Sometimes New Orleans feels like a Disneyland redone by Tim Burton.
The strangest things happen here. I know my profession has me biased, but fewer places are more magical than the Big Easy, and all that juju comes to the top during festival season. After the cultural climax of crazed merrymaking, the city heaves a post-coital sigh and puts its work clothes back on. As the daily rhythms resume I reflect on my fourth Mardi Gras here in NOLA.
Many think Mardi Gras would be a great time to be a street performer, and for some of the more easily digested acts it is. Whereas music allows for a passive crowd, magic absolutely requires a focused and participating audience. Yes there is a major influx in the number of people, but they are a wild-eyed and reckless crowd, mostly unfit for being an attentive audience. Over the years I’ve learned to work the weeks leading up to the festival, and then relax and enjoy instead of trying to control a crowd of crazies.
The weekend before Mardi Gras is when the radical street preachers make their annual pilgrimage to New Orleans in order to fight the holy fight. Armed to the teeth with banners, megaphones, and video cameras (so they can watch tape later to improve their game, or to record the evidence of when they are physically assaulted by those they piss off). We’ve all encountered street preachers at some point or another, but now take the worst of those guys and expose them to the Ooze from TMNT — that’s who takes to the street in crews during Mardi Gras to damn-to-hell each and every person in New Orleans.
Before going further, I must clarify — this has nothing to do with a stance for or against religion. After seeing them for four years in a row, I’ve come to the conclusion that this particular group does not come for Mardi Gras to help anyone or open any sort of religious discussion. Religion is merely the costume they put on to disguise and justify their shenanigans. They’re here to vent aggressively, letting off steam by calling people faggots and shouting at old women coming out of the cathedral after mass. I don’t care what your faith is, calling an eighty year old granny a blasphemous whore is some evil villain shit.
Like school children they are arguing for the sake of argument, pissing people off for the satisfaction of the reaction. Engaging in a debate with them makes you the other clown in their show. They’ve simply come for a fight.
And a fight they find. The good people of New Orleans have developed defenses against these radical intruders. Some residents brought their own megaphones to counter the preachers, and the scene quickly devolved into a mob with a collective dialogue of “Blah blah blah blah” (literally). This year was the first I’d seen whistles distributed in bulk to the crowd around the preachers, effectively turning the space into a complete sonic fustercluck. The classiest defense was by the St. Louis Cathedral itself, which set out a band of bagpipers in front of the church during masses, completely preventing any of the megaphone mudslinging from being heard.
Here’s a sample of the debauchery. ***WARNING– LOUD WHISTLES***
Turn your speakers down before starting the video and gradually raise back up. Also, turn captions on (CC).
Loud, distracting, and downright mean. Bystanders faded in and out between either a unified mob detesting the despicableness or isolated groups of drink-holding spectators. Next to a potentially physically threatening situation, this scene was one of the absolute worst conditions for doing a street show.
So just for the hell of it (pun intended) . . . I did a show.
Starting in the center of the crowd, I set my things down and began tapping people on the shoulder, miming gestures that conveyed I wanted them to make a little space. Clearing my throat loudly and shooing people off of what was quickly becoming a stage, I turned on my amplifier, which I only used to clear my throat even louder. I laid the rope to designate the front row of the theater, and I began to do big visual eye-catching magic.
Once I had the crowds attention, I ushered them forward with my hands and got them standing on the rope. As the crowd shifted away from the preachers and towards me, for the first time in my life I found myself on the receiving end of a bonafide curse. Through the megaphones the preachers called me a witch and a warlock, condemning my deceitful behavior and damning me to an eternity in hell. I did about five minutes of silent magic until I ran out of tricks, threw my hat down, and laughed as a handful of people tossed money in my hat. It wasn’t a lot, but that’s not the point — the point was that I built, held, and hatted a crowd in ridiculously extreme conditions.
Do a show for street preachers: Busker Acheivement unlocked.
Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, I arrived to my office to find a few of the preachers groggily setting up in front of the cathedral for one last day of drama. There was a strong wind blowing, and one of the preachers (the one in the video actually) was struggling to get his banner put together. He looked exhausted and defeated. I got to talking to him and he told me he’d just gotten out after spending the night in jail.
Apparently, while he was banishing demons on Bourbon Street the night before, an old woman began repeatedly running into his leg with her rascal scooter. She wouldn’t stop ramming him, so he leaned over and took the key out of the ignition. She told one of the nearby cops, and ol’ boy spent the rest of Mardi Gras locked up in OPP for petty theft. Granny got her revenge Moral of the story: Be nice or leave.
Just another day in Disneyland.
Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more tales from the street.