I’m in awe of street performers. They bring a little magic to our public spaces by being the living embodiment of Shakespeare’s old line about all the world being a stage.
Sure, we’re all players. Every one of us has our own little drama swirling around us at all times. We are the star of our own show. It’s easy to see why the ancients believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. (For awhile, anyway.) After all, we humans are an egotistical bunch. But standing on a street corner in Prague or Venice or Winslow, Arizona and performing is a daunting endeavor.
Stage fright is real. Upon the stage, you are expected to deliver your lines or dance or sing or play like a machine; close to perfection. You are there to entertain and the audience has high expectations. That brings anxiety and a host of bodily discomforts that are understandable. The best make it look effortless. They invite us in and make us an integral piece of the performance. They are equal parts shaman, professional, and improvisational savant. It all seems so real and right now. So, it is understandable that some folks feel like the stage is the last place on the planet they ever want to be.
Those of us who have gotten over feeling scared witless still feel a tinge of nerves now and again. We wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t. We relish our time in the spotlight. It’s part of our genetic make up. It’s a flaw, certainly, a deep-seated abnormality that should be outlined in the DSM, (that psychological reference book that doctors & health professionals refer to when dealing with all matters of mental illness). So be it. Performers of any kind are weird members of the tribe. We are supposed to be. That’s our niche. We hold up the mirrors to society. We inspire beauty (on a good day) and incite revolutions (on an even better day) and give voice to the voiceless or merely soothe the souls of the not-so-damaged. It’s all an act, though. Once we are done and off the stage, societal expectations dictate that we have to sort of keep it together. No one likes a fool who doesn’t know his or her place!
It’s those expectations of the audience again. The stage is just another pigeon-hole, a box where we are categorized and organized and understood. Assimilated, even. We can be taken seriously as real, live humans, maybe, because, we are entertainers and once the lights go out we are free to resume our private lives, tabloid celebrities excepted.
Street entertainers, though. They are a different breed. The walls are gone. The relative safety of the stage is removed. They are playfully antagonistic. The expectations are totally different. Street performers are subjected to a new standard. They are viewed as a super-freaky genius or sort of sad and desperate: a failed, starving musician.
Tourist spots around the world have a similar array of pseudo-celebrities that entertain. Jazz cats on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Times Square and the Naked Cowboy. Those body-painted robots and statues in Las Vegas or Paris or Beijing or Seattle. In Scottsdale, Arizona there’s an actual cowboy, with a real live horse who yodels and serenades the people in an old-timey, iconic western way. Venice, California has it’s own regulars, whether it’s the chainsaw juggling fireman or the one-man band who plays a bass with his toes or the roller-skating guitar player with a turban.* All of them developed a character, an act. These are the warriors that give meaning to the idea of street theater. These performers don’t get dress rehearsal. There are no do-overs or encores. It’s hardcore, in your face, entertainment. Prepare to be amazed or watch someone lose an appendage. Maybe both.
That is not me.
I do what I do. I sing and play my guitar, mostly on a stage, but on occasion I am offered the opportunity to perform on a street. Usually it is part of a make-believe, civically-minded initiative to provide local color for the tourists who may be in town for, spring training or the Super bowl. It’s an act. I get to pretend I’m a street performer. But since I don’t have a real act or a persona, I am just a guy on the street with a guitar. That translates to sad and desperate for those who encounter me. A starving musician trying to be heard. I’m not. Really. I’m usually being paid by those civically-minded forward thinkers who want local color. But because I don’t have a shtick, most passersby sort of feel sorry for me. I can tell by the look in their eyes and their words.
“You’re so talented.”
“You should be on the radio.”
If it was that easy, I would be.
I’m not broken up about it, though. I get to pursue my passion on a regular basis and get a few dollars for my troubles. Street performing is not my forte. I’m OK with that. I don’t have a horse. I don’t have a costume. I can’t play a character. (See also: another reason I’m not on the radio!) I enjoy the time I get to play & sing without the expectations of a stage. If I fail to meet the expectations according to the code of the street, well, at least I manage a few tips. I even got a fork last weekend!
Yes, a fork.
The delightful human being who left it thought she was being funny. Hilarious! I’m sure. Maybe she was disappointed by my failure to fit into the categories: No costume! Ugh! Too clean, therefore not a charity case. Double-ugh! No horse! Good God!!
Yep, I’m just a dude with a guitar. She was singing along to that Bob Marley song I was playing at the time, too. So, what gives? A fork? Pretty rough, but I’m not mad. After all, I was just an uncredited extra in her movie of a life. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to respond with something witty, like, “Fork me? Fork me??? I don’t thinks so! Fork you!!
But, fork it! What can you do?
*My references are dated. I haven’t been to Venice in years. I’m sure those same guys who once haunted the Venice boardwalk have long since retired, but they were cool!