Category Archives: Performances

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The Great Romance of Street Theater

My Little Girl With Two Buskers with Great Soul....

Developing an efficient way of stopping pedestrians is not
so simple. It is a trial and error process. Eventually each act finds something
that does the trick. Some acts are incredibly skillful at gathering an
audience.

There are all kinds of street shows. People present all
kinds of skills. Some people work silent, others talk. Some work solo, others
work in a group. Many of us work from a set of principles. We establish some
sort of framework. We arrange to practice and train. We develop our skills. We
rehearse new whole routines. We write material. We try it. We toss out what
doesn’t work and we refine what does. Even if we work silent we’ll at the least
outline the idea move by move.

There is content and form. We think about the structure. How
long the show runs. What is first and what comes last. We know we can lose
audiences between routines so we work on our transitions. We know we can kill a
show if we put a weak routine in the show. If the routine is really weak
everything we’ve worked to build up to that point can vanish in an instant.
People will just walk away.

The good acts develop great material, great content, but
they also know that the structure of the show must work hand in glove with the
other elements. The mother’s milk of street is spontaneity. We thrive upon
being seamlessly woven into the present moment, even if its all an act, the
street show has to come off fresh, original, as if happening for the first
time.

Here is where the interactive skills of an act seal the
deal. A versatile act will adjust their material to the situation and an
audience will never notice that what they are watching is actually scripted
out, practiced, and has been performed hundreds and hundreds of times.

A veteran street act can step in and out of character,
winking and letting the audience in on the fact they really are just doing the
old act. But, to pull this off they need to demonstrate their command of the
situation. If the performer can earn an audiences respect, if they trust the performer,
admire the skillfulness, and appreciate the general direction the entertainment
is taking them, then the act is poised for success.

Learning how to street perform is difficult. Most performers
must practice the craft and learn by trial and error. It is time consuming for
most of us. Rarely someone comes along who seems to just make great
adjustments, good decisions, and the right choices so fast as to have a shorter
journey.

It is why street is what it is and why it is suitable for so
few… It is painful, difficult, and failure is waiting for you just ahead at
your next show. Then, on the other hand it can be like no other experience you
have ever had……..

Invocation to Show circa  1976 

You are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance

We are a song

Sung with a swirl

A carwheeling feeling

Where…

Who shall ever dare

Must weigh with care

The fear and risk

Rising to the chance

To there

Sommersault

Catapault

Vault with us

To there… there…

Dancing… Dancing…

We are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance…

Finally the Finale

Fly Me to the Moon Let Me Play Among the Stars...

I wear two hats now. One is performer, the other is author. Closing a show with a routine that will thrill the audience is an essential ingredient to good street theater. Without this climactic stunt not only will the show fall flat but so will the audiences response to putting some money in
the hat.

In both Highway Home and Bankrupt Heart I have some scenes that have been built around performers. One of the first things I have had to grapple with was how to handle the emotional peak of a finale. One thing is sure. A finale in a novel is not anything like a finale as performed in front of an audience. Well written sex can be a turn on. There is no “turn on” button to fictionalized vaudeville closing routines, at least not one I have been able to write.

To work around this problem I have tried to devise other methods of engaging the reader so that the experience while not anything like a live show is at least an opportunity to read an account that provides depth and insight into what that experience might be like for the character playing the performer in the novel.

Writers like challenges. We like to write new scenes. If we find our characters in the same situation as in a previous story we will try to create another solution, another reaction, solve the puzzle and invent another way out. A professional variety entertainer having found his best closing routine generally will stick with this discovery if and until something better comes along. I think Sinatra knew this and why New York,
New York was his closer for so many years. The big skill in this repetition of a closing routine is the ability to deliver the thrill climax again and again. Why we usually close with a time tested sure fire bit.

My current finale, the present ending of my street show, ends with… Well, let’s just say it is a work in progress. I am still refining the music, the jokes, the blocking.

I’m grateful for two things. That my performing dog had to retire and forced me to come up with a new closing routine and, Bankrupt Heart is complete and has forced me to start planning a new novel.

BANKRUPT HEART             THE SECOND NOVEL 

In the sound booth a special
effects track plays what appears to be a car slamming on its brakes, followed
by a horrible collision with the final touch the sudden surprising sight of a
hubcap rolling onto the floor from where Mooch had just exited and then rolling
all the way across the stage and vanishing on the other side, behind the other
wing.

            Ry  enters from where the hubcap vanished, “Mooch, the man who does with two wheels
what Picasso did for paint…” Ry puts his arm out pumping his fingers, waving
Mooch back on to take a bow. Instead there are two men carrying him across
stage on a gurney. He looks lifeless. The two men carrying the gurney pause
center stage, then from the center of Mooch’s tummy a spring loaded magician’s
bouquet of daisies pop up out of his gut. Then the two men remaining poker
faced with Mooch feigning death solemnly exit.

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

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.