I remember one day in New Orleans I saw two guys standing in front of a local statue act, a tall black man in all white dressed as Uncle Sam. An incredibly kind and gentle man, he goes by the name “Uncle Louie”, and he poses for excruciatingly long periods of time holding an extended mid-stride pose, taking his fake dog on motionless walks around the French Quarter. He’s a staple figure in the New Orleans street-culture, and one of the best statue acts I’ve ever seen.
Instead of appreciating from a comfortable distance like the rest of the crowd, these two (drunken) men stood directly in front of him for a few moments, threw a $5 on the ground and told him “Pick it up”. Over the years Uncle Louie had gotten pretty skilled at speaking through his teeth without breaking his pose, and he replied something along the lines of “There’s a bucket there for a reason”. The drunken duo picked the bill up, threw it down angrily at his feet, and repeated themselves. Though these guys were up in his space heckling and belittling him, through the side of his mouth Louie again refused their orders and continued to hold his character, further infuriating them. One of them began shouting, “This is what you signed up for, pick up the f%#kin’ money!”. They continued to disrespect cheerful ol’ Uncle Louie until he eventually broke pose, picked up his dog and bucket, kicked their $5 bill back at them and walked away.
Though the majority of the public seems to appreciate what they have to offer (they’d be extinct otherwise), professional street performers are not held in very high-esteem by the American public. Few people seem to realize that it is a respectable full-time profession, requiring hard work and responsibility like any other job. It is not uncommon for officials (police, city/government employees), business owners, and the general public to see street performers as being only a few notches above beggars (if that). Yes, there are a lot of really poor-quality acts out there, some nothing more than alcoholics, addicts, and/or bums with a gimmick and tickets for one-way guilt trips. And these individuals cast a cloud over many Americans perception of street performers. But just because we share adjoining offices with these ill-reputed street characters does not mean we are affiliated.
On the NO2SEA ’13 trip I did a couple of shows outside a casino in Reno on the 4th of July. I was looking for a higher-traffic spot to perform, but felt a bit nervous about setting up right in front of the casino itself. I was carrying around one of my bikes’ side-cases, to which I’d attached a “Magician on a Motorcycle” sign, and in the other hand I had my rope. As I walked back and forth debating where to set up, a couple of 40-something men were watching me from their seats on the edge of a large tree-filled planter on the sidewalk, and they must’ve seen my sign. One of them asked if they should move out of the way. I said no, I was going to set up in the middle of the closed-down street in front of them, they’d be fine back there. “Oh ok, I thought you might be looking for a good tree to hang yourself from with that there rope”, evoking a hearty laugh from his friends. I patiently explained that the rope was to organize the audience and establish a performance space. They chuckled a bit and the alpha replied “Boy, I sure wouldn’t want to be in your shoes”.
I smiled, having now grown accustomed to being treated this way. As I set my case and rope down in the street in front of them, I stood up and said “Yes indeed, these shoes aren’t for everyone, but they’ve seen 15,000 miles of this country in the last year solely by doing what I love to do”. Without looking back I quickly attracted a loud, enthusiastic crowd of about 75 people, made ~$50 in 20 minutes and had a blast doing it. I packed up my stuff, tipped my hat to the gentlemen on the planter, and walked off towards my motorcycle.
For me, I chose to develop a street act so as to have an extra survival tool at my disposal. After almost two years working the streets, I am fully confident that you could drop me off in any medium-sized town in the country with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and within the week I’d have acquired the tools I need for a full show and a bus ticket to the nearest city/touristy location. Within the month I’d have a plane ticket back to wherever I wanted to be next. My college degree can’t do that for me.
As a personal preference I generally do not discuss my income, but I want to give you an idea of what a (18 month rookie) street performer can make in a town that is less-than-ideal for a half-circle show. I do a 15-20 minute show. In the three weeks I’ve been back home in Washington, I’m averaging in the neighborhood of $25 an hour. And that’s figured based on if I worked a 40hr/week.
Which I don’t.
I’ve been splitting my time between my folks’ place out in Carnation and couchsurfing with friends in Seattle until I find a suitable place of my own. With the 40 minute commute from Carnation, I’ve only been working weekends. Which means instead of a 40hr work week with alarm clocks and bosses, I’ve been working 20-25 hrs three days a week on my own time schedule and making the equivalent of a $25/hr full time job. Understand though, this is based only on a three weekend period in the summer, and this is not how I normally operate. I’ve always looked at street performing as a full-time job, and in New Orleans I was working 5-6 days a week pretty consistently. But I was also making more then.
Contrary to what the American public thinks, street performing can be a very lucrative profession. I’ve seen guys with big circle shows make $400+ per show. Granted, it helps to be in the right place at the right time; like any business, location is crucial. But in general, if you are good at what you do, if you put in the hours and give it your best every show, if you live within your means and don’t let the wads of cash go to your head, then you can make a respectable income just about anywhere in the world as a self-employed professional street entertainer.
I haven’t been there myself (yet), but I’ve heard from many buskers that it is a very different experience performing in Europe. Jimmy Talksalot once told me that it’s a difference in their cultural upbringing. “Over there they’re taught from a very young age to appreciate things that are ignored here in America, stupid little things like history, art, and culture”. Street performers in Europe are seen as a reflection of the society they are immersed in, much like the jesters and minstrels of the old days. They are viewed on a level plane with the teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals. I have heard this from several different performers that have worked other parts of the world, and it inspires me to get an outside look on this country.
For brevity’s sake I’ll chapter this here and put up the rest of it in a day or two. I’ve been editing film like crazy lately, I can’t wait to show you all what it’s like to cross America with no seatbelt and all the windows down.
Stay tuned for another post this week =)