Tag Archives: Street Theater

Another Roadside Distraction

The Kid with the Old Man in Edmonton

I’m from the small time, nothing but proud of the work I’ve done, all the way down to the day-to-day, show business as paycheck, that’s been the path, how I found my way in this mixed up worldwide love affair I’m having with life.

I played spot dates across the United States, Canada and Mexico. In the latter part of my career, I landed a gig playing nightlife stages at Dreams and Secrets, an American owned all-inclusive Mexican Riviera resort operation.

Until the pandemic I had kept a roof over my head and food on the table banging out shows with much of my focus here in the American West. In San Francisco I played in Fisherman’s Wharf. Off the road for a decade plus, I dug into a swank ground level garden apartment in Cow Hollow at Steiner at Union. Peak street performing years allowed the best of the best acts to live large.

In Alberta Canada I was awarded by the late Dick Finkel, executive producer of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival the Golden Finkelini in 2001 for my lifetime contribution to street theater. This is who I am, part mongrel street artist mated to a career as a professional variety show artist. I’ve been singing for my supper, at least with a dog accompanying me for the last 5 decades.

Predicting my turn at finding a path in the performing arts would have been a fool’s errand. I was an undiagnosed creative type. Symptoms included boredom with school. I didn’t fear hard work but meaningless, boring, tedious labor ate at my spirit. First examples of my creative bent arrived as poems I composed in middle school years. Best buddies in high school were two terrific actors, I had no knack for the stage, not acting but performing was unknown to me. Ballet training altered my course, in a sense the physical training distributed creativity out of my head into my body. I was still too wordy had to learn to smother my inner Norman Mailer and transpose my literary bent into something more terse, glibber, think Eastwood style single word reply.

Working in the business takes it toll. It’s rags to riches and all the way back to rags again. If you need a smoother ride, can’t hack the bumpy road, and there are plenty of this kind of touring weary talented souls that suffer the extended months and months out there making one appearance after another until it shatters their personal lives. If you know someone in this fix, this is how talent gets stuck between the rock and the hard place. The road may be killing them but a steady job would be a death sentence.

Stardom is another beast, there’s a waiting list, and it’s a short one, the gods mint a handful and sprinkle them out over the eons, just know that an infinitesimally few rare talents ever crack the code, so you best know the road is long and there are no bookies taking these longest of long odds, it’s almost a sure thing you’ll go broke and get nowhere no matter how hard you try.

Dining at an outdoor café on Columbus in New York with a former beauty queen, the real deal, a Broadway veteran, triple threat, she was the complete package, and after a decade best she had ever done was one principal role, a few lines, more often a dancer in the chorus. She’d landed a few bit parts in the soaps, worked summers in regional theaters, auditioned in LA, shot one pilot never came of anything. When her current gig in 42nd Street closed her time was up and the stunner in any other business was heading home to South Carolina.

The Pentagon spends $2100 per person per year trying to keep America safe. That is two grand plus for every single citizen. To fortify our cultural lives the National Endowment of the Arts  spends $4.00 per person per year. The disinvestment in our cultural lives has shrunken opportunity for both the artist and the audience.

Arts administrators cobble together low-priced office space, staff turnover is frequent, here and there you will find exceptions, more often than not an unqualified inexperienced self-funding citizen will voluntarily step in and do what they can. Having had the opportunity to work at Universal Studios in Universal City, California I can affirm that having a veteran professional production team attending to my sound, lights and staging made a difference. Second day on the job my stage had been lowered, lights repositioned and sound system was replaced. There job was to make me look good, and did they ever.

Playing regional dates at regional festivals is another matter altogether. Volunteer staff trying their best, and none of this heroism is sustainable. The festival breaks, the staff burnout, the artists don’t want to come back. Too many administrators live too near the poverty line. Like the artists the event staff sacrifice everything only to find that their lives are unstable, they are constantly on the move, their marriages crumbling under the stress.

For a very few life at the top is fat while down in the minor leagues where things are less flush the up and comers can’t make ends meet, lives become unmanageable, creative’s become dysfunctional most subsist in survival mode. Everything is put on hold but for perhaps the purchase of a new suitcase.

There are no 401k’s, no matching contributions, nobody is an employee working for an employer. Most artists function as sole proprietor’s, furiously deducting their 3 martini lunches and long-distance drives to the next date. Workman’s compensation, medical, dental, and pensions are nowhere to be found. I joke that my show business day rate is the same as my executive wife’s per diem.

Traveling to an International Festival and Events Association convention in Anaheim I met a Australian who had come to the convention in an effort to teach artists how to save for retirement. Here was proof that you could retire if you knew how time and compound interest worked to the investors advantage. He’d worked in Sidney, had worked for a financial institution, he had a passion for being around people that worked in show business, creative people were his bliss. His intentions were all to the good. His actuarial chops were superb. He was there to teach artists how to save for retirement, he wanted to teach the youngest artists how to start socking away 10% of everything they earned and allow their monthly contributions, their nest egg the decades of time to grow. He knew life was short and at the other end of a career these artists would need this cushion to fall back on when their gigging days were up.

Matters were slightly less dire in Europe where he’d traveled and presented his ideas at similar conventions. In the United States there were no extra revenue streams for artists to invest in their own future. Instead he found performers living hand to mouth, month to month, much of the work was seasonal, rare was the act that had figured out how to build a robust year round tour.

Creatives are wired to put up with all manner of obstacles while dedicating countless hours, months and years building a new speculative piece that may or may not sell. Painters, composers, choreographers, and novelists spend years hoping they’ll maybe find an audience for what they are producing. Most of this work never sells, the work that does sell if you figure the time invested versus the return there is no business case to be made for working this way, but this is the only way this work gets done, by creative types who are doing what they have to do, this isn’t a choice, they must get this work into the world no matter the odds of the work paying off.

Patrons of the arts over the long course of history paid to have paintings created, plays written and symphony’s composed.

In 1946 Wallace Stegner, writer and environmentalist was offered to come to California and lead the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships. Mr. Stegner had been a prolific writer, over 30 books, and then winning a Pulitzer in 1972 for Angle of Repose, but even still his financial circumstances throughout his life were modest, not so much dirt poor as having to endure so much financial instability that it interfered with his work. Stanford seized on the opportunity to recruit Stegner helping to give this artist a place to live and steady income affording him the opportunity to live beyond the circumstances of what he could earn as a writer. His appointment at Stanford was a form of patronage, and our cultural lives are all the better for it.

Stegner summed up his situation: “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it, you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it. It’s like a beaver’s teeth. He has to chew or else his jaws lock shut.”

Big Bad Dodge Pulling a Classic…take that Shakespeare

Political hacks have for decades dissed on the National Endowment for the Arts. All in Washington spends about $1.4 billion on the arts. We’ve got little two seat fighter planes that cost more. The damage this lack of funding does to the lives of the artists scrambling through this bizarre world is incalculable. In some alternate world a larger investment in the arts would mean we still would still be teaching music in our public schools, instead of attending festivals designed around artisans hawking pottery and jewelry we might be part of a larger audience watching the amphibious kinetic sculpture racers. More of the funds would end up in schools and our creative students would have the opportunity to develop their craft, hone their skills, prepare for a productive adult life with a chance at making a living wage.

Our climate emergency grows worse by the day. Our climate scientists continue to produce more facts, they are busy building an action plan, filling in the holes in our technology with new tools we can use to fix one piece or another in our effort to end civilizations overuse of fossil fuels. This is a story that needs telling. Our best narrators come from theater, the best scripts from our community of writers, the best sound from our most gifted musicians. Hobbling our best talent because we are unable to understand how to put a price on the priceless, how somewhere in our dysfunctional minds where mistrust lurks, we remain silent while a small band of hot heads derail efforts to redirect our nations resources to corners of our economy that for too long have gone neglected, unfunded and misunderstood.

What a Pair Sunshine and Her Performing Juggler Dana

I started out in the business with a sidewalk circus, a show designed to go work where the people lived. Our audiences were walking across campus, getting on a bus, trying to get to a job, wherever we found people moving in sufficient numbers our show was designed to captivate that pedestrian, to attract them, hold them, entertain them and then if they wanted, if they could, at the shows end they could contribute to our cause, to help us get along for one more day, to make it to the next pitch, to entertain a new audience, because we had provided our audience with an experience of a kind that was like nothing they had ever had until now. That’s how the best of our creativity works by giving an audience an out of this world experience they never had imagined would give their souls such satisfaction and fulfillment. All of this, the fruit of our collective creativity is worthy of our time, attention and money.

The Love

If I hadn’t gotten all drunk and stubborn  and insisted on putting a down payment on that double wide I fell in love with there would not be that much in my life to be ashamed of.

End of my show I use some musical tracks mixed down. I do my own editing. I’ve got plenty more mixing to do. Then, there is synchronizing the musical tracks with the volunteers who’ll be caught up in the show’s ending. None of this can be rehearsed. You just go out and try it on a crowd to see how it fits.

This musical closer is pure street theater. It belongs to the street, and is a form of group improvisation perhaps singularly suited to the here and now.

I find love a particularly salient theme, but you have to handle the conveyance of a loving theme with a certain cold disdain so as to not overshoot your audiences appetite for such intimate insights. Sneaking up on the powers of heart with a good laugh is close enough.

However it works in your life- in a relationship, not in a relationship, single, married, lifelong bachelor, married once but never again, never married but suddenly head over heels, these things are not choices, we are not in control, our heart sees the world through its own eyes and makes its own decisions. We are along for the ride.

Some busking types might say it is all laughs, that it’s how much you make in the hat, how big a crowd you can draw. My goal is to touch the four year old, the eighty-five year old and everyone in between with the notion that our loving one another is where everything begins and ends. Imagine having a show that works on that level every time? I’m such the romantic

When I work in Mexico there’s this guy that pushes a cart through the neighborhood selling bottled water. Well, it turns out he’s got a sister that sells hot water that a married man can never get out of.

Pedal to the Metal with A Thousand Clowns

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Norm Ornstein describes the partisanship to have metastasized into tribal warfare. Tribalism is about being a member of a group that you are above all else loyal to. Privatization, sending programs back to the states, rejection of spending on infrastructure, no new taxes, lower old taxes, and dismantle social welfare programs. That’s the village they want to live in.

The scorched earth strategy is not a tactic and it decidedly not a means of governance, it is Donald Trumps first and last Fox Television tested means to all ends. All of this ends in stalemate. Until the tribe can get back into the White House. Then, they’ll ram through the tribes greatest hits and most damaging harms.

The tribal members on the Supreme Court have been perfect shills for Big Business. Follow the money and the spigots they open or close attune perfectly to what is big and powerful and away from what is small and not wealthy. Messing with the right to vote is just a bon bon to their tribes efforts to hold on to power. The rest of it is disinformation to cloud their penchant for wanting to help those born with silver spoons in their…..

The tribalism around Scalia’s exiting this reality is pure rocket fuel. The tribe already in a spiral, many wondering when the whole stinking thing will blow, has found a sword to fall on. Teddy Cruz and Marco Rubio (both suspected of being ineligible to actually be President by circumstances of birth as explained by a political Republican operative in Nevada) promise full on filibustering any nominee put forward by the obviously illegitimate executive presently illegally occupying their home on Pennsylvania Avenue.

That’s us in a nutshell, and what a nut it has been. Tribalism, not movement conservatism, comes closer to our understanding what the country is up against. The flippant tone of my comments aside this kind of behavior is dangerous for all of us. I never thought I’d see us going off the cliff in a clown car… but, that’s looking more and more like one version of our end to this current hell we find ourselves stuck in.

How Sweet It Is

Pouilly Fuisse
The Most Beautiful Places in the World

Timing is everything. A good location doesn’t hurt.

But, it’s the intangibles that will get you.

“To be completely honest, although I love living in the city, it’s not my favorite place to perform.”

What?

“It seems to have an overly-politically-correctness vibe.”

Really? So, we haven’t changed; they have?

“They seem to repress some of the fun and energy that our typical street show presents.”

For the love of show business.

Street act is foreground, cityscape is background.

A performer is barely on earth. We’d like to be, but you know it’s tough. We tend to be on stage, in bars, at rehearsals. Why isn’t that enough and if it is why doesn’t it come with a dental plan?

Once you have an act you are set. You get to be witness to more death than a mortician. There’s a lot of turnover in this industry.

One day the best act you’ve ever seen turns out to be a plumber. That unexpected incarnation put the fear of god in you.

As Jackie Gleason opined after a sip from the good stuff at the opening of his schtick.. “How sweet it is…” He’s only making that crack because of all the cadavers stacked up backstage.

So, the hungry acts know that you best keep the hook baited. Nothing but nobody waits for spit.

That’s the game. In these modern times. We used to be lousy with gigs from Salinas to Santa Rosa. But, that’s all dried up and nobody left instructions for what to do next.

You want a career in show business? Buy a suitcase, look for cheap tickets. Keep an eye on your back. Change is coming.

Then, you know, the phone rings, they need somebody for some spot dates in Northern Arizona on the Navajo Indian Nation’s territories. “Are you available?”

“You got to be kidding me? I’d do that date for free. When do we leave?” That’s how it is in my game.

You get the regrets and those of us with the moxy to have stuck it out we get the unpaid bills.

Nothing is free but for love and even that bargain comes with baggage.

I got an Australian friend in Dubai playing his swami act with a fake Indian accent to the Emirates. That’s some kind of con he’s got going. And YOU wanted to be in show business…

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 This is what the professionals look like…

Academy Awards an Oligarchic Pie in Face

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Oligarchic Nightmare Goes All Hollywood

That pesky liberal agenda featured on the Academy Awards was a bit of a thumb in the eye to many people not sympathetic to such an agenda. These are the issues being systematically blocked by a do nothing Congress.

Voting rights, equal pay for women, spying and immigration reform come to mind. There was the issue of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and ALS…

Some loon on the radio urged the liberals in the film making industry to put a sock. He was suggesting that the big corporate money was behind a more conservative agenda and since they were the masters that the artists were supposed to behave more like servants. This guy gets today’s ass kissing award for media performing in a supine role.

So, let me see? I have a majority of women in my family. Advocating for equal pay isn’t some kind of liberal agenda item. It is pragmatic. The more they earn the less I have be concerned with their welfare.

Are the NSA surveillance programs a partisan issue? I’m not so sure. I think it is dangerous to democracy in general and a concern to both left and right in particular.

Voter suppression is an oligarchic issue. Case in point are Social Security and Medicare. About the only piece of the conservative movement that wants to mess with the two programs are those people who can afford to be messing with those programs. We call those rich mo-fo’s where I come from.

We are defunding basic research because of schmuck’s like Author Laffer, Larry Kudlow and Steven Moore. These are the loon right fake economic elite who have been embraced by the no new taxes freaks.

Neil Patrick Harris was something of an odd vortex. Sucked down by his version of hosting was warmth. He seemed too scripted but for a few asides and the scripting while terse played emotionally brittle. He didn’t take over so much as draw the audience into his tone and orbit. He glowed where numerous hosts in years past shined. He won’t be back is my guess.

I haven’t seen Eastwood’s American Sniper yet. We may not be ready to celebrate sending our best soldiers working as snipers in foreign wars. That isn’t too difficult to understand. It can’t be a zero sum game and it isn’t. I’ll have more on American Sniper after I see it.

I had seen Selma. I loved it. It didn’t do that well because an intangible secret energy level was missing in the script. And then Birdman a film I loved this last year indeed captured that secret energy level. One person’s secret energy level is another’s fingers on the chalkboard moment. I’d recommend both of the movies. Each has much to admire.

My personal disappointment was that Keaton missed earning his first Oscar. One of the last things from the stage was his approaching the microphone after Birdman winning Best Picture and starting to say something then breaking it off, “Who am I kidding? I’m just lucky to even be here…”

And that my friends is how this juggling novelist lives life. Bravo Keaton…

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Fuel for Thought…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prizefighting the Godzillas in the Room

Wives and Lovers...
In the Ring…

“As far as entertainment goes clinching a barbecue fork in my teeth and performing this stunt stands at least one foot higher in the minds of audiences than topless dancing does.”

The Godzilla in the room of a performer’s world is to know when to build new material.

A huge dividend is paid for having polished a routine. It is a reliable tool in the shows running order. Anyone who has honed their act to this razor sharp edge is reluctant to abandon the surefire for uncharted waters.

I have no such show. Twice now in my four decade career my performing dogs have retired leaving me to start all over from scratch. New jokes and stunts are devised. Most of the old show has to be abandoned in its entirety. A few pieces are cobbled together and survive. But that killer closer you’ve been doing for a decade is now an old flea bitten hound with cataracts and hearing loss.

This week I’ve had no less than two superb variety acts make no bones about it. They aren’t building material right now. “Thanks, but no thanks.” The shows working fine as is and it really just isn’t what they want to do. I was racked with envy. Talk about a couple of lucky stiffs.

Build new material? Of course not! It is a source of flaming pains in the ass followed by spiraling pangs of doubt that are halted once your confidence has been shattered beyond reach of repair. Unless the dogs died why in the name of vaudeville would you set out to make yourself so utterly miserable? Nobody needs to man-‘splain this. This isn’t fanny patting this is butt kicking welcome to your own personal little hell.

I am between rounds. Angelo Dundee’s in my corner. Half-way through the fight and I’m giving, as good, as I’m getting. When you are prizefighting, and when you are building a new show, you know you are in the ring and if you’re going to win the fight you’ll need to face the fact that you are going to take a pounding.

The lipstick on this pig is that I can see the light at the end of the funnel. Testing proceeds apace. I’m taking the now proofed pieces to my lego-comedy-puzzle and have near finished erecting the all shiny new framework.

Dundee slaps me across the face. I stand up off my stool. The bell rings. I’m heading back into the ring. It’s all fancy footwork and tactics now; my audience won’t even see it coming. I’m back and I’m packing a knockout punch.

Don’t believe me? Get in line. Buy a ticket. Put your money where your mouth is. Working cheap is for suckers, and winning fights is what you do when a career is on the line.

Drop by the slaughterhouse of comedy where this act works six nights a week. I either kill or I die. Last night it was the audience picking itself up off the floor. Damn right they deserved it. I worked hard for that victory. And that’s how a new show gets done. You got a problem with that?

in the round

“My volunteer will toss the orange into the air over to me. The orange may well miss. Continue across the room and land at this table where this beautiful woman is seated. If it does stay where you are; I’ll go over and get her phone number.”

Hot Spring Honeymoon Front Cover

 Get it Here… 

“The love scenes are among the funniest I have ever read — and what in this world is better than funny sex? The author’s strong, unique narrative voice and high-desert dialogue are seductions in their own way and sure to entertain.”

Bat Show Audio…

Bats in the House

Welcome to the world of entertainment in the Riviera Maya. What we have here is a short clip from my show at Puerto Aventuras just south of Playa del Carmen. I’d just come on stage. I was perhaps 5 minutes into my opening monologue when a sizable bat with wingspan of a little over a foot to something less than a foot and a half winged on into the theater. What you can see is that behind me is a stage and curtain. After buzzing over the top of the audience the bat went up into the rafters behind me on the stage. I rushed over to the curtains and closed them and our bat was now confined backstage. It only took forty years for my performing bat to finally show up.

Hot Spring Honeymoon Front Cover

Click on Cover to Get Book Now

“Move over Moliere. Smith’s depth and wisdom give the reader a surgically precise but comic look into the relationship between the sexes.”

 

Edmonton 1985-2014 Thirty Fabulous Festivals

Edmonton 2014

 

This 40 Year Veteran Street Act Scuffing Up the First Audience of the Day

Saturday morning 11:30 show was mine to do. Alan Plotkin using a telephoto lens from “World Headquarters” took this shot. He didn’t bring me much luck the day before and discretion being the better part of valor stood off so as not to jinx the delicate art of gathering the first audience of the day. Forty minutes later the show ended with an audience surrounding this veteran busker.

I am here for the 30th anniversary. If you want you can read about the festival here: http://edmontonstreetfest.com/30-years-of-memories/turning-thirty-the-birth-of-a-busking-festival

I sold my first copy of Hot Spring Honeymoon after the show to a woman in the audience!

 

The Truth of the Thing

“I asked Norman Mailer which of the other art forms he thought being a novelist was closest to. “Acting,” he said.

Under the Influence, Andrew O’Hagen.  April 27, 2013 Financial Times

Petaluma Turning Basin

Following the River, Guided by the Light

WHAT WE USE

Most of us are familiar with the list of elements that the novelist utilizes in the building of a story. Here and there the best of the writers point at one element or another. How a character reads off the page influences our sense of the truth of the thing. Their behavior allows us to be swept along trusting that what will happen corresponds to our understanding of humanity. And so the actor/writer feels their way into the scene. We inhabit the scene and stake out what a character would do if placed in circumstances such as those we find in a story. What may not be as obvious is that regardless of the premise, the plotting, the outline, character sketches etc… there remains the task of entering into the realm of the situation. We net out the truth and dispose of what rings false. Most of it is by trial and error. Sometimes we nail it on the first attempt while at other times the task eludes us completely and we are forced to reconceive the entire circumstance we’ve concocted. Story proceeds by characterization. From there anything can happen so long as our expectations of how that person might act or speak rings true.

HOT SPRING HONEYMOON

“Hazel Harwood! I aim to peel you like an apple, lick you like a lollypop.”

Hazel froze in her tracks. She knew that voice. She slow turned and bent down picked up first thing she could find. It was a rock.

Keefe smiled and waved his arms wild like over his head.

She threw that rock at Keefe as hard as she could.

Keefe was so excited that she’d noticed him. “Ain’t she something…”

The Western Writer

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I prepare for Australia. It is looming. Like all of us born in California my life is full and not one more thing may be added now. Still, I am unsettled from another clever interview with an author who grew up in Idaho and describes herself as a “western writer”.

We may all say where we are from and what we are made of. I am sure she was a westerner. Then she went east. So at the present moment she is not in the west and no longer under the influence of its force.

Tweeting is of interest to me. I was in Dubai in October and have bonded to a few American expatriate tweeters now living there. They are American’s in Dubai. In fact from Texas, but I don’t recognize their Texan point of view, I recognize their present point of view.

The good people I follow on twitter, the good people from journalism, from publishing, from economics are by and large in orbit somewhere near New York City, as far north as Boston and as far south as Washington DC.

We grow conceit of place. I am a traveling entertainer. I know what people do. They have an affinity for the place they are from. The center of gravity of the American experience is located by the majority of its geographically captive citizens on the eastern seaboard. I don’t mean this to be true, but it does seem to be so.

I don’t mean to sneer at this clan, this club, this group. I mean to welcome them. You are where you are. Of course I am a true native western American. I am born in Oakland, California. I have lived all of my life in the west. I have toured the west. I am at peace here in the west and own the west like some tender freshman from Connecticut that owns Yale.

We are fated to the place and time we are from. Shakespeare is imprisoned at the Globe on the banks of the Thames, Faulkner is crucified upon the kudzu vines of the deep south, and I will forever be held to account for being a western American man.

I have never thoroughly loved where I am. I have had flashes of such passion then it fades. I begin to long for unseen distant horizons. The western frontier of North American continent provides a vast empty expanse upon which I may plunge my discontent into an unquenchable wanderlust.

I am grateful for the space the world has born me into. I have been tooled to work with it, to be with it, and know something about how it feeds scale and scope, how the place shapes the frame of mind and helps to explain the plain fact of why we are comfortable in our own skin out here plopped down in this emptiness.

The west allows by force of space the time to think. We do more of that out here than meets the eye.