Buskers are the only performers making money at the Edinburgh Fringe. Here's how.
So. You're trudging down the Royal Mile taking it all in. The World's largest festival of the performing arts, and in such a beautiful city, too. Detestably young actors with a dream in their heart and Starbucks in their veins approach from every angle, lunging flyers at you like fencers thrusting a blade. You dodge, parry, apologise and avoid – priding yourself on your fringe street savvy. But then your attention is piqued by a noise. The unmistakable sound of genuine spontaneous fun. Your lizard brain makes you perk up like a meerkat, on the balls of your feet, trying to get a look at what might be occurring ahead. There's a crowd. Could be anything. Could be something. You add yourself to their number, pushing in a little. Someone's doing something. Looks like you missed whatever amazing feat caused the crowd to erupt like that, but lets stick around to see what happens next, right?
And now you belong to us.
Street performing is like professional wrestling. At first glimpse, it appears to be a fairly basic, low-brow form of entertainment. Populist, cheap, crass, even. But the longer you look, the closer you get and the harder you squint, the more you realise that there's some sneakily beautiful high level theatre craft going on here. And, just like pro-wrestling, every so often, if you're lucky, an old jaded insider might let you in on a few trade secrets.
Hello, my name is Mat Ricardo, and I've been a street performer, along with a few other things, for all of my adult life. I'll be your guide to the world of crate slugs, circle shows, tight edges and strong bottles.
First things first – what just happened that caused that crowd to go so nuts? Chances are, nothing at all. You just fell victim to the clap & cheer. See, when you're starting a show on the street, you don't have an audience, you don't have advertising, all you have is yourself, and the challenge of convincing passers-by to stop passing by, and give you a chance. It's the hardest part of the whole game. I learned my trade at Covent Garden in London. That's a big space for a newbie to walk out onto, suitcase in hand, with a brain full of nerves, and some stuttered old lines to try to get the ball rolling with. Sometimes – in the early days, often – it doesn't work. Momentum slows and you skulk back, your show having failed to reach escape velocity. It's heartbreaking, but with enough practice, enough work, and enough successes, your confidence will start to show through, and a handful of people will see you mucking about with your props, and think “Looks like something might be about to happen”, rather than, “Let's cross to the other side of the street”. It's always a bloody fine line though.
And once they stay, you talk to them. You're friendly and witty and you reassure them that although this doesn't look like much now, just wait. This part is about gaining their trust. And as a few more people gather, and your snowball slowly starts to roll, you do two things. You rearrange the front row to be a nice neat tight line. Two reasons for this – firstly - people, deep down, see a neat crowd and assume that it's something that should be there. Something that looks clean and orderly looks trustworthy. Secondly – if you get the people in your front row standing shoulder to shoulder, it means the people who are watching from a safe distance, not committed yet, can't really see through the gaps, and have to come and join the audience. On top of all of this, if you move people around, politely ask them to take a few steps closer, then an invisible contract has been made. Before that moment, they had just stopped to see what was going on, but once you ask them to come a little closer, and they've done so – they've committed to being part of your crowd. They've voluntarily changed their role in this thing. Much, much less chance they'll walk away now. Clever, isn't it? And we're just getting started.
So we've got a small group of people watching someone who hasn't done anything yet. But we're going to need a bigger audience to make this whole shebang worth doing, so that's when we might use the clap & cheer. Here's how that works. You tell the audience that you want a bigger crowd. Not because you don't like them, quite the opposite, they were there first, they're your favourites, but because we all want the biggest funnest show we can get, right? Right. Who could argue with that? It's certainly nothing to do with increasing the amount of money you stand to make. Certainly not. Well, alright, maybe a little from each column.
So you give the audience a cue. Maybe you take a bow, maybe you do a little trick. And you instruct them to, when they see this cue, react as if it's the most amazing thing they've ever seen. To clap and cheer and scream and whoop and whistle. If everyone does this, you'll tell them, the people wandering around and not watching the show – the idiots – will hear the huge cheer, assume something spectacular is happening, and join the audience. It's a con trick. But the beauty of it is, you're letting half the audience in on the con trick, in order to hoodwink the other half who haven't arrived yet. Once a crowd realises the fiendish trick they're being asked to participate in, they want in. Every time. You take your bow, they go nuts, and your crowd doubles in size. Half the audience thinking you must be amazing to have done something to get such a reaction, and thus committed to the rest of your show, and the other half giggling at the big joke they were just complicit in. Not all shows do this, but it's the perfect example of how street performers, over the decades, have developed beautiful bits of stagecraft unique to their venue.
A friend of mine once defined a modern street show as follows: “They start the show by telling the audience about the next trick they're going to do, and then 45 minutes later, they do it”. There's an element of truth to this, and it certainly holds, to an extent, for an act like mine. The reason that, when I work on stage, I'm fairly bulletproof, is the decades of practice I put in honing my work on the street. If you have to have such a strong narrative structure that people won't walk away even if it starts raining, then once you're in a more forgiving and comfortable environment, things get a lot easier.
But what about those tricks? Why do some of the same kinds of things crop up, show after show? Just seen your third show featuring yet another busker riding a high unicycle, having props handed up to them by a kid from the audience? Let's break that down. Obviously, it's a given, that juggling things while riding on a high unicycle is a cool feat of multitasking spectacle. Regardless of how many people on the Royal Mile you've seen doing it, you still probably can't, so lets not get too cocky. It's a good choice for a street show because it has it's own inbuilt, default narrative: First I have to find a way to get up there, then I have to stay up there, then I have to get my juggling, things, then I have to juggle and not die, and then we can all relax. Maybe the performer will press-gang some schmucks from the audience to hold the thing while they climb up. Everyone likes seeing one of their own being made fun of, as long as its not them. And seeing a few audience members being part of the show just strengthens that umbilical link between crowd and show, and makes it even less likely people will walk away. Perhaps a cute kid will be asked to help throw props up to the performer as he totters away on the one wheel. If you want a crowd to love you, get a kid out, give them a challenge they can succeed at, and let them love the kid instead. Then when you put the kid back in the audience, all that good feeling is still there. Oh, but of course, before you let the kid go back to the audience, you give them a fiver to say thanks. Because if someone made you laugh in a show on the street, it's only fair to give them a fiver, right? Let's make sure we get that message across nice and clear.
But I'm burying the lede here. The most important reason for being on a high unicycle (or ladder, or whatever), isn't complicated at all. The higher up you are, the more people can see you. Street performers don't have a stage on which to be raised into everyone's eyeline, so they have to find a way to make their own. It's a quantity business. The fact is that, for all my previous mentions of building psychological links between audience and performer, of creating a feeling of commitment, at the end of a street show, about half of the audience will just walk away without paying. Because they can. So it makes sense to have as bigger crowd as possible. Half of more is worth more than half of less.
The old joke is that nobody makes money at the Edinburgh Fringe apart from the producers, the venues, and the late-night take-aways. But there's another group who do. Thanks to that beautiful, honest half of every audience who stay. They know what's up, and they don't pay because of any cheap tricks, or misdirection. They put money in our hats for the same reason that I still do the shows. Because in a time when arts funding is being shrivelled out of existence, where there are less and less places for a performer – especially a variety artist – to do their thing, there's a fellowship of theatrical pirates who have the arcane knowledge to make anywhere into a theatre. They turn piazzas, streets and parks the world over into cabaret shows and circus rings. Then, when the shows are over, they revert back to what they were. No evidence left, save for some memories, smiles, and a little money earned. Brigadoon with juggling.
And sure, you might watch a show, and not like it. You might see a couple that are a bit samey. You know what? I saw a comedian once. Didn't care for it. But I didn't write off the whole artform. That'd be dumb. I'd be missing the good stuff, because I judged it by the dreck. Don't be dumb. Give it a fair shake, see an afternoon full of shows, and its a fair bet that you'll see something you've never seen before. Someone who transcends the preconceived notion you had about their artistry, that you based only on their venue. I've just let you in on a few of the tried and trusted bits of scaffholding that help hold up countless street shows, so if you see someone not doing those things, they might a good starting point. They're making a choice not to do the stuff that has the best shot of hooking a big crowd, and instead, just perhaps, they're doing something that came from their imagination. People who make those choices are always worth your time.
I've told you, of course, nothing that won't spoil it. The spell is too strong. You can know a little about what pro-wrestling is, how it works, its history, its secrets, and it'll just make your admiration for those that step inside the squared circle deeper, and your enjoyment of the in-ring action stronger.
Oh, and if you are strolling along the Royal Mile, and you happen to see a well-dressed chap threatening to do something absurd with a fully-laden dining table, well, that's me, so stick around, and get your tenners out, because I'm going to show you something you've never seen before.
I'm in the midst of couple of weeks' worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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