There is a plethora on Grafton Street, indeed in every city in the world, but what is the point of street performance? Victoria Nellis describes the derivation, drama and delights
Every shopper or stroller, at some point in their life has been drawn to watch a street performer- pulled in by their unusual skills, costume or movement. Their performances include anything from traditional street acts, dancers, mime artists, character actors, puppeteers, musicians and performance artists of every kind. Impromptu crowds, children and adults alike, circle round them to marvel at their bizarre and wondrous talents. Some performers simply busk to make a living; others are part of organised companies. Sometimes they are commissioned- particularly for street festivals, children’s shows or parades. The Edinburgh Festival is a perfect example of such – the city full of street performers advertising shows that are taking place- offering a taster of what can be seen. However, most street performers are unpaid and gather some income through the dropping of a coin in a hat by an audience member.
Although street performance is not a new phenomenon – it dates back to the medieval times when mime artists, bards, storytellers, and jugglers traveled in search of new audiences and financial support. It is now becoming recognised as a modern art form. Festivals and championships are held around the word celebrating street performance. The Edmonton Street Performers Festival in Canada has been running for fifteen years. Dick Finkel, who set it up and still produces it, believes the mission of the festival is to “present and celebrate street performance as an art form”. The heart of the festival still remains in the old traditions of busking- performers doing all they can to enchant and entertain, so that when the hat is passed spectators will give generously. Dublin is also host to the Street Performance World Championship. For the past three years, for one weekend in June, Merrion Square has hosted the event in which the bizarre and the talented battle it out for the most coveted title in street performance. It draws performers from all corners of the world demonstrating their wacky talents- sword swallowing, contortionists and magicians- wowing the audience.
The success of a street performance often depends on the creative use of the human body. Living statues- mime artists who pose like statues or mannequins- are a common feature in the world of street performance. They stand for hours- frozen- mesmerizing audiences by their stillness and their imagination. Some pose as imitation bronze statues, even as the Statue of Liberty. The greater the creativity the bigger audience they draw in. There are hundreds of places across the world where street performers can be seen. You can’t escape them on The Ramblas in Barcelona. Each one does something different- whether still or moving, your eyes wander over them. In Buenos Aires street performance is everywhere- street corners, shopping centers, market squares. From Charlie Chaplin impersonators to tango dancers, crowds of tourists form in small antique markets as a couple switch on some seductive tango music and begin to perform the traditional Argentinean dance.
It could be argued that a lot of street performance represents the city or country in which it is performed. Tango dancing in Argentina is going to attract a huge number of tourists- guide books even suggest places to go to capture some of this seductive dance. Yet street performance is increasingly cosmopolitan- on occasion a man with a large female puppet can even be seen doing the tango on Grafton Street and Native Americans can be found performing their traditional songs from Croatia to Scotland.
Street performance is not just entertainment. Performance can be used as a means to promote a message not just to give people a taster of ‘legitimate theatre’. It is available to everyone who wants to watch it and can be afforded by all. So it appeals to preachers who want to tell the crowd that Jesus is coming again and also to political activists who want to promote debate about the issues of the day. The Mischief Makers are a group of activists and artists based in Nottingham, England, who develop creative responses to social, political and environmental issues and then take to the streets to promote their cause. The group aims to “inspire people and empower them to identify challenges and take action in their local environment”. Invisible Theatre- originally developed by Augusto Boal- an influential Brazilian theatrical Theatre director, writer and politician- is most often performed without the knowledge of the “audience”, which in such a scenario would consist of whoever happens to pass by. This enables actors to make a point publicly in much the same motivational vein as graffiti or political demonstrations can provoke reactions in those that see them. This type of theatre is performed in public on unexpected bystanders, whom the actors will try to make complicit in the scene.
Street performance makes shopping a more convivial business. We expect to find these people on our streets now. Their colorful theatricality might amuse us or make us think but either way they enrich our lives.