Tag Archives: Busker

Worth a Try

to learn something more about what show is and is not...

I find some of my earliest material from my show
embarrassing. I would have preferred to have come out of the starting blocks
with a perfect beginning.

 

My first few years consisted of a wide range of elements.
There was juggling, magic, mindreading, sketch comedy, puppetry,
water-spitting, springboard acrobatic stunts, and handbalancing. I tried
writing poetry, built sketches using such devices as couplets set to the rhythm
of iambic pentameter. I wrote one-liners galore.  I wrote witty things I could say for stray
dogs, fire trucks, windy weather, rude audience members, unruly children, and
just about any other potential event that might be anticipated.

 

In 1979 I had built more than 3 hours of material. In 1980
going solo and working sidewalks in San
Francisco I distilled the 180 minutes of material down
to 15! And then I found adding another solid 5 minutes excruciating to come up
with. The sidewalk show demanded a quick start, a rapid succession of more and
more interesting stunts, verbal patter and a strong finish.

 

So, a brightly colored costume and a gigantic puppet made in
my likeness was an interesting concept, but in practice it fell short for what
was needed for the audiences I was gathering on the street. Still, the
experimentation clued me into where to look next. I have always believed street
theater needed to be an act of imagination.

From the vantage point of the present it seems obvious, but
in 1978 the concept of what street theater might mean was still an open
question. There were no pat answers yet, no formulas, no templates. In San Francisco the streets
of 1978 was an era full of divergence. Eccentric musicians, roller skating
accordion players, pantomime, and puppet shows. In 2011 the list of things
presented as street performance is much narrower now.

 

Now, as I look at all the material I’ve ginned up over the
years I am grateful, not just for what worked, but for what didn’t, and what
those things that didn’t work have taught me. In one sense it isn’t what is in
the show, but what an artist decides to leave out.

BANKRUPT HEART                        THE SECOND NOVEL

 

“Ry, look at you, didn’t have two
nickels you could rub together when we met, you had nothing, nothing…and
nothing didn’t pay the bills, I got you work, you hit here, one rough spot in
all of these years, and you fold like a cheap pocket knife, take your marbles
and go home, great, good for you, but this won’t even buy paperclips, it’ll get
you two week vacation in Fresno, so you walk away from this one, don’t hold
your breath Ry, might as well know it now, before you find out later, you’re
done, over,”

            Finn
was angry. Thought Mort was out of line. Ry put his hand on Finn’s shoulder to
keep him in his seat.

            “Mort,
thanks, I appreciate the show. I mean it. You get an award. Best agent in the
role of trying to scare his act into signing a deal that he’ll never be happy
in.”

            “I
thought you were smarter than this,”

            “I’m
a clown Mort. I’m fiction, made up, washed out, done, don’t think I’m going
back,” Ry was at ease with his choice, he smiled, “time for something else,”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Street Show as Heart Song

New York Times in New York City, Sunday Edition

My career in show business spans almost four decades. For
many years I have presented somewhere around 300 performances per year. That’s
a solid number. Some years I didn’t do that many shows and in other years it is
likely that I approached as many as 750. There were a chunk of years that I did
shows in Fisherman’s Wharf, at a rate of 15 shows per week. Do the math. I’ve
done a lot of shows.

 

We become
creatures of the stage. We are always in front of audiences. We dial in and
fine tune. We can feel energy. We can remember the last few days and if an
audience is tired or uptight we pick it up right away. We know how to handle
it. We know what to do. We are prepared. We’ve come up with solutions to
situations and have tested the material. For a veteran act we can work with
confidence. In one situation it might mean trying harder, picking up the pace,
or perhaps it means slowing down, relaxing and accepting the audience’s
collective consciousness just the way you find it.

Poster Graphic circa 1977, by Mari Dempsey Artist/Performer

I’ve put up numerous pages now. If you stroll through my
performing blog pages you’ll find pictures and stories from a wide range of
different points in my career, a wide range of different shows, presented in
different places. It is difficult to sometimes convey how this mosaic of
experience affects us. We can be the center of attention while we are doing a
show and can be utterly alone and isolated moments after the performance is
complete. We can travel for days and do one show for an audience and then pack
up and travel again for days before we do another. A solo performer must be
good at being alone.

 

I place
emphasis upon heart. Show business requires a certain kind of mental toughness,
but it also demands sensitivity. We must be capable of empathy. We have to feel
our way into a performance. We need to read our audiences. Look at a face and
know by that quick glance what that person might be feeling. We listen
carefully. Too much noise and it might mean the audience is restless, maybe
they can’t focus, perhaps it is late in the afternoon, they’re hungry, tired.
You have to know how to pick up on these things. A performance is collaboration,
a two way street, it is audience and artist, the world’s oldest biofeedback
system.

Sing...."Oh... its lonely at the top....."

Our lives are different. Our children, our partners, friends
they see it, they know. It is more roller coaster than merry-go-round. We get a
big fat contract and find ourselves in the chips and the next month we are
scuffing up work here and there as we can. It is a groundless life or perhaps a
secure life. Learning how to gather a crowd and do a show and then pass that
hat if you are skillful can be something to depend on. Still I would suggest
street performance is heart driven, you have to put the whole of your heart
into the thing. If you don’t want to use your whole heart, you’ll want to get
off the roller coaster and buy a ticket for the merry-go-round. Each ride is
its own experience….

HIGHWAY HOME                 THE FIRST NOVEL 

 

 

She was rail thin, clad in denim, a
cotton blouse, and a white straw cowboy hat. She had white hair gathered up
with a silver and turquoise clasp into a ponytail. She’d been riding a while
and sweat had come, and dust clung to the wet patches on her shirt. She had a
pair of leather gloves stuffed in her back pocket and a handkerchief tied
around her neck. Noel didn’t know how old she was. She moved better than she
looked. She had lace-up boots with a riding heel and spurs strapped on. She had
an easy look in her eyes. They were brown, clear, and kind looking. She looked
into Noel’s eyes when she spoke, otherwise she tended to keep her eyes held
away from things. She had a way of being polite and giving a person their
space. Lot of sun had damaged her skin. Parts of her face had lines, other
parts had deep creases. Her skin had been wrinkled by what appeared to be a
hard climate and a long stretch of time.

She admired his van. “Got a pretty good
home away from home. Looks like you know how to take care of yourself.”

“I’m out here for a few days. Maybe
more.”

“Taking your time out here. That never
hurt nobody; more harm in rushing.”

Highway Home Copyright © 2009 by Dana Smith

 

Street Performing as Spoken Word

Sunshine the performing dog, Cookie my chicken, and Leonardo my Cat

 

Dana Smith  Harlequin Street Theater from 1978

 

My approach to street theater has placed particular emphasis
on words. It is the power of the spoken word when combined with visual
elements, and situational moments that can be one of the most effective tools
when building a successful show. In the vernacular of the showman it is called
patter. For comics it is all set up and blow off, premise and punchline.

We paint pictures with our words. We create illusions that
our audience holds in their imagination.

“Everything was going fine until we lost our band in Pocatello, Idaho…”
I’ll sometimes say.

It talks of travel, of touring, of a whole cast, of mishap,
hazard, and the inevitable chaos of touring.

Some acts just want to be funny, at all times. It isn’t the
only way to do things. You can drive a show by playing it straight, you might
rely upon charm, it could be you even do something dramatic.

Al Shakespeare used to do a short piece with a whale being
harpooned by a whaler. The whale’s soliloquy was heartwrenching and audiences
weeped over the puppets death.

The veteran street act generally paints from a pallet of
many colors. The show experience is not so range bound. The experience becomes
more fully human. The audience feels a wider range of emotions.

The single most important part of the act is the finale. How
you get there, and what you might do to wind up the show is a matter of
artistic choice. Laughter is helpful, but a seasoned variety act begins to
trust the multiplicity of possible human variations of emotion.

Here is one of the closing salutations used in my show circa
1977….

Closing time, calling out

Last chance for a dance

To the tune of trumpeting

Elephants wandering

From table to table

The ending of a fable

Is a warm violin

The making of new friends.

Closing time calling out

And the wanderer walks

Peddling to the next town

Some circus tricks, magic

And an acrobatic clown

Who sees in his frolic

The savory embrace

Of your souvenir face

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

Friends Change

I Still Talk to Her, Even if She Can't Hear Me Anymore

I departed on my journey inspired by the dreams of friends I made when my soul was still younger than spring. These were big dreamers. I had scrawny dreams. They weren’t even dreams, they were practical considerations, they didn’t contain ambitions, they were solutions to anxieties. I thought I’d adjust my aim so I wouldn’t be too inconvenienced by trying to do more than the world was likely going to allow. But, really I didn’t have my sights set too high when I met my buddies from high school. I wasn’t doing anything so artistically advanced as these two powerhouses unless nothing adds up to much of anything. It is amusing what you can do with 15,000 days in your life once you decide to do something with them. I got to it. Joined the Royal Lichtenstein Circus for a spell, mounted my first production and toured the United States as the Harlequin Street Theater, went solo and worked under my god given moniker, got a dog and named the act Dana Smith and His Performing Dog Sunshine, and then she passed and got another dog a decade later named Lacey. Wore her out and retired her. I wrote plays, songs, lyrics, poems, magazine articles, eventually one and then two novels. I’ve been hard at all these years. Been married, divorced and remarried. Happy as a husband can be. I’ve got a kid in college. I’m doing shows still, trying to get my second novel sold, and plotting the next one, Hot Spring Honeymoon. I still see my friends. We talk now and then. Some come on out and sail with me. But, we’ve all changed. We all have gone our own ways. Much as I thought we’d all continue to relate to one another, that our stories would somehow continue to feed our bond we sealed in youth with our dreams I’ve come to see that has changed. We’ve all produced different results, different experiences, different obstacles to overcome or not, and eventually
by dent of time I guess it would be honest to say we are not dazzled by one another any longer. What we thought was genius, brilliant, and inspiring all those many decades ago isn’t like that so much now. We just are not fuel for each others passions any longer. Sometimes one of my old friends surprises me and I’ll walk that last comment back, but more often than not what passes for encouragement between friends isn’t much more than a mundane service being rendered by a friend struggling to relate to what new work they’ve found by circumstances into witnessing. Seems odd to my mind, but truth goes where it goes. Turns out a stranger interested in fiction makes a better reader and provides a more pertinent reaction than a long time friend who isn’t much interested in fiction and by duty is forced to encounter material they would by
any other circumstance avoid. There’s only so far any of us can go, even in the service of old dreams, and old friends, and old promises we made to ourselves. Still, doesn’t change the fact I still love those old friends, just find much of what we have in common has changed.

Bankrupt Heart                                                  The Novel

Lenny laughed, “She’s a whirling dervish, a Tasmanian devil, part coyote and a
bonafide wild ride,” Lenny paused, mood shifted, smile vanished, turned and
looked at Ry. “I’m heading north, have plans to be in the Puget Sound this
summer, Jackie’s going to need her friends, someone she can spend time with,”

            “I can understand that, look forward
to seeing her anytime,” Ry said.

            “I was talking to her few nights
ago,” Lenny was trying to explain his arrival, his behavior, “I said that I
didn’t know what was going to happen when I got here, didn’t know how I’d feel,
what reaction I was going to have.”

            Ry looked at Lenny, wanted to hear
what he thought. “What do you think?”

            “I think it isn’t what I expected.”
Lenny said. “The first time is never like the next time. Five years is a long
time to be away, things change, it’s not that she’s so different, or that I am,
just that things are, the world is.”