When audiences file into a circus tent or gather around a charismatic street performer they don't always expect an "off-script" performance that could go horribly wrong at any moment. But circus tents and street pitches are the last frontiers of OH & S.

Professional performer and comic juggler, Joel Salom has taken this high risk attitude from the streets of Australia to the prestigious festivals of Europe.

He's been a finalist on Australia's Got Talent, a regular cast member of the legendary Teatro ZinZanni Spiegeltent in Seattle and a core cast member of Australia's Circus Oz, reports News.com.au.

He's juggled knives and fire sticks, held the crash mat for a human cannonball and swung from the odd trapeze.

Advertisement

And in his 25-plus years as a performer he's had a lot of things go dangerously off-script.

Here are some of Salom's best tales of performance gone wrong from the streets and circus:

The human cannonball: never trust the clown with Oh & S

Back in the 90s, Salom was working in his first company gig with Circus Oz. In addition to his own featured juggling act, part of his job was to hold the crash mat for human cannonball, Matt Wilson.

"It wasn't an exact science, so two of us would stand with the crash mat, ready to run and catch him once he was fired out." Salom says.

"It was the clown's job to chock the wheels of the cannon so that it didn't recoil when it was fired." Salom continues.

To cut a long story short, any sentence that begins with "It was the clown's job ..." is pretty much a fait accompli.

The clown forgot to chock the canon. The canon recoiled and rolled back - a lot. As a result, the human cannonball shot out but flew way short of expectations.

"We had to run like maniacs with the mat to catch him. We almost got there, he landed sort of half on, half off."

Was he OK?

"He was a bit ... broken." Salom admits with characteristic circus-gone-wrong understatement.

Stacking 10 chairs and standing on them in the middle of a tent full of people eating dinner? What could possilble go wrong?

Height and danger are the staples of circus and street performance. The higher you go, the better the sightlines for everybody in a tent or improvised performance space.

In one particular circus tent Salom worked, the performances were literally set among dining tables where people were enjoying an elegant five course meal.

What better place to stack up about 10 chairs and do handstands on them? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Salom recalls an incident where the chair stack collapsed onto a table full of diners. He can't recall exact injury details, but someone was taken to hospital and it wasn't the guy who stacked the chairs.

"No one got sued, but the people at the table did get their meals for free." Salom says.

Never work with children, animals or the general public: crates stack gone wrong

Speaking of heights, one of Salom's standard gimmicks back in the day was to stack up eight plastic crates and stand on top of them while juggling knives.

One particular day, he was working his usual pitch at Brisbane's Riverside Markets.

"They wouldn't let you juggle fire sticks at the markets, so I was using knives."

Sounds reasonable.

"I was standing on top of the crates and I was just about to juggle the knives. I'm about 15 feet off the ground with the machetes in my hands when all of a sudden this woman starts pushing through the crowd, shouting 'Get out of my way! Get out of my way!'"

"Then she looked up and saw me, standing on top of the crates with the knives."

"What the hell are you doing?" She shouted. "Are you trying to commit suicide!?"

"Then she starts air-kicking at the bottom of the crate stack, shouting, "I'm gunna help you! You wanna commit suicide, I'm gunna help you!" Salom says.

Salom had to do some pretty fast talking from up high to stop the woman from toppling his stack.

All the while, the shocked audience simply watched on. She eventually left, walking away behind him.

"I couldn't turn around once I was up there. So I never really knew if she was gone."
At one point some wag in the audience called out. "She's coming back!"

Far from wishing it had never happened, Salom remembers the incident almost fondly.
"The take was huge that day." He recalls. "She was a gift, really."

"They wouldn't let you juggle fire sticks at the markets, so I was using knives." Photo / joelsalom.com

The no-touch list

Most circuses, due to the high incidence of audience participation, have a "no touch" list.

It's not officially called a "no-touch list" but if you have a serious mental health condition, it can be arranged that you go on the list and it's marked on the seating plan.

One evening, Salom and fellow performer, Amelia Ziron-Brown (a.k.a Lady Rizo) were doing some pre-show "animating" in the audience dressed as The Red Queen and her assistant, Jack Rabbit.

(Animating is basically going around tables in character and terrifying delighting ordinary punters with some serious breaking-the-fourth-wall performance art.)

They saw a guy in a suit sitting among a bevy of young women. Naturally they made a beeline for him.

"This guy was pointing at one of the women at his table, as in 'pick her' and so obviously we picked him." Salom says.

"Pointing in front of the queen!" Salom shouted in mock-outrage. "You will now pay for your insubordination!"

"I bent him over the table, at which point he started protesting quite violently - I mean, I had to really hold him down - while The Queen whipped him with her riding crop."

Salom later checked the "no touch" list and realised the guy had been flagged on the seating map.

Oopsies.

"But to be honest, I don't think he had any serious condition, I think he was a corporate guy who considered himself too important for audience participation."

What goes around, comes around, buddy.

A cockpit, two ping pong balls and the police

Back in the days before 9/11, someone thought it would be a good idea to set street performers loose among passengers boarding planes in the Ansett terminal.

"It was a promotion for the relaunch of the Comedy Channel on Ansett's in-flight entertainment." Salom says.

"I'd just moved to Sydney. It was my first job via an agency, so I was pretty keen to make an impression."

Kitted out in his standard silver pants and bright red jacket with his hair gelled into a ridiculously giant quiff, Salom set about doing his "ping pong ball routine."

This basically involves him stuffing ping pong balls into his cheeks, speaking ping pong gibberish and regurgitating ping pong balls when people look at him.

After spending time with the waiting passengers doing his ping pong thing, including spitting ping pong balls at the departure's board, Salom soon found himself at the centre of an amused crowd.

When it came time for the flight to board, Salom stood waving his audience goodbye.

The hosties at the boarding desk, then encouraged him to go onto the plane and "have a laugh" with the hosties standing in the aircraft doorway.

Salom walked onto the plane and was momentarily blocked by the confused hosties at the plane's entrance door.

"Boarding pass? What boarding pass?" He said, in ping-pong gibberish.

He jumped passed them and proceeded to stick his head through the open door of the cockpit. With two ping pong balls still wedged in his cheeks he did his garbled ping-pong gibberish thing:

"Hello! I'm your new pilot!"

The pilots were, in Salom's words, "confused."

But everybody on the plane laughed. Salom "disembarked" and went home, mentally high-fiving himself for making something out of a difficult brief.

"My work here is done." He thought to himself.

A few days later. His agent called.

"Mate, did you go into the cockpit of a plane!?"

Turns out, it's a pretty major security breach to have someone with no boarding pass wander onto a plane and burst into the cockpit.

Not to mention the ping pong balls, the silver pants and the mile-high quiff. I know. Airlines are SO TOUCHY.

"If someone unauthorised goes into the cockpit, it has to be swept and cleared to make sure they haven't dropped anything like a bomb in there." Salom says, because ... he knows that now.

"They realised that no one had swept the cockpit after I'd been in there."

There followed an internal investigation by the AFP. Curiously Salom was not required to make any statements or attend the inquiry.

Perhaps they considered a guy with ping pong balls in his cheeks and a mile high quiff, not the most reliable witness.

"I don't know what the outcome was." Salom says, almost seriously. "But Ansett did collapse soon after."

A street performer's natural enemies: marching bands and street fights

One particular day at Brisbane's South Bank, Salom learnt the hard way that you should always check the marching band's schedule before you begin.

He was about ten minutes into his act and had drawn a reasonable crowd. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a marching band came stomping and bonging and blowing tubas straight through his pitch.

"It was like, all right, it's over." He says. "I didn't even get to do my milk crate bit."

Another time he'd finally managed to draw a crowd only to be upstaged by a street brawl breaking out nearby.

"The entire audience just left to go and look at the fight."

Which just goes to show, something dangerously off-script will win every time.