Tag Archives: Street Performing

Sidewalk Show Exposé

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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

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.

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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.

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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