Street performing is as old as civilization. Stories were passed down in early tribal fashion from one generation to another through musical and spoken word performances in the out-of-doors to gathered audiences. Today we similarly gather at street festivals, outdoor venues, and more formally at theatrical plays. Perhaps the greatest of all “street festivals” is the New Orleans Mardi Gras.
A tradition that I find charming, inventive and entrepreneurial is that of the corner street performer. You find them in every city, literally on the corners or in the subway and train stations. They are musicians, actors, comedians, jugglers and dancers. Just like in traditional theater venues some of these performers are absolutely “top notch” and others either need a little more seasoning or perhaps just don’t have what it takes.
I tend to be drawn to street performers. I think they are unabashedly brave…there is nothing separating them from their audience…and sometimes you get to see an undiscovered gem. A good thing to remember is that after leaving Juilliard Robin Williams honed his improv craft on the streets of New York! I have seen some incredibly talented musicians and dancers performing their wares on the street.
Watching the gathered audiences is often as interesting as watching the performers. I’m also interested in the psychology that draws an audience to a performer. Why does one act draw a mass of viewers while another goes begging? Believe me the answer is not always the obvious, “because one is better than the other.” This question was very much on my mind when I walked past a number of street performers today in San Francisco. I saw some musicians playing their hearts out (and very well) with no one even giving them a second glance. Perhaps as my husband said it’s location, location location. But if it is as simple as that then why did the group I have nicknamed the “ultimate street performers” draw such a large crowd? In order to even find them you had to walk down a long pier and through double doors built to screen the noise of their unique sound. Once through those doors the first thing you notice is the crowds thronging the railings. Before you know it you are drawn to the group’s melody and mesmerized by the choreography of their powerful, yet graceful dance. People didn’t just stroll by or stop momentarily as I had seen them do with other performers. They stood enthralled for a quarter of an hour or longer even in the chilly weather. That’s why I have dubbed them the Ultimate Street Performers. (Note the Diva taking center stage while the tired backup dancers rest in the background.)