Category Archives: Performances

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Father Daughter Life on the Road…

It's only a stage she was going through...

Tonight I begin a Father-Daughter Night series at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Over the next two weekends I’ll do five nights of shows with the irrepressible Bob Sarlatte hosting the stage. Bob’s a Saint Ignatius High School
grad. I went to school at Bellarmine. My wife and I have three daughters. Our youngest, Alana Rose, is in her second year at Seattle University.

I can hear the intro now, “Live, on stage, tonight, for one show only, the only all Jesuit educated entertainment to be found west of St. Mary’s Cathedral!”

Alana was raised backstage. When only seven we landed in Phoenix at 4 in the morning, Alana told me to get the luggage and she’d go get the cab! When late while driving between the smallest towns in Wyoming Alana had the best eye for the perfect spot to pull over and park the truck and trailer. She liked to park and sleep near rivers.

She has developed a keen eye for variety entertainment. She knows what makes Flying Bob so appealing and appreciates the staccato rat-a-tat-tat comic musings of Rhys Thomas. She is also quick to spot a hole in an  entertainers game. And did I mention that her concision of explaining the plot to a movie is preternatural.

She has worked with me at the Oregonand Ohio State Fair’s. She has traveled across Western Canada. She thinks the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival rocks, and that The Country Fair is sacrament.

She’s danced since forever; modern dance. It’s kind of difficult to pick her up and carry her on my hip like I once did. I was away in Yuma performing at a festival (Hillbilly Willy aptly described this gig as part of the Bleak  Tour) and missed her birthday when she was seven years old. That still makes my heart ache. But, the road isn’t just a place to work and travel, it is also a place you go and miss things, like daughters growing up, and birthdays, and  helping her off to school.

Still, she’s a trouper. She understands backstage life. She knows what we go through offstage to put our best efforts out onstage. She has a solid gin game. Likes to play the out of state license plate game, has been introduced to the fine art of the game horse by El Gleno Grande, and has dined on white linen in the dining tent at Carson and Barnes Circus just before being invited to go feed the elephants with the trainer who promised her a ride.

          I love that kid. I love all my daughters. I love the sound of that word, “Dad…” I owe most of my humanity to those women. Oh, and one more girl, she’s old now, and I owe a debt to her too. Thanks Lacey. You’ve been there for me when it has counted.

BANKRUPT HEART                       THE SECOND NOVEL

“Your hair is getting long.” She  brushed it back.

            “Last  time it was this long you were still a little girl?” Ry said.

            “Was  I a little girl?”

            “If  I was carrying you in my arms backstage, then you were still a little, tiny,
baby, girl…”

            “I  don’t remember…”

            “You  were busy growing up, too busy, too grown up, too soon…”

Sophia exercised  care as she brushed her father’s hair. It was soothing, peaceful, ritual, a
father-daughter intimacy. They had a knack for hanging out backstage. “Your
hair is definitely getting thinner up here dad.” She smiled, wasn’t being
sassy, “sorry.”

            “Yeah,  well that’s life. It comes, it goes. If I had stayed in radio, nobody would
have noticed.”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Grass Roots Audience, The Small Time Entertainer, The Fully Funded Heart

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow...

The grass roots audiences the small time entertainer plays to is located closer to the heart. We are literally physically closer. Venues are scaled to size. Expectations are held in check. We are paid less money but we acquire a greater bounty of intimacy.

We begin our performing careers creating material that is both visually appealing and acoustical. In particular my style invoked the power of the word. Upon a clean sheet of paper are placed words. We place the words there to drive the show forward. We drive the show forward with laughter, applause, suspense, surprise and sometimes messages. We train in juggling, acrobatics, magic etc… perfecting our skills and then blending the two elements into a presentation.

It is not the line, not the trick that we present as important as those elements are but, it is our insight into how to be a more openhearted fully evolved functionally compassionate person that finalizes our evolution as an artist. It means that the more authentic a person we become the closer our audiences can get to us. The distance we keep between ourselves and others is the distance we maintain between those parts of ourselves that we prefer others not to see. And time and time again I have watched a good act fall apart in front of an audience when what comes into view isn’t what they are doing but when the least preferred parts of who they are come seeping out.

One of the most difficult actions a person can take is to work on those parts of who they are that are veiled, ignored, unrecognized, denied, or when acknowledged are thought to be perfectly fine just as they are.

I’m not talking about insincere sweetness or patriotism on steroids, or being nice no matter what. This is not what I mean. An authentic performer will handle a moment as truthfully as necessary. If something painful, something difficult arises then at least it will be handled by someone the audience can trust.

Our capacity to be more open, more aware, more awake, more compassionate, more kind to our audiences and to ourselves as well can be grown and strengthened and featured in our presentation in ways that can expand not just our authenticity as a human being but as an entertainer who points toward something greater than the accidental unmasking of their smaller self.

BANKRUPT HEART                              THE SECOND NOVEL

“You two just
can’t get enough of one another,” Ry said, “kind of like it spicy, don’t you?”

“I’ve just found
out that Kristine has decided that there is no way, she could ever tell me that
she loves me.”

Jackie laughed. “Perfect…I see, this seems
to have turned out just the way I thought it would have. I thought you said you
were going to tell him?”

“Well, I was until
I looked him in the eye and he got that look, that look on his face,”

“What look?” Ry
asked.

“He looks,”
Kristine paused then spit it out, “confident,”

Ry looked at Finn’s
expression, “He can be overbearing on occasion, seems to know things, what to
do, how stuff works, gets on my nerves too.”

“He swaggers,” Kristine
said, “he’s brash, certain of himself. It’s so annoying.”

“Finn, why do you
have to be so damn sure of yourself?” Ry asked. “Why can’t you look a little
less confident, act like you just don’t know, maybe she’ll come around.”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Lambrusco with a Steinbeck Chaser…

Green Performer working with the Sporting Green

In 1975 in the Mission Gardens at Santa   Clara University the season’s final show with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus ended my year long stint with the foundational experience of my new variety arts path in life.

A Sidekick in a Big Show

By 1977 I had a new show and played dates for the next three years with the talented and beautiful Mari Dempsey. This was a big show, lots of equipment. We were doing sketch comedy, and the irrepressible Dana Smith was if you can believe it was doing sketch comedy in iambic pentameter! That was heavy on the sketch and light on the comedy.

Between 1974 and 1980 there was one 18 month gap where I was not on the road touring full time and year round nationwide. Our material ranged from acrobatics to mindreading, puppetry to performing dog tricks.

The Duo Between Sets

We got good notices as these things go and they were vital to keeping a show like this on the road. There still wasn’t any videotape yet and so bookings were all done by press clippings, letters of recommendation, and the dates you played.

Self Awareness as Puppet

Yes, the road didn’t disappoint. Mari and I got ourselves into more than a few tight spots. While in Washington D.C. our luck ran out. After a weekend of less than successful shows we were down to our last ten bucks. We found a discarded copy of The Grapes of Wrath in Georgetown. We walked to a liquor store took our last ten spot and bought a bottle of Lambrusco. We went back to the truck climbed into the back drank the wine, and shared the book. It was the end of our money but it wasn’t the end of the world. It was our life. We were doing what we wanted to do.

Make-up goes away at the end of 1979

 BANKRUPT HEART                         THE SECOND NOVEL

Finn looked at Ry’s face. He seemed more relaxed. The harbor oozed tranquility and
coaxed an unhurried demeanor from the people who lived there. Seagulls sat
resting on the metal boat shed roof, mallards explored afloat on the water,
while crows hopped about the docks, there was always a chance something to eat
would turn up. The harbor was juxtaposed next to the rush hour freeway where
traffic was headed north at a crawl bumper to bumper. There was a treasured
serenity as the boatyard emptied of the men and the women who had finished up
their work for the day.

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Long Hops and short stops

“I know what you’re thinking, what a horrible way for a chicken to have to make a living. Well, there are a lot of chickens working at Safeway and they’re not having half as much fun.”

In the early 70’s as the counter cultural movement took to the streets the first wave of artists built shows from scratch. We had no templates to work from. By the early 80’s that was over. Acts arrived at venues derived from the first wave shows of the late 60’s to early 70’s. We felt a tremendous sense of freedom in the beginning. Audiences like artists had no expectations. Still it was at its heart a form of theater and as such there were rules. The basic rule was gather a crowd, hold
them together, turn them into an audience, and if done properly at the end when you passed your hat there would be a fair exchange between artist and audience.

Over the span of almost 40 years I have created about 6 different closing routines. These are the best of the best material, the surefire, knock them dead, take no prisoners, this is the one you’ve been waiting to see routines. Perhaps the wildest most talked about stunt I’ve ever devised was to juggle fire while balancing a chicken on my head.

American Airlines Magazine 1988

 

In the winter of 1986 Will Soto brought a lot of us together in Key   West for a festival he’d titled Buskerfest. Talent scouts from Europe and Canada were there; in particular Edmonton’s brilliant festival director Dick Finkel. He imagined our shows not as mere minor additions to a larger show or festival, but instead he imagined our shows as a festival in and of itself. He bet that he could make street theater into a stand alone festival.

With that in mind Dick went about the business of finding out who among the many acts practicing street theater were doing first rate original work. It was this group he believed that he could build a festival from. And with an eye on quality he believed his audience would return the following year. He was right and the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival in Alberta, Canada will present its 28th festival in 2012.

Some of my most cherished experiences have come while performing in Edmonton. In addition to simply performing our shows we also combined our talents and present special productions. Late Night Madness was one, and a late night fire extravaganza another. I had the privilege of writing, directing and performing in some of these larger productions. Some of these audiences numbered in the many thousands. Under such circumstances we were able to test and prove that our material was versatile enough to engage audiences of all types and sizes.

 

Great Canadian Audiences

 

So, this is one small fragment of the whole. Whether on stage in front of audiences that looked something like this or, backstage after a show hanging out with some of the local fans who looked something like this, I can say that working in street theater has turned out to be one of the grand adventures of my life. To all the audiences and to all the artists I’ve shared time with I will always be grateful.

Volunteers waiting backstage..........

 BANKRUPT HEART            THE SECOND NOVEL

Mort watched his best act from the
back of the room. To his ear he was trying too hard. He knew how Ry’s mind
worked. He watched his eyes. It wasn’t the lines, it was what he was thinking,
not what he said, what he was feeling, how he worked the room. Mort could hear
the whirling gears inside his best acts mind.

“I think timing is everything,” Ry
was shifting gears, “fundraiser’s are good things, giving a little is good for
you, good for the world, good for these kids we’re putting this event on for,
but I mean, talk about timing, what’s going on with Wall Street? All the lousy
luck, it’s a bad time for newspapers, they’re getting smaller and folks I don’t
know if you’ve noticed but the news it has been getting bigger.” Ry laughs at
his own line of thinking.

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

 

 

 

Life as Transition

The First Show

My beginnings as an entertainer started in 1974 with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus. I am on the left and Nick Weber the shows creator is on the right. After a year long national tour with the circus I struck out on my own. Sold my motorcycle and bought my 1967 Ford pickup and packed my first show into the back of that truck and set out on a six year non-stop tour.

I learned to go north and south with the weather. I learned to live out of my pickup truck, how to get book dates for the show, where to park and sleep, find showers, make telephone calls, cook of a tailgate, fix the truck when something broke, and to pursue with passion my vision of what my life should be.

What a Pair Sunshine and Her Performing Juggler Dana

I’ve had many partners. Steve Aveson, Nick Weber and Mari Dempsey were my first. Sunshine and then Lacey were next. Learning to solo perform required learning to be totally self-sufficient when out on the road. Touring alone is a different experience. It is an art. Solitude as defined in those days was of a flavor changed by the interconnectivity of now. Without cell phones and electronic mail my chances of having someone contact me rested entirely on the US Postal Service and a
telephone answering service I arranged for back in California. I would check for messages with the service and then set up and pay a small fortune in coins to contact future clients, friends and family.

Circa 1977 Dana Smith in Harlequin Street Theater

            I fell in love with sailing the day I got off the road and set up shop in San Francisco where I would street perform off and on over the next 31 years. Sailing like shows provided me with the sacred bond I had made to keep in my life a place
where I slept that moved. My 1967 Ford was always ready and from 1976 when I first purchased the truck until about 1997 when I finally junked the rig I put some half million touring miles on this baby. The Chevrolet Suburban 4X4 was
next. Put about two hundred thousand on this rig. Next came my Dodge Cummins diesel dually. And at present I roll with a 2007 Toyota Tacoma 4 cylinder 5 speed stick, twenty-seven miles to the gallon rig.

Where I've Lived the Longest of All....

My life is a story of wanderlust. My life is also a story about being a traveling showman. Then, the writing, always the words, and my plays, poems, songs and lyrics, correspondence, magazine articles, and finally the development and completion of my first two novels. Of course imagine if you will with me the million of random incidences, both large and small, occurrences that last a moment and other events that have stretched out over the decades. Children, marriages,
homes purchased, boats I’ve owned, dunderheaded choices made in haste in the moment only to cost me precious spiritual energy tens of years later, and all the while some part of some of what I didn’t do right whittling away at the
purity of the best parts of who I was until accounted for. This is to say that nobodies perfect and I express and honor my flaws and speak up with some candor for trying to address those now.

Malibu Master Bedroom for Showman

            So, this short narrative explains in capsule form where my experience comes from. It explains what work I’ve done and where and where I haven’t lived. At present I am planted firmly in the hills of the East Bay near San Francisco.
Waiting in the garage my trusted Toyota and nearby in Emeryville our trusted sailboat. I am less urgent at the moment about going out on the road or heading out to sea, but the day will arrive when I’ll want that and seek out the opportunity to go, ride the wind across prairie or sea, and find out what else I can know about this world we live in.

Change Changed Newport

A Place Named After a Floppy Hat

Busking was salvaged from the dictionary some years back and put to work again as a term describing street performing. I visited Newport,
Rhode Island and while strolling the waterfront walked past this joint. Not that busking would go down very well in Newport. I make it my business to know about where buskers play and Newport appears closed for business. When looking for situations that might be right for the game we play we are first looking for a space that we could make work. I didn’t see that space in Newport. Second we look for a situation. The situation looked promising. People appeared as if they could use something to do. Finally, we look for the kind of people who might react favorably to the offering. That looked hard to read by my eye. I’m not sure I saw a kind of visitor to downtown Newport who might be inclined to spending some impromptu moment engaged in a bit of mirth and diversion. I did see a good city sponsored music presentation in a
local waterfront park. And of course the legendary jazz and folk festivals are both in Newport. I didn’t really know what Newport, Rhode Island would mean, didn’t know what the vibe was in that town, but having been there now I kind of got my first taste. The legendary Andrew Potter of High Street Circus lives nearby in Jamestown with his wife and daughter when she’s not away in college. We walked the historic district, drove past the mansions, the New York City Yacht Club, and slipped the line off Andrew’s sailboat and took a good romp across her legendary sailing waters. Newport is a great place for buskers to go sailing is what I’ve learned. Some things will never change, even in the face of the fact that nothing remains the same forever. When the New York City Yacht Club lost the America’s Cup that is when change changedNewport.

Bankrupt Heart                              The Novel

“Nick had a nifty side job using a power washer to
clean hauled out boats. This morning he was flogging the pull chord trying to
get the machine to start. While Ry was sanding Nick was cussing, and this
wasn’t just simple cussing, this was existential cussing, this was cussing like
when Picasso was painting, this was Nick putting the fear of the gods into the
inanimate object of his unfulfilled wishes cussing, this was Nick flipping the
whole mess on its side, pulling spark plugs, replacing spark plugs, changing
gas, trying again until the power washer after ruining his whole day in spite
of all his impatience and cussing at long last started.”

Changing Ground Rules for Teens

One Hundred and Forty-Four Feet of Consortium Change The Lovely Artemis in Nantucket

It is hard to read the paper and have the headlines not change your mind. What the heck is going on? All I want to do is a show now and again, get a book published, and enjoy the good things life has to offer. I think Syria is easier to understand than a credit default swap, but then is the tyranny of a dictator all that much different than a financial sector that runs amok, blows up, reconstitutes itself and in its wake destroys the wealth of so many millions and millions of the worlds citizens? Now, on top of what appears to be revolution across the Middle East we have social unrest (polite term for revolutionary action) popping up in London, Liverpool and Manchester… It appears to me that capitalism left  unfettered, unrestrained, to its own devices will do whatever it is allowed to do to maximize its share of the opportunity. If we allow it to pollute it will. If we allow it to compensate its executives unreasonably it will, if we allow it to smash unions and diminish wages and benefits it will. It doesn’t do this with emotion, or with ideology, it doesn’t do this necessarily with any evil or malice. It simply does so by using its guidance system…profits. Giant profits beget enormous
profits. Money captures politicians, then regulators, then think tanks, then public relations firms that concoct messages that attempt to capture the people. If they can’t win with a message then they will attempt to muddy the waters, obscure the issues, raise doubts to the facts of the situation, and regroup and then once more the organization will reintroduce its new message and try again to prevail. It isn’t a black and white world. Yes, there are corporations that seem constrained and well controlled. But, when one of these really big behemoths breaks out of the cage, and many do, a great deal of a corporations goal’s are met at the expense of the will of the peoples. It isn’t binary. Do you understand? It isn’t either/or. It is a matter of good governance. We create frameworks for these institutions to function within. They don’t set the framework, the people do, through their governments. Here’s an idea! Let’s say I’m a teenager and I want to date your daughter. Instead of the parents setting the ground rules I get to. I tell you what time I’ll bring her home, tell you what you can and can’t know about what we are going to do, and when it seems like something just doesn’t seem right about all of that, I’ll
flood your house with phone calls, emails, and messengers to your front door all raising doubts about rules you thought you might enforce. It is possible I might just get away with it for a date or two, but then nine months later? I think the parents might regret having ever changed their minds, but by then it’s too late. That’s what I like about a good idea, its fool proof, why a really big idea in this day and age as come to be know as “too big too fail.”

Bankrupt Heart               The Second Novel 

“Dad,” she said with a question in her voice.

He echoed her tone, “Sophia,” Ry continued washing
the dishes, drying them, finding their place in the cupboards.

She sat down at the dining table.

Ry used the dish towel to dry his hands. He sat down
next to his daughter.

“What?”

She didn’t know the answer to her question. Finally,
she gave it up, she said, “Sharks!”

“Sharks,” It was out of the blue.

She’d become more brazen, “yeah, sharks, are there
sharks in the water?”

“You mean big sharks, man-eaters, Great Whites?”

She was growing cranky. She put her hand on her chin.
She stared straight ahead. She thought the question had merit. “I don’t know
what kind of sharks,”

Ry put his arm around Sophia. “I’m not going to die from
a shark attack.”

 “So, if the
boat sank sharks wouldn’t kill you?”