I have been street performing for more then 15 years and I love what I do – it has allowed me to travel, teach, and perform at festivals all around the world. It has given me the training and experience required for me to gain work as a festival worker, cabaret performer, close up magician and write and perform my own one man show. Everything I do stems from street theatre. I have picked up some of my best bookings whilst working the streets. Being a street performer means that you don’t need an agent and you have the freedom to work where and when you like. However its not a easy choice and not everyone will make it as a street performer. Like any art you need dedication, motivation and discipline. In 2006 I founded the School of Busking in the UK and have taken my lecture on tour to Switzerland, Italy, Germany and all over the UK and been part of the Teaching Faculty Jeff McBride School of Magic and Mystery – focus on Street Theatre.
I would like to share with you my top 10 tips for street performing:
1) Develop your character
The crowd will fall in love with you not your tricks or effects. Find out what suits you and wear the clothes/costume that suit your character. Be careful of overdressing – it may backfire if you better dressed the most of your audience and keep flashing your very expensive watch – unless of course – this is part of the character that you want to portray. On the opposite scale – dress like a beggar and you can expect a beggars wage!
2) Developing a Street Show
Whether you are developing a doorway or circle show – your show will need a beginning and an end. I recommend 3 effects for a show is enough. Your ice breaker/crowd gatherer, a middle effect and your finale. Make your show as unique and interesting as you can – you may have effects that you have bought directly from the performer, but remember right from the beginning try and perform each effect in your own style and character and do not copy word for word someone else’s act – because that is all your act will ever be – someone else’s
3) Finding and working a Pitch
Every city and every town is different. When I arrive in a new town or city I do what I call Reconnaissance (a mission to obtain information by visual observation or other detection methods) by walking the streets and getting a feel for where the best place to do a show may be. My motto is – its easier to apologise afterwards then try and gain permission – unless of course you hit a town where queuing is the norm then of course you must follow suite and enjoy watching, learning and making new friends.
Here are some of my tips for finding and working a good pitch: Respect other performers and street folk i.e. keep your distance; Don’t let street traders intimidate you; Shaded pitches are best; Look for quality not quantity – busiest may not be best; Look for natural outdoor pitches that can lend themselves to a theatre setting; Fit into your surroundings, don’t block foot flow or a doorway, for example; Be courteous and professional at all times; Keep your wits about you.
4) The Street Performer’s Props
What props are going to work for you? Think about the transportation of your props and how you will travel and get around with them. Everything you have with you – from your hat to your case and of course all your effects should be used as props. The moment you arrive on your pitch and put your hat on your head you are starting your show and everything you do – from setting up your table or your props for your show should be a deliberate act and therefore creating curiosity in the people around you. Allow the setting of your street stage become part of your crowd build. Play with your props as you set up your table, use your case as a centre point and stand and look at in in wonder – you will be amazed at how many people stop and look too.
If your finale is a 10 foot unicycle then of course your audience is going to know what your finale is and of course the advantage of a high finish means that you can play to much larger audiences and these are known as circle shows. The beauty of magic is that it can pack small and play big therefore you don’t have to reveal your finale props until you are ready – this will keep your audience guessing.
5) Attracting an Audience
I have a couple of different ways of attracting an audience depending on whether I am performing a circle show or doorway show-
Loud and Rude Method (else known as whistle and clap)
Loud and Rude is the way I work when doing a circle show with the straitjacket finale. I use a chain from a bucket and I pour the chain out of the bucket into a straight line and then drag the chain across the road. When I’m getting ready to start attracting a crowd, I’ve got my bucket with the chain ready in my hand – I start to shout “Just about to Start!” Shouting loudly – “Watch this – just about to start”. I make a lot of noise and a lot of clatter. This immediately gets people’s attention. A classic way of attracting others is to ask the crowd to give you a huge round of applause as you take your centre stage (you need a least a couple of rows people by this time) and watch as other people wander over to see what is happening! A crowd attracts a crowd!
The subtlety of Curiosity!
When doing my doorway show I grab people’s attention in another way – the power of curiosity. If you don’t have big props that give your show away – then people don’t know what to expect and they become curious. I use the silk hanky routine as a crowd puller. The beauty of an effect like the silk hanky is that it can keep on being repeated until you have your first hedge to your audience.
I only begin to eyeball people who have stopped for a moment in time. Otherwise, people who keep on walking by can feel intimidated. I give the people who have stopped a moment to settle in and then they realise that I am not that scary! Then I do the disappearing silk hanky again, I get people to come in a little bit closer and when they are about a meter away from my table that is just about as close as I want them to be. If they get too close, then I pull table back. Otherwise I lose my depth with the crowd that I have got. The audience is not trapped in yet and I want more people to come in so I keep on playing.
6) Turning your Crowd into an Audience
Learn to connect with your audience. That is the advantage of close up – the closer your audience is the better the relationship you have with them. That is the disadvantage of a big show and big crowd – that is exactly what they are – a big crowd – not yet an audience. Just because people are crowding around you – that does not make them an audience. Develop a relationship with the people, make eye contact, communicate, reach out to individuals in the shows. Make people feel included. Welcome people to the show and ask their names and use it! On the streets eye contact is an important tool Make eye contact with individuals in front of you, behind them, to your left and to your right – make them all feel included. If someone is shy and doesn’t want to make eye contact then let them be – otherwise you may scare them away.
7) Overlapping Your Material
Overlapping is an important part of a street show – it keeps your audience locked in. Before I finish my first effect I introduce my second effect and this part of my show includes a lot of fun and audience participation. Then whilst halfway through my second effect I introduce the props for my finale so that they know that the big finale is yet to happen. Keep them keen, interested and entertained with overlapping your material. There are lots of different ways of overlapping whatever your material is and you can get creative with this – whatever your show.
8) Dealing with Distractions
Lets face it there are always a lot of distractions on the streets and remember no one invited you to be there! So take advantage of any distractions – Police cars, fire engines, ambulances, the local drunk are all distractions that you cannot ignore – work with them – control your audience and get them to move around or split your crowd in half or wherever is good for the distraction to pass. If you played it right and they are interested in what you are doing then they will be completely under your control at this point anyway, so they will go where I ask them and they will come back for me too. Acknowledge the distraction – have fun with the distraction and remember – bring the audience’s attention right back to you again. Ad lib your way through distractions and make them part of your show.
9) Keeping Your Audience
Getting a volunteer to participate in your show is a great way to keep your audience – I get a cute kid to come out and help me in the middle of my show and make them a star – the cuteness of the kid warms the audience to me and they want the kid to succeed and feel good and this gives your show a great energy that makes people want to be part of.
If you need a grown up volunteer – this is a safe way to get a volunteer – once you have your crowd or your audience, take a prop – it could be a ball or a silk. Take it out your pocket or case and give it to a guy in the audience and ask him to put it in his pocket and tell him to forget all about it and I just get on with my show.
Then when it is appropriate – remember I have picked this guy as my ideal volunteer – he just doesn’t know it yet – this is the guy that I want to wrap me up in a strait jacket later in the show! I then ask “is there anyone here who happens to have a silk handkerchief in their pocket – anyone here?? Amazing – sir can you pull that silk hanky out of your pocket – can you bring it out here – what is your name….” Then you put him where you want him to be on your stage and you have your volunteer. There are a number of different ways to get your volunteer – just don’t use that word!
10) Making Your Audience Pay
Throughout your show you need to be educating your audience – training them into letting them know this is what you do for a living. I tend to say right at beginning – “My name is Mario Morris and I travel up and down the country doing shows in front of kind folks like yourselves and this is called my Slight of Mouth Show and this is what I do for a living.”
The word busker is not a word that everyone understands. Make subtle points throughout your show e.g. if someone takes a photo of you during your show, exclaim “I don’t mind you taking a photo mister, just don’t show my mum – she thinks I work in an office!” This way you are educating your audience that you do not get paid to do this and this is all before you come to doing your hat lines. Exclaim – “this is what I do for living” These little one liners throughout your show educate your audience. However – don’t be desperate throughout your show – people pick up on these vibes. It is also good practice to be specific about what you want your audience to pay you – if you want a pound, 2 pounds or even 5 pounds – ask and specify to your audience that that is what you want. You will find this makes a great difference to your hat.
Your hat lines must come before your big finale, because you have them locked in by that time anyway.
Ladies and gentlemen this is what I do for a living, for the last 30 minutes if I have made you laugh and if I have made you smile then I know that I have done my job. In turn at the end of the show do yours. Come forward and put a tip in my hat, the average donation is about 5 dollars, Folks don’t put nickels and dimes in my hat. I do believe that my show is worth at least $10 – if you can’t afford that two or three dollars or the average tip of $5.00. But folks most importantly have a Beautiful night and with no further endue… the finale.
Some of the above material is taken from my Street Performing Manual. For more details look on www.schoolofbusking.com.
The School of Busking DVD has over 3 hours teaching material from myself and Gazzo.
Don’t miss the opportunity to study in Las Vegas with Mario at an upcoming Focus on Street Magic class.