Tag Archives: Showman

Sidewalk Show 1980

“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing bad habits.”
Jefferson Street 1980
One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs— just pure hat and more hat shows. “Hat” is street pidgin for money. Conjuring up legal tender from out of the thin blue is the real magic. Motivating citizens to open their wallet pluck out a bill and voluntarily hand it over never ceases to be anything less than the biggest cardiopulmonary event this side of weeping at the sight of Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . Busking is a spine tingling page turner with the best ending you’ve ever experienced. A reliable pitch works from here to eternity any time, any day, all year long— she’s always there for you. Playing the king’s fool in the public square is life emancipating.
This lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe the world I wanted to live in was about running wild and being free. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn unpaid parking ticketed path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your last glimmer of hope on. An emergent busker is a go it alone type drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out— this is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Faith in the kindness of strangers is your North Star. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.
Stalling is what you do when the famous ego induced death spiral—fear of rejection—has you cornered and on the ropes. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long that the present moment was now a fresh unused January 1980. Waking pensive with a stomach tied in knots I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf. What I can remember was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak— a bustling midday Jefferson Street at this hour waited empty— but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his great expectations on the line.
Making it to the tippy top of the small time sidewalk show 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 one quarter of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing 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 self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.
Raspy voiced, drained— the grinding first day exacted the last bead of sweat. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was retried and refined. Improvement inched uphill— grudgingly.
In a scalding hot-heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated across the pavement like a trumpeting bop infused Miles Davis scorched earth- note perfect- improvised melodic soul-aching out of this world moon shot. Escape velocity sent this one and only into busking orbit. I was a man on a mission.
Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next. Preschoolers recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer pleaded whining at full lung to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop standing in scuffed shoe leather ordered I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced— smoking cigarettes. Assorted stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter away calculating the odds of my surviving. 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, civilizations westernmost outpost, an emphatic continental end of the line— the leading edge of some one of a kind infinitely-dubious vocational enterprise.
First and foremost street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd— how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day— execution is the whole enchilada. Wily busker’s 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 you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker’s or sit back down— life is short.
End One of Ten… more to follow

April 24, ’18 Road Dog Redux

Coast to Coast

the road

What a Juggler Sees

Physical training while touring can be gigantic pain. If there are long jumps between dates you’re going to miss your workout. The best of the best jugglers train every day. The length of a workout varies. Physical intensity is relative to the mental focus the act brings to the training process. The uncommon acts have stellar focal power- they stand out because they’re talents are many and easy to recognize.

We deal with the distraction of touring. If the virtuosity of a stunt is so high that it can only be attempted under optimal conditions then the trick is dropped while on the road. You’ll scale back and include only the stunts you can do drop dead stone cold one hundred percent every time. Your audience only sees a fraction of your best work.

Trailer 1

My Beautiful Reward

Driving, eating and sleeping are all scheduled around performing. Your day is framed by the stage time. Maybe Lenny Bruce walked on but variety acts have to get ready. Props have to be set. Costumes, even casual what might at first appear to be street attire is worn because it can accommodate the range of movement the performer expects to make during the show.

You go out on ten coast to coast national tours and perform a few thousand shows across the entire lower forty-eight and you are bent by such a process. Gas stations, rest areas, hotels and convenience stores become habitat. Once in touring mode you become the student of regional patterns. There is a contrast between how a local person’s schedule is all caught up and tied to the concerns of their immediate surroundings.

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Between the Long Hops and Small Town Stops

While touring the performer is painting a story of human attachment to place and people. We are invasive species, foreign objects—curiosities. How we can survive without the familiar comforts of our own home is hard for a local to understand. Why we train so hard is to give form to that emptiness. We are working not just for a living but for our psychological survival. The best jugglers exercise many talents.

Buy a book, book a show. Tell a friend. Share my blog. Be in touch… Best of luck and love

Edited Red Star

March 25, 2018 The Bigger the Dream

Running with the Small Dogs

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Sunset in the Superstitions not far from Apache Junction, Arizona

We rolled out on the road without a wireless telephone or an Automated Teller Machine card. We used such antiquated technologies as American Express cashier checks, wired funds via Western Union, made calls with coins fed into pay phones.

Running the American West at times for months without coming off the road was paid for by solitude. Once the knack for being alone became a skill. Once comfortable in your own bones living day to day without companionship or conversation the feasibility of touring tilted in your favor.

You no longer need run hard from one date to the other fearing what is in between. That segment of space and time becomes a mindful opportunity. You can pull off and eat supper at an overlook during sunset. You might get under a shade tree and spend the afternoon working out. Roll down a dirt road along a river, build a fire, drink a glass of whiskey and spend your evening looking up at a sky choked with stars.

Small Town

Ely, Nevada on a busy day!

If you are going to give your audience an unvarnished glimpse of who you really are why not deepen your own center, cultivate a truer more fully realized sense of belonging to the cosmos, report back from the frontier to the landlocked-nine-to-fivers what you’ve found out about what drifting out on the highways and byways of the American West can mean to a fellow citizen. My audiences expected such payment in return for the investment of their attention.

A showman might not have fame or great wealth. Instead we may be symbolic post suburban-middle class kindred spirits. We might just be reporters of what an ordinary person might be capable of as they escape the mundane grip of a more conventional life.

In that way we owe our audiences the blueprint we’ve sorted out as to how a laugh filled entertainment might just brighten the load they carry, make something larger in their imaginations possible. A showman in possession of a show can cure modernity’s digitally induced melancholy. On an ordinary day we’re not much better than average, but when it all clicks a showman can electrify the minds of every single person captivated by the experience we’ve driven so far and for so long to bring to their community. We are shaman, we can possess magic. It is all that and more or nothing at all…

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Showman between Performance at Tempe Festival for the Arts

As ever, explore my site, buy a book, book a show (or come find me today… in Oakland’s Fairyland) and come on back. I’ll be here even if I’m running with the little dogs out there.

Edited Red Star