There are a lot of street performers that busk just for the cash and the lifestyle, but whenever I meet someone that does it to improve themselves, does it because it’s what they love to do, it makes my soul shine. In Boulder I saw three different acts that exemplified some ideas about street performing that I’d like to muse over.
The first was a fire juggler named Warren. He had a brilliant stage presence, very animated and high energy. His tricks were excellent, and you could sense some theater background in his presentation style. His staple effect was doing stunts while his pants were on fire, but in the particular show I saw, he was trying a new finale: solving a rubix cube while balancing atop a rollie-board with his pants on fire.
Before I go further, I want to say that one invaluable word of wisdom I picked up on a street somewhere: “The ONLY way to finish an effect is in front of a live audience”. You can practice a new trick a billion times, but until you’ve done it live, it is not complete. This is no biggie if it’s a trick at the beginning or middle of a show, because if it fails you still have the rest of the performance and the finale to win them back. In fact, a failed trick early in the show can help the audience empathize with you. If I mess up an effect badly, I’ll often make jokes about it through the rest of the show if I can. But you don’t really have any way to bring them back to you if you mess up your last effect.
Here’s where I give Warren mountains of credit for doing what many street performers don’t, and that’s trying out a new finale. If you botch your finale, then the audience can be left with a sense of incompletion, and your hat usually is severely impacted. I remember a show where I went to tap the wine bottle behind my silk and ended up shattering the bottle completely. Hilarious, but not really the tidy ending I was hoping for. In Warren’s case, he ended up not being able to solve the cube before his flaming pants got too hot, and he ended up jumping down to stamp them out. It takes a lot of courage to take risks like that, especially if your income depends on it. I have a lot of respect for those artists that push their limits to improve their art.
The second Boulder act was ZipCode Man. At first glance he seemed like a mousy older man with a timid air about him, but Warren said “If you only see one act out here, see ZipCode Man”, so I waited until he had his turn on the big pitch while Warren gave me the backstory. ZipCode Man always had a talent with numbers, and a passion about geography. One day he saw an indoor show in Vegas where a man asked audience members for their zipcodes, and he’d tell them what city they were from. It seemed to be the perfect act, combining two of ZipCode Man’s favorite things. So he took to the streets and became ZipCode Man, gathering crowds with a few juggling tricks and then asking individuals to shout out their zipcodes. He’d tell them what city, what the area was like, and he’d even try his hand at naming a restaurant the spectator had ate in, getting that last part right about half the time. This is extraordinary when you consider that it’s just a string of five numbers. I was the third or fourth spectator he chose, and he nailed my small farm town of Carnation.
One day the guy doing indoor shows in Las Vegas heard about ZipCode Man’s show, and eventually met up with him to ask a few questions, the main one being something like: “That’s great man, but how do you do it in the streets? What are you using?”, a question that baffled ZipCode Man. “I just know them” he said. It turned out that the guy doing indoor shows in Vegas had an earpiece in with an accomplice in another room feeding him information.
I watched ZipCode Man pull at least fifty people on stage (a small chain laid out in the shape of the U.S.), naming where they were from and placing them on the map. He then went back through and renamed all of their zipcodes individually. Though his patter was a little choppy, you could tell that was his true personality, and that he was doing what he loved to do. The authenticity factor here is through the roof.
The third street performer I’d like to discuss was an African drummer named Mau Mau. He had a handful of drums in front of him, with a beautiful African mask set at an angle on the top of his head, positioned so that while he was looking down at the drums the mask was looking directly at you. He wore traditional-looking garb with leather frills that danced while he played melodic rhythms for Pearl Street Mall pedestrians. Several times in the two days I was there, I would glance over and see him with half a dozen children dancing around him, some of them banging on the drums while he held the rhythm. Although you couldn’t see his face, you could tell by the way he was using the mask that it was a very interactive experience, something he was enjoying as much as the children were. He played beautifully, but I believe it was his passion that really came through to the spectators. I spoke with him for a while afterwards and could tell he was a person filled with the light that signified he was following his heart.
I chose to pursue the performing arts because it is what I am naturally inclined to. One of the most common pieces of feedback I receive is how apparent it is that I am genuinely being myself on stage. It is obvious that I am enjoying myself, which makes it extremely easy for my audience to have fun with me. When it comes to hat lines (how you inform the audience that this is how you make a living), I’ve heard everything from “Tipping keeps us out of two places: the poor house and your house”, to lines about not having health insurance, usually laden with at least a mile or two of a guilt trip. My line is as simple as this: “You can tell this is what I love to do, I’d love nothing more than to keep doing it”. Granted, I am non-aggressive by nature, and probably should add a little more emphasis on the value of the show, but what I truly want to convey is that I am there to elevate moods, bring people together, and celebrate the moment.
I had my first shows in Mountain Village yesterday. The day crowd was too sparse to get anything going, but I was able to capitalize on a post-concert crowd and get two good shows off. After not being able to do shows during the day, I begun to get a little worried about the work scene here, but I held onto my trust in the process and the evening proved fruitful. This place is gorgeous, and if the traffic is sufficient, I might have discovered one of the niches I set out on this tour to find.
Over the course of this trip, I’ve met a few retired individuals that had just recently began pursuing their passions, and they’ve all commended me on having figured it out so early in life. I might not be a street performer my whole life, but I don’t need to see the whole staircase to take that first few steps. The path may be shrouded by all types of complicated circumstances, but I am a firm believer that there is a way to make a living doing what you enjoy doing. The transition may be risky, but sometimes a leap of faith is your only mode of transportation.