’s not only good for their health and the environment, but it is also good for the community. When I was a kid I didn’t know how to make friends at all; so to get people to interact in a healthy, wholesome way is a really good way for people of all ages to bond and have healthy exercise at the same time.”
To make that happen Imbert does not let the red tape stand in his way of performing and likes that his nonprofit allows him to be old-fashioned in his lifestyle and performance philosophy. “I saw a clause in the code book that says if you have a nonprofit or a charity, you are exempt from licensing and that these people don’t have to apply for solicitation, they just have to submit an application. I like doing it the way I was doing it in Switzerland and England — basically the standard way of doing street performance,” says Imbert.
The juggler says that he enjoys watching his audience members interact and thinks that it is imperative to have the good along with the bad. Imbert says, “When you get the kids who are really gifted physically or the kids who are really nice, they’ll take the ball and give it to another kid. Then you have the kids who are angry at the world, and that kid gets to see that they’re angry and don’t interact with other people. It’s sort of uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. If you don’t have people interacting, then you don’t get to see what the issues at hand are.” His favorite age to perform with is toddlers and young kids because they have a fun time just rolling a ball around.
Instead of heading to a computer and using social media, Imbert says he spends his non-entertaining time watching foreign films on the weekend, reading Plato, and striving to live a healthy lifestyle by being physically active. And he has also set an eventual goal for himself: to be able to unicycle, sing, and juggle at the same time.
The world-traveling street artist also has an underlying message in his shows. “I want to encourage people and kids to participate in things,” he says. “If you see someone playing music or dancing, it’s important to build that ‘I can do it too’ mentality as opposed to ‘Oh wow, that person’s great; I’ll never be able to do that.’ That’s a big part of getting the kids to do something creative in public.”