Street performing... it's all about freedom | Mat Ricardo's monthly dispatch from the world of variety

Street performing... it's all about freedom

Mat Ricardo's monthly dispatch from the world of variety

As regular readers will know, I haven't always been the middlingly-successful, reasonably-priced but excellently-attired cabaret schmuck that you see before you. 

All the time I spend in burlesque venues, cabaret clubs and variety theatres is a teardrop in the Atlantic compared to the days, months and years I've spent hanging out on busking pitches, or sitting on my suitcase behind outdoor stages. Anything I'm good at, anything I've learnt over the years, I mostly learnt as some variation of a street performer. 

Stagecraft, costuming, act structure, and comedy? Goddamn, nothing teaches you how to be funny faster than people literally losing interest and walking away when you're not. You get good, or you get a different occupation.

These days, I'm a very lucky boy. Through some combination of luck, persistence, and a successful blackmail plan that you'll never prove, I've got to the point where I spend much of my time working indoors. I tour my one man show in some frankly ridiculous places, and work cabaret and comedy sets even further afield. 

When I was a full-time buskerado, I used to see having a career indoors as the holy grail. The be all end all. Indoors, you don't have to worry about the weather, about your show being destroyed by gangs of muttering French school parties, all sucking on their fake cigarettes bought from the joke shop around the corner, and throwing snappers. No crazypants preachers loudly debating with themselves if you or your audience are the more perverted sinner. 

In my years working the cobbles of Covent Garden, I defended my show against threats as varied as a woman taking a dump in front of my audience, the poll tax riots rampaging through my finale, a literal knife wielding maniac, and a member of the boy band Blue heckling me, and then walking off in a huff after he told me who he was, because I didn't recognise him, and had to confirm his identity with a kid in the crowd. 

And yes, I know, when you work the clubs there are threats, I know the horror stories about stag parties, rugby clubs, drunk, sloppy and shouty late night comedy club shows. But seriously – ever had a heckler do a shit on your stage? Yeah, I win.

But of course, that's the beauty of the artform – no rules. The terrifying freedom of having a 45-minute slot on a street pitch to do whatever you damn well like. Sure, you can stick to a tried and tested structure – hit them hard and slick and collect some money. Or you can find places within that structure to play a little, to improv, to tangent the hell out of things.

I've been in shows where halfway through, myself and another street performer doing a show on the adjoining pitch have picked up our suitcases and switched places, trading audiences, finishing our shows to a different audience to the one we started it with. I've climbed the outside of buildings (and only fallen off once). I've seen someone tell their audience to wait there,  then leave, go into a venue and do a short spot, come back out to their still-waiting audience, and continue the show. If the idea of pushing boundaries, of having genuine play with the audience appeals, the there's nothing looser and funner than busking.

So it wasn't so surprising that after spending the last decade working mainly in venues with ceilings, in recent years I found myself hankering for a little street-crazy. I look back at my years as a street performer as my time in the gym, getting fight-fit, so that when the big money fights come, I don't let myself down. But now, oddly, it's the subtleties learned from working in theatres that are influencing how I approach outdoor work.

As I write this, I'm halfway through a three-week contract in Hannover, Germany. The Kleinesfest in Der Grossen Garten – ‘The little festival in the big garden’ . But don't be fooled by the self-effacing title, it's not a little festival at all. 30+ of the worlds best circus and variety artists, each with a stage, set in a huge and beautiful ornamental garden. 3,000 tickets sold every night, and the whole run sells out the instant tickets go on sale. 

I've performed here many times before, and always wondered why Germany can do this, but England probably couldn't. Here, families and friends come to spend a warm summer’s night watching shows, with hampers full of picnic food and big blankets. There are stalls that sell gorgeous sandwiches and cakes and pretzels, ice cold beer and champagne. As the sun sets slowly, the audience wander around, pitching up in front of a stage, eating, laughing and clapping as they watch the show, and then consulting their guide to decide what to see next. And then, at the end of the evening, there are fireworks. It's bloody beautiful, and a total joy to be a part of.

I'm fearful of the future of street performing, and outdoor shows in general, though. It seems that more and more news cycles are taken up with cellphone footage of loveless idiots using simple methods to end the lives of strangers. And more often than not, these wretched events lead to ever more draconian, and arguably useless laws. Like making a big show out of twisting the lid firmly on the can, after the sprung snakes have jumped out.

 There's certainly a debate to be had about the effectiveness of much of the shtick that has taken centre stage at the security theatre. It is, and this is blindingly obvious to all but – seemingly – those in charge, exactly the point of these attacks. The point of terrorism is to fill people with… um… terror. Like a grumpy toddler screaming and shouting and throwing it's shit until it gets the toy it wants, the scared parent feverishly buys the damn toy and hopes that it'll quieten the child. The experienced parent ignores the wailing kid and has a glass of wine until it realises nobody cares and shuts the hell up. Sure, the whining might give you a headache, but there's a good chance it won't try that again, 'cause it didn't work that time.

I fear we've been giving the wailing child all the toys it wants. And one of the things I think it's being slowly given, is control over exactly the kind of loose, free, unplanned movement and assembly that lets street performing, and free society, exist.

Other countries, at various times, when faced with crap like this, have curtailed personal movement and free assembly. Hard to build an audience for a street show, if large unlicensed public gatherings are illegal (and freedom of assembly has already been largely rescinded in Spain, and to lesser extents in several other countries). Hard to have a gorgeous chilled festival in a big ornamental garden, if everyone has to get searched when they come in, has their cutlery taken away, and their liquids, and their confidence. Hard to be loved-up, chilled and happy when there are armed cops at every stage. 

At the festival I'm at, there are no security checks at all. None. I've never even seen a security guard. I've also, in six years of performing here, genuinely never seen so much as a raised angry voice. Just laughter and hugs and music and love. From 3,000 people. Every night for three weeks. Every year.

 Look, I don't want to trivialise terrorism, and god knows, I'm not someone you should be reading if grown-up, informed insight is what you're in the market for. I'm a fucking juggler. You can do better. 

It's just that we need to do the hard thing and ignore the annoying wailing child, and go back to more important things like music and art and fun and silliness – and they are more important, because, if you'll allow me a little hack poetry, these things are the threads that weave the fabric of life.

 And that's where street performing is really something special. Anyone can watch, any kind of person from any kind of place, there's not even a ticket price. The only qualification for being a street show audience member is ‘Do you want to watch a street show?’, and that's exactly the kind of loose freedom that, perhaps, some people on either side of this shitty conflict, find threatening.

So, it's probably a very good thing then, right?

Mat Ricardo is Chortle’s variety correspondent. His website is here and he tweets here.

Published: 29 Jul 2016

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