Tag Archives: Busking

Sidewalk Show Exposé

2005D 016

Ghirardelli Square circa 2001

Street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes 4, 4 turns into 8; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Survivors of this hustle have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd and how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt and perform to live another day, execution is whole enchilada. Wily buskers got this one word— “survival” tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real or sit back down, life is short.

Home field advantage is a term of art meaning playing the same space. Fine tuning the act is having a plan when the chimes to the courtyard clock ring. The sharpest tacks in the hunt for an audience can preplan then unload the perfectly timed zinger. Play your hand swift and sure, be on your toes, don’t get caught, stay loose, fresh, act quick while you possess the advantage of surprise. Time is of the essence.

Street performers are premeditated—  Glance around, count bodies— are they older, younger, can you smell the money in the crowd? Intuit mood, develop a game theory— come to the arena of street with a launch strategy. When starting a show make damn sure that you start your show. Is it a slow build or a quick start? Does it feel like you are pulling teeth? Are you slaying? Killing? Shooting fish in a barrel? Time tested material displays prowess. Audiences find a performer’s deft grip reassuring. Your job is to be dead certain they’re buying what you’re selling.

Buskers know the score, the headlines, front page, chess puzzle and constant disappointment of not being listed in the entertainment section. The winners in our world are lauded, the rest is fodder for the comic cannons. What’s the same, what’s different, what’s going on? Maybe it isn’t the size of your audience but it is the type. Maybe there are more children, more teens, or elderly. Read and react. If you can’t figure people out, you’re having an off day, out of rhythm? Pack it in. Do yourself and everyone else a favor, go to the tanning salon.

Offseason I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day I set out to do ten sets, and depending upon flow and energy settled on at least 8. The real trick was squeezing the 8 shows into an efficient 3 hour work day. You try shorter, try longer but the best money was earned nailing the finale before the fifteen minute mark.

Blog Post Pic One

Closer was a Jack Russell Terrier 

With tourist season in full swing from Memorial Day to Labor Day the sidewalk performers worked full time— 5 or 6 days on, 1 or 2 off. Strike while the iron is hot. By the end of that first summer I’d cranked out five-hundred shows. Once peak season ended I dialed back to 3 days per week again. I’d squirreled away more than half my summers take. I’d nurse my nest egg, make ends meet, and if I’d survived take another run at the big bucks next summer. Sidewalk showmanship is all about staying in the big game of betting everything or going broke trying.

Edited Red Star

Sidewalk Show

Scan_Pic0048

Winnipeg 1987

One of the hardest hand to mouth games ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany struck fresh and wild. Destitution and insolvency are bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there are no lucky breaks or easy streets on this path— you can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a tangled soul drowning in a world insisting on obedience. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Life on Easy Street is over. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, that you’re at risk of drowning in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

in the round

Small Crowd

Since 1972 I had been stalling. I’d put off the day so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf on a overcast cool dry morning. Crazy early sunrise. The streets were empty but for the sounds of mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and one tentative soul preparing to put his future on the line.

To make it to the top of the small time  I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too little. All in from start to finale was not one second more than fifteen minute journey to glorious acclaim or agonizing defeat. I jiggered the running order, discarded one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about owning every inch of the concrete self proclaimed stage. This is the coliseum. You are an entertainment warrior.

2005D 015

A Lifetime of Playing with Fire

Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day had taken a toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered ever so slightly is retried, polished and refined. Improvement inches ahead grudgingly.

Like that the weekend zipped by, three days work reverberated like a broken record in my head. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat set fire to my withering courage. Youngsters charmed with wonder in their eyes wanting to see what happened next. They recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised within the busker and begged their parents to stay for the end. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop wearing out his shoe leather ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. The other assorted stubborn misfits and survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own work had not even a spare moment to fritter away. My peers didn’t need to know, they knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick. Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed frontier, western civilizations western most outpost, an end of the line– the leading edge of a new possibility.

Edited Red Star

Micro Mini Street Riff

 

dtla-olive.jpg

Stopping for Nothing

Buskers have to keep the experience growing. An audience will notice this increase. Success depends upon demonstrating that the performance is getting better right before their eyes. Emotions intensify, the number of people watching is larger, a trustable decorum arises, we can laugh, we become more and more confident that this is worth the time and that waiting to see what happens at the end, the unexpected surprise will be worth being interrupted. Buskers start with nothing, then like that appears something that is perishable, delicate, barely existent, an audience can see from out of the blue there is an accumulating phantom energy and it is getting bigger. The pace begins at tempo, rhythm is steady, this is boilerplate, comedy is timing, starting at one rate and speeding up to the final rate, a show nearing a finale moves quicker. That was good but this next bits even better. A street show can’t go back. Get off on the right foot then you’ll run without losing your breath to an emotional summit that will motivate an audience to come forward after your best trick and drop a tip into the hat.

Edited Red Star

Code of Street Performing Conduct

2009SPF07842.jpg

Love Your Audience

There is no getting off the road, there are no breaks— you can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. One of the hardest hand to mouth games ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking full time. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. You do so many you’re at risk of drowning in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

To take the edge off, to stand just that much further from the abyss some acts blend the footloose street show with the paid for hire show’s. For the sake of profit and efficiency contracts and appearances need to be packed tight. A good act is infused with an evangelical enthusiasm. The paid gig, as sweet as that payday might be, is never more than a prayer and a hope whereas a first class street pitch opens the door to pure worshipping at the altar of the almighty unseen mystery and miracle. It is not exaggeration to claim street theater in some spontaneously combustible way is as near to a religious experience as you will ever behold.

wife with front row seat

Running with the Wild and Free

A street act is either in town or on the road, behind the wheel or on stage. A day off with no show is an odd unwelcomed event, something worrisome and undesirable. Fairs and festivals are all performed by binding contract between the producer and artist, the agreements are simple fee for service agreements. Some entertainers might forward stage, light and sound requirements, but a grizzled street act, tested by parkway and boulevard, the hardcore bust your butt busker urban take no guff kind, are most times pure point and shoot types. A veteran street act is accustomed to possessing the chops to walk on steal the show. “Hand me that mike. Is it hot? Let’s roll…”

Buskers are all about squeezing the light out of the red dawn and gold dusk, there is no tomorrow, there is this opportunity right here, this show, this crowd, what are you waiting for? In the vernacular of the street, “Throw it down, and whip it out…” a racy phrase that means to set down your prop case and do what you do— perform.

gold and red.JPG

Skylight before a Starry Night

Street veterans eat the scenery. The Grand Canyon would be lucky to even be noticed. Empirically this may not stand up to factual analysis but by size of heart and willingness of spirit— this kind of zeal is customary. Buskers are all great infinite expectation unexpectedly seized by ‘I never saw it coming’ heart failure. This is the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. We are trained by sidewalks to talk our way into anything and get out of more corners and tight spots than an average Joe might know was even possible to be caught in to begin with. Buskers worth their weight in copper coins are charmingly eccentric hybridized brightly packaged one part con and two parts escape artist.

I’m sorry to say that a good many of the world’s most rational sisters and daughters couldn’t help but toss all caution to the wind and go all in on our outlandish shows and offbeat lifestyle. The gutsy best of them became our wives. And all those women who ought to have known better, the women who have seen a thing or two, the wives and mothers? Countless numbers of these firebrand beauties in the most unexpected next chapters of their lives entangled their fates with ours, some for a night other aspiring free spirited souls have had the course of their wardrobes irreversibly changed, abandoning suburb and former friends forever and go full wanderlust while vowing to never look back. Love is as unpredictable as a street show. Strap a heart to a buskers grit and you’ve got a life worth riding down the unforeseen future boulevard of unbroken dreams. Neither Hells Angels or street performers want for women. Charismatic outlaws got nothing but magnetism, unpaid parking tickets and access to real happiness.

2009SPF07828.jpg

A Star is Born

Being a busker is handcuffed to having no more excuses for why the impossible isn’t even an excuse. Rainy days and lonely nights catch no sympathy or slack from our kind. We hold self empowered destiny hostage. Our sidewalk show pitch—the pavement stages we concoct is a no strings attached low budget self-inoculating wide open wild as the west dream vaccine. On the ride to the top of the small time a busker’s prop case is near at hand, in our veins, at the tip of our tongues. We don’t go buy costumes- we come costumed. We’ll have plenty of time to relax after this brawling life has been chewed up, satisfaction and self-contentment can come later. Easy Street has got its own sorry location. That useless boulevard is just the other side of the mortal coil.

2009SPF07898.jpg

Fire Dreamer

My money is on a bunch of the best I’ve shared stages with who I believe are working hard out there in the afterlife, and even if there is no for sure I have to hope they’re all killing up there, even now, in the rose bowl of eternal laughs… Wayne Condo, Vince Bruce, Hokum W Jeebs, Butterfly Man, Johnny Fox,Rob Torres, Dick Finkel, Steve Hansen, Gary Schnell… that is a tough lineup to break into. There you go, now you’ve been given a taste, from the barrel.Edited Red Star

Show Biz Bargain Basement Fire Sale

showman Ohio

Banging Another Out

The wanderlust in the heart of a street performer is curiosity writ large across the world. Many buskers remain moored to a city for decades while other acts travel town to town from one place to the next. In summer I preferred roving from the northernmost Canadian cities and as autumn took hold head south and winter in the border towns along the Mexican frontier.

Weather dictates the terms of our doing business. Rain, wind, sun and shade influence our day’s receipts. The 7000’— over one mile high elevation— in Flagstaff, Arizona slows a fleet paced act to another rate of play. A thirty minute set on a stage in the sun with no shade in triple digits? That’s working for a living.

Troy small

Where Drifting on the Long Dusty Road Ends

A one way trip from San Francisco to La Grande, Oregon (one state north of California) measures seven hundred miles. Most of this distance is traveled across long empty stretches of two lane highway. The towns of Alturas, Lakeport and Burns are drying up. Ranch and farm operations that you’ll see are scattered across the landscape if and where water can be found. Eastern Oregon is mile upon mile of Federal land. By the time you arrive in La Grande, Oregon it occurs to this gypsy showman that had I gone east instead of north I would have been one quarter of the way to New York City by now. That is butt on a seat, eyes out the windshield, foot on the pedal non-stop daydreaming while driving. Myself, I had been ordered to head for the small time.

Castle Valley

Castle Valley, Utah My Place…

Much of the experience of drifting the desolate long distance stretches of the American West is dependent upon whether you are comfortable in your own skin. Do you carry a good set of hand tools? Can you swap out a bad water pump for a new one? Have you got the talent to wrangle a blown transmission out from under your truck and slam in a replacement in time to get to the next show? If you know how to keep misery at bay you’ll have a properly inflated spare tire, jack and lug nut wrench all close at hand, ready to go, no questions asked. You change your own oil and filter. You adjust brakes and keep an eye and ear out for mechanical issues before they pull you over on the shoulder of the highway and put your crazy-heart and at-risk-soul in a fix you’ll never repair your way out of. Windshield wipers are in good order, all the lights work and you know how to speak deferentially to the officer of the law as is required. A busker knows how to chain up his rig like right now in the event there is snow. Crossing a high snowbound pass is an opportunity to relish. You might want to keep you day job if bone rattling sleet and snow isn’t your thing.

blowout

Excuse for Pity Party Fueled Cold Beer

You’re not just driving to a destination. You are heading to a specific date and time where you will appear as promised. You are the performer and you have agreed to go into business with an event producer. The presenter could be a fair, festival, library or school. There will be a person to meet you. They may or may not have any prior experience, most don’t and the few that do are seldom experienced in booking variety acts in general and variety acts with a street performing background never. Fulfilling the contracts basic promise to perform in a particular place, at a specific time, for an agreed upon interval on a clock is the entire job. Some acts won’t appear without a retainer. A producer’s signature on a contract worked as far as I was concerned. With services rendered and the agreement fulfilled the fee is then paid. Any act worth a salt lick knows what customer satisfaction feels like once that check is handed to you. Walking out to your waiting rig, the show gear loaded up, gas tank pegged full, you fire up your engine, you take off in a cloud of dust rolling eight hours and four hundred miles, there’s no time to waste, you’ll need to be there first thing, opening tomorrow. In four days time you’ll have a hard time remembering where you had been, but never forgetting what you’ve done…. That kind of life out of a show trunk and suitcase, that’s real road doggin’…

Edited Red Star

April Fool’s Day

A Cup of Black Mud
April Fool’s Day and you ended up here? You can buy a book, book a show, click around and find information about my work as a performer and writer. But, wait there’s more…

In Tucson this weekend hiking on Mount Lemon. Big Bug Trail didn’t disappoint. After horizontal respite plunged into quest for eating or drinking something regional, something from the Dessert Harvesters, something indigenous. How about a prickly pear-jalapeno margarita!!!! Sure. With salt or no salt? I asked that my rim come salted so that I might extract the maximum of things I normally would not do. I avoid salt like the plague and tequila like the pretty little thing that fakes twisting her ankle so that the gentleman may come to her aid.

Rock-Trail-Tree-Bush is Medicinal

Today I’ll head further south of Tucson to the Mexican borderlands near Patagonia, Arizona and hike along Soniota Creek with my binoculars to peek and be peeked back at by the avian special effects show. Sonoita Creeks too-tall cottonwoods make the entire project sketchy at best, but every so often I get lucky when a bird makes a mistake and we scare the devil out of one another before each bolting off in opposite directions. Needless frustrations are quelled by taking the hiking more serious than the actual seeing and identifying of the life we share this fragile world with.

I’ll remain nearby Patagonia at the Oak Bar Ranch. One of my kind, the busking-circus veteran kind is running the ranch. He’s boss to one wife who won’t be bossed, and a fair enough number of barnyard animals that don’t take no guff. This is as nature intended for a self made hard working show business type. You put your back into some tens of thousands of performances only to be ignored, disobeyed, and to your bitter disappointment utterly beloved for the human being you have turned out to be. Our standing up in front of all of you and scratching out a better than fair wage for doing so for what turns out to be most if not all our life scars our hearts up until the bile is near all gone and nothing remains but our having good things to say about the nature and generosity of the human spirit. That holds until it doesn’t and then we relapse like the rest of you into worrying about the entire project and humanity’s ultimate fate.

Birdwatching is today’s medicine.

March 29, ’18 Showboating Circle Show

Joshua Two

Like-Kind Desert-Dwelling Art Brained Dune Drifter

Gathering a crowd on a sidewalk for a street show requires guts. Buskers look for flow. If there is enough foot traffic it’s worth a shot. Transcending this issue is an intangible. I won’t try to name the mystery. We either hold a key to the pedestrians curiosity or not.

In 1967 Jeff Sheridan stepped into NYC’s Washington Square and met the moment. The silent slight of hand magician’s public setting gave the act a sense of mystique.

The impromptu, serendipitous street show’s were given room to run, but as the formula took root the initial exuberance of the performing form began to dissipate.

In this moment in our evolving global culture gathering an audience for a sidewalk show has shifted from places where it is expected to be found— think inner urban areas, performing arts festivals— to less easily predictable settings— rest areas, campgrounds and farmers markets.

Golden Gate Park

Gather them where you find them

It isn’t just movies being hit hard by the cultural shift. Music has been disrupted. Journalism has been hard hit. The book business, especially fiction. I find much to admire in the work of Ann Patchett, Isabel Allende and Jonathan Friesen But, in this moment none are moving the mass markets imagination, none strike a blow at the sales counter as did James Michener.

Our appetites have been supersaturated. Street show or best selling author, once venerable film directors or rock and roll stars— for all of us the work we do and our ability to connect is murky. Our formulas feel spent and harnessing our content to whatever form has the sensibility of being forced. There is the risk of predictability.

Joshua Non-Art

Put Art Everywhere

The birth of Dixieland, the impressionists or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I wonder now how it struck and moved the audiences in the present moment then? How far did they go? How long were they moved? When the new work was exhausted did they cling to the past or let go? —and trusting something new would catch them then leap? —

As ever buy a book, book a show, poke around here at my site. Hope you’ll come back and spend more time with me.

Edited Red Star