The streets are tough. They show you what works and what doesn’t, how to stay light on your feet with thick skin. I’m usually cool and calm regardless of how crappy the crowds are — but a few weeks ago I let my emotions get the best of me. I’m not proud of it, but it’s still a cobblestone on the road to where I’m going.
I’ve seen guys absolutely lose it on the pitch. I’ve seen hecklers get under the performers skin, seen ‘em go toe to toe in front of crowds. I’ve seen guys blow up, bursting curses and shouting insults as fifty people walk away from a great show without paying a dime (or maybe just a dime) for the professional entertainment they’d just enjoyed. Whether it’s a parade destroying your crowd, Saturday getting rained out, or the garbage guy dragging a leaking bag through your pitch — there’s no shortage of ways for the streets to make you agitated.
((Foreword: In one part of the show I transform a signed card into a $5 bill and hand it to a kid for them to verify it is real, saying I “Just made it this morning”, with a wink and a tip of the hat. The kid eventually returns the bill at the end by putting it in the hat, usually encouraging more fivers))
On this particular day, a girl I’d recently met came to watch my show for the first time. Naturally seeking to impress her, I set about doing the best show I could. It was a sizable crowd with decent enough energy throughout most of it. About a third of the crowd was college kids, which I had preemptively known were not good for much cash. In this show, though, seconds before the finale, the kid walked away with my $5 with him. Out of forty or so people watching, I was tipped a total of $9, which with the vanished $5 made for a $4 profit out of a fifteen minute show that usually averages between $35-$50.
So much for impressing the girl. Frustrated and embarrassed, I shook my head and let the hat fall out of my hand onto the ground, spilling a few one dollar bills as I begrudgingly picked up the rest of my stuff. Immediately after my pouty reaction I felt terrible at having lost my composure, remembering that poor hats were just a part of the game — some shows just don’t pay well. I expressed my sense of shame to Rod, the magician I was sharing the pitch with, and he said “Well, now you know”. I acknowledged my mistake and my disappointment diminished as I forgave myself, chalking it up as another learning experience. Now, anytime I have a massive hat, I consider half of it as backpay for one of those inevitable low-paying shows. You just gotta roll with it, shaking it off to shield your energy.
Mardi Gras season was vicious as always. With the mobs of drunks and megaphone-wielding anti-gay religious fanatics damning us all to hell, my work days were over before 1:00pm. I like to think of it like this: street performing can transform your art into a debit card that you can go to town and withdraw money. Really though, it’s more of a slot machine. Losing is a part of playing. Accept the losses, celebrate the jackpots. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, I hit the jackpot.
Across the street from Jackson Square there is an amphitheater that usually hosts a very large breakdancing act. Using music and microphones, these five or six guys pack a few hundred people onto these steps and do a 45 minute show with acrobatics and jokes. Last year I would sit on the steps of this amphitheater on slow days and fantasize about doing shows there, imagining the rows and rows of smiling spectators as I took a bow with Jackson Square as my backdrop.
On Ash Wednesday the break dancers were absent, so I set up my stage facing outward toward the street, intending to catch foot traffic and build my standard half-circle standing crowd with my back facing the steps. Then the unexpected happened — after the initial spectacle, as I called everyone to come closer to the rope, most of them just walked behind me and took seats on the steps instead. I thought about correcting them, but I took the risk of letting them be correct. I turned myself around the problem, flipped directions and faced the seed that would eventually blossom into the biggest street show I’d ever done.
On the street, it’s incredible how drastic a difference there is between a standing audience and a seated audience. A standing audience is composed of random folks that can just as easily walk away at any moment. Unless they’re in the first row, leaving is as easy as turning around. With a seated crowd, the act of sitting down is a sort’ve sealed social contract stating that they are there to be entertained.
The show went phenomenally. The laughs were longer, the applause louder, and the hat more full than anything I’d ever experienced before. By going with the flow of the moment and remaining open to opportunity, that dream of working the big pitch came true.
You never know what’s gonna happen. Street theater has taught me volumes about accepting circumstances as they arise, staying positive and not taking things personally. That twelve year old kid that walked away from the show with my $5 seconds before the grand finale? He came back several hours later, apologized, and returned my $5. He now follows me on Facebook.
I’ve only a few months left in New Orleans. The signs along this cobblestone path say there’s a fork in the road ahead of me. Either I ride up the East coast and across Canada back to Seattle, or I fly to Europe to study the international busking scene.
Somewhere between there’s probably a dirt road where I can do both, but we’ll see when we get there.