Tag Archives: Street performer

Sometimes I Played for Elephants

Page from Milage Log 1978

Touring a show by truck is a different experience from
flying to an airport, renting a car, staying at a hotel, and getting all your
meals in restaurants. I arranged my pickup truck to fit my show equipment and
everything I would need to eat and sleep while traveling.

 

 

To travel in this way requires a whole set of different
muscles. You need to know where you can park and sleep at night and not be
hassled. You need to time cooking with light of day. You need to deal with
wind, rain and cold.

 

Diversity of opinion, wide range of locations, paints a picture of a veteran

Everything on a truck tour is about the show. What time is
the show? Where is it? How do I shower, shave, get my hair looking right and
get into costume so I am ready? If you are in Hammond, Louisiana
for the first time it takes some effort to pull this off on the sly and the
cheap.

If the tour was booked efficiently there wasn’t much down
time. You arrived and set up, did the show, pack up, look at the schedule and then
drive to the next spot. Might be a short drive might take the rest of the day.
Arriving late at night I used all night coffee shops for parking lots where I
could sleep.

Circa Early 90's Windsor, Ontario

There were animals that needed care. I cleaned cages, took
the dog for a walk, tried to get the chicken out and let her peck around on the
ground when I was in camp. Sometimes I would have a friend in the town I was
visiting. Sometimes I made new friends and sometimes I didn’t. I carried my
Smith-Corona typewriter with me and when I could I’d set it up and write. I
also used yellow legal pads when I needed to work on material.  I juggled and did my handbalancing training in
a park. Sometimes I’d crash a college campus and find a hallway that was dry
and warm where I could practice. Not once was I ever asked to leave.

There was solitude in this kind of touring. There was empty
space between one place and the next. Nothing was out there. Just one small
town and then another. You had to be comfortable and take good care of your
rig. Change the oil, keep an eye on things. You didn’t want to break down in
the middle of nowhere. If you did break down you might be stuck out there for a
long time waiting for help.

Where is Lake Havasu? Right next to Nowhere...

But, this is what touring in the small time is all about.
You are closer to your audiences. It is this intimacy between artist and
audience that if you enjoy performing makes the touring worthwhile. The small
time is located in your heart, next to your audience while you perform your
show. It is this warmth, this intimacy, between audience and artist. This is
the purpose of the tour, the reason for the voluntary sacrifice.

Induction at Start of Show ,       Circa 1977

Miracles

Is there such a thing?

Laughter

Is the song you sing

Clowns

Every always flirting

Then look!

Into the wild blue yonder

Bolting

Crashing…the fury of thunder

Swoosh…

The windy dance of the sparrow

Finally

Rain descends

Friends

Huddle about some puddle

Grey

Gives way to a blue day

So here we are

As the curtain goes up

And the show goes on

Like a newborn pup

To the merriest song…

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.”