I took an unconventional approach to studying street theater, intentionally beginning in one of the hardest places possible: New Orleans is a destination where visitors put on a metaphoric mask, get drunk, and behave in ways they never would back at home. If I could succeed amidst the grit of battling brass bands and obnoxious drunks, then performing anywhere else would be a piece of cake. Thankfully this approach seems to be working, but I’m beginning to take a second look at my training ground.
Once I was finishing up a show, kneeling down to empty the cash out of my hat when I heard “Watch yourself, he’s got a knife”. I look up to see one of the musicians stride right past me with a few other characters of the Square behind him as they followed a staggering crackhead with a blade in his hand. This unfolds a few feet away from a space that fifteen seconds prior was filled with a family-friendly magic show.
A few days later, I’m standing against the Square’s fence flipping my hat around while talking with a few other performers. The hat fell and as I bent down to pick it up gunshots rang out on the other side of the square. Already bent down, I quickly dropped the rest of the way to the ground, a reflex that’s developed in the two years since I’ve made New Orleans my stomping grounds. We heard no screams and saw no one running, so we assumed that no one was hurt and the threat had passed. Later that night I read online that some nut job decided to unload five shots from his .38 into some paintings. Thankfully he shot at the ones leaning against the bottom of the fence — if he’d chosen the ones hanging on the fence, I could’ve been right in the line of fire on the opposite side of the square.
Last night I performed for a private party, entertaining a captive audience for the first time in several months. As soon as I took the stage, they were quiet and attentive, allowing me to focus all of my energy on the art itself. Sometimes more than half of the battle of street performing is just creating the conditions within which to do a show. Convincing strangers to help you co-create the atmosphere of a theater in the middle of the street is ridiculously hard to do. I work without an amp and without a table, without anything that lends credibility to my ability to perform. Transforming public space into performance space and crowds into audiences is an art form in itself, and I do so with little more than a paintbrush and a personality. This has done wonders for my sense of character, but the longer I do it the more I realize that there are many ways in which the art of magic suffers under the constraints of street theater.
At the private party, artistic pauses intentionally inserted into the show actually found their place, whereas on the street any lull in the moment causes attentions to stray. At private events, (usually) no one shouts an obscenity or tries to steal the show, and applause happens spontaneously without any need for coaxing. By far the best part, I didn’t have to introduce the politics of money into the show. On the street, if you want to keep doing magic, you need to educate and convince the audience to pay you enough to keep you out there. Indoors, the magic is pure.
I chose street theater so I could travel, but now I feel like I’ve developed enough skills to make a good living just about anywhere. New Orleans was supposed to be a place to sharpen my teeth, but now I’m realizing that if I stay here too long, it’s much more likely that I’ll get burnt out. It is all the peripheral romantic characteristics of this city that keep me coming back — the music, the art, the characters. But I sense a shift in my direction, and perhaps its time to diversify my magic career and focus more energy on getting myself in front of more captive audiences.