Performing arts is on the rise, Invest Invest Invest.

2020 was arguably the worst year on record to be a live performer. We did what we could, practised our skills and threw together low budget online events. But we couldn’t do the one thing that makes up so much of who we are. 2021 got off to a slow start, but now there are options available again, even if they are a little limited. The street, however, is bustling, and I feel like the next year will be the most incredible year ever to be a live performer. We have everything we need to make the most of this opportunity (except practice, maybe).
A few weeks back now, I have noticed a considerable shift in how the public responds to the old street show. Usually, I have to go out there and ask people to stop and watch, to build a crowd from nothing and work hard to lower people’s guards to the point that they can truly enjoy themselves during this bizarre experience. That’s been my job for years now. Almost every show I’ve ever done hasn’t begun until those first few minutes have passed, and the ice I’ve broken the ice. In this crazy world, though, when everyone has been starved of life and love and entertainment for so long, my life has got a whole lot easier. My job now is to put on some music… That’s it. I’m not standing on my case, asking people to stop and watch. I’m not being clever or charming in an attempt to get people to give me half an hour of their day. I play my show music and do a little soundcheck, and almost the whole street has stopped to watch. If I ask them to make a little noise, they roar; if I tell a little joke, they split at the seams with laughter. The whole show is smooth and enjoyable for everyone. At the end of a street show, it’s pretty standard for most people to come forward and say “good job” and throw a bit of cash in the hat or touch their card.
Have you ever met somebody for the first time, and everything you said and did just felt right? There was no resistance, nothing getting in the way of you having a good time. These moments, this little bit of peace in a world that offers so much adversity, offer us the opportunity to let ourselves say, be and do whatever we want. It very often allows us to be the best version of ourselves. When we don’t feel like we’re being judged or prone to criticism, we can express ourselves properly and clearly, and everything feels so much simpler than it was before. We usually feel this way when we meet a new life-long friend or lover for the first time. With drugs and alcohol, we can simulate this feeling. Still, we wake up in the morning, paying for our lies with cracking hangovers and regret. It’s when we open our eyes the next day and feel good about ourselves and our choices that we know it was the real deal. That is how I can best describe performing at the moment. I’m facing no resistance what-so-ever at the moment. People want to watch a show. I don’t have to convince anyone of my worth. At the end of the show, people aren’t just coming up and saying “good job”. They’re saying “thank you”, showing genuine appreciation.
Sometimes it’s tough out there. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to get a small group together to watch a show. For whatever reason, street performing is of little interest to the world. After an extended period like this, I get worn down, lose confidence, struggle with motivation and doubt my value. It’s hard to get through these times, but they are always temporary, and I’ve been through so many that I’ve lost count. I know that this glorious time is going to be finite as well. Soon the streets will be overwhelmingly busy, and the world will grow tired of the abundance of entertainment once again. Until then, though, I will be pushing myself to delve into this artistic utopia as often and deeply as I can. I encourage all performers – even those that have never worked on the street before – to do the same. There’s never been a better time to be a performer, not in all the years I’ve been one. We deserve it after the last year of our lives.

I’m selfish, and I know it.

I’m going to work. I’m doing my job, and I’m not ashamed of it or showing any remorse. How can I be so selfish? To be honest, yes, it is selfish of me. I’m doing it because I love my job and I want to do it. I’m doing it for the money. I have enough in savings, and as a tax-paying street performer, the government has offered me enough to survive through the SEISS grant. It is only enough to survive though, I wouldn’t have been able to justify any kind of holiday this year even if I had somewhere to go. I haven’t bought more than a few hundred pounds worth of luxury goods in forever. I’m not advancing, but I’m not struggling either. I’m going to work to buy nice things again, eat and drink for the fun of it and visit friends and family in other countries if I want. I’m doing it for kicks, and I’m doing it because it brings me a lot of joy. Suppose I hated my job and couldn’t afford dinner for the night. Would going to work be morally questionable in a pandemic? It would have the potential to cause the same amount of damage, but I would be suffering from not doing it and suffering while doing it. Therefore it is nobler, right? I want to express how my work is a service at the risk of seeming like a self-righteous prick. Despite my personal gain performing in the street, there are benefits with compounding interest to me doing my thing out there.

I wrote last week about the street performers having to decide for themselves right from wrong. Nobody is going to give us permission to go back to work. Not the councils, businesses, or corporations who own the public land through shady deals; none of them would ever say go for it. They don’t want to say (in writing) that it’s okay. I imagine performers who listen to the authorities are going to get jerked around for months, maybe even the whole year. All the while, bureaucrats sit in their offices, avoiding anything that could become a liability. When working as the Covent Garden Street Performers Association representative, I had to be creative about approaching these people. If I ever asked for permission to do something new, it would be refused. If, however, I asked for objections to a plan, they would rarely come, and when the time came to implement them, nobody would pay any notice. It’s the old saying, “better to ask forgiveness than permission”. Street performers are generally very good at executing this strategy. Still, at the moment, we are in a delicate situation, and many are unsure about whether forgiveness will be granted at all. It will. Once everything is back to normal and artists fill the street once again, it will be as if there was no discussion, no transition period. This moment in time will all be forgotten, and it will be as if we never left.

Being one of the first people out there (Me and everyone else willing to at the moment), we create the permission. While a lot of street performers are Bona Fide trailblazers, making pitches and diving into the unknown. Not all of us can be that all the time. It adds stress to the work to always be unsure about our place in the world. This is why I believe we see so many performers lined up on the ‘good’ spots for five hours to do one show. It’s possibly the least efficient way of working, especially when just around the corner there is a perfectly workable square. Maybe it’s not as busy, perhaps the show would be smaller, sometimes the floor isn’t suitable. These are all good excuses, but it doesn’t make sense most of the time to sit and wait for more than an hour or so to perform when you could do three or four shows in the meantime. The real reason for the line up isn’t to use the best spot but because it is much easier to convince yourself that you are supposed to be there if someone has gone before you and someone will follow. You become just another part of the machine, and your personal responsibility is lowered. When nobody gives you permission to work, you need to seek it in other ways. For this, I feel that working now is a genuine service to London’s street performers, hopefully, in turn, the world.

I struggled on my first day back to perform. I psyched myself up in the morning, checked my gear again and again, then put it off for no good reason until finally, I was ready to go. I went to Southbank with the plan of doing one show then getting out of there. It would take an hour and be a symbol to myself that it was possible. I planned on turning up, putting on my music and starting a show without giving myself the chance to back out. This was already the weekend after I told myself that I would go back, so I had already chickened out and lost a week and wasn’t ready to lose another.

When I arrived, though, I ended up stalling for almost an hour, looking around at all the people wondering where my audience was. I didn’t know the order of my show or how I would get to the end at all. I was lost and alone, nervous and a little frightened of all that could go wrong. I managed to switch off my brain for a few seconds, and that was enough for me to finally start my show music, switch on my mic and say “Showtime!”. From that point on, it was easy. I forgot how well I could blag my way through a show, and everything felt good, right and natural once again. If I had turned up to see someone else was performing before me, I’m sure that I had a timeslot to fill. I was just the next performer that day. I would have done my show without a second thought. I was alone that day, and I had to get through it by myself. This isn’t something unfamiliar to me, though. For the next performer, for the new performers, the people whose venues have closed or the artists looking to expand their experiences, I want to be there waiting. I want to show them that it’s okay. I want to say, “It’s your turn”, and give someone else permission to be there when nobody else in the world will.

Is Live Performance Safe?

With lockdown easing, the forums I subscribe to have discussed the safety of performing again, notably on the street. Many artists say that they don’t believe it is ethical or moral to head out to the street and perform for a live audience again. There is no governing body of street performers worldwide. Nobody is saying we should or shouldn’t do anything. It is all on us, and we have to decide what is right and wrong in this situation. That is a lot of responsibility to put on a large group of individuals. Too much. For that, I think we need to look at this on an individual level. The artist needs to decide whether they are prepared to work, whether they can handle the consequences. It is my personal belief that the impacts of a live performance in an open-air public space will be negligible if anything negative happens at all. The truth is that we will never know the real impact our shows will have regarding spreading the virus. It is intangible. We will see the positive effects, and that is something I’ll be choosing to focus on. It is the only thing that will be based on evidence, not speculation, and it will be the only thing in my power to control.

Stopping the spread by staying home isn’t a viable option indefinitely. We can see the roadmap putting more and more people back out in the world. With schools and non-essential shops opening once again, we have to admit that the damage done by a street show won’t compare to the effects of these other institutes reopening. It’s a good thing, it’s well overdue that the country gets back on its feet, and I believe that street performing should be on the front line of returning to an open world. Theatres and live music venues are still a while away from opening because of government guideline and their position to be governed. The same problem of street performers not having anyone give the green light means that there is also an absence of red lights to stop us from doing what we feel is right. I have been performing recently, and I am taking it as an opportunity to bring a sense of normalcy back to the world. For the 30 or so minutes that people watch me perform, they can see life on the street again after a year of walking around saying, “I’ve never seen it this quiet before”. Now there is noise once again.

For many of the people I have performed for over these last few weeks, it will be their first live show in over a year. I’m trying to make it an enjoyable and memorable experience for everyone. I, too, want to enjoy it. I’m soaking up every second of every show and continuously reminded that this is better. This is a better life and a better situation than we have had to endure over these last twelve months. Laughing together, meeting up spontaneously and killing a little bit of time without looking at our phone. All of it is positive, and I would like to remind my performer friends of this fact. What we do is good for the world – I know it feels like it might not be right now, but that’s what a year without it will do to you. You can easily forget the energy of a show and be dragged into the what-ifs and paranoia of a world in the grips of a global health crisis. The danger is real, but the positive effects of you doing what you’re best at far outweighs the risk of doing it. I’ve heard people saying they don’t see themselves heading back out until Summer 2022. That is a crazy prediction to make. If you don’t feel comfortable going out, who am I to tell you what to do. If I can persuade you to go out though, I hope to do that. Even to do one show, then run back home before anything goes wrong. I believe you’ll find the visible smiles and audible laughter to be a lot more convincing than the notion of an invisible killer. Choose to see the positive you do. Suppose you do happen to see performers comfortable performing and happy to be back out in the world before you are ready. In that case, I understand, but try to see this is as a good thing. People are moving on, not just artists; the whole world is back at work and has been for months. Give yourself permission to join them.

Performing Like a Professional

After a week back, after a lengthy lockdown, I have grown as a performer more rapidly than ever before in my career. It’s as if I got to start again, except this time, I had the knowledge of over ten years of experience. I went from amateur to professional in a matter of weeks. This rapid transition has given me a bit of insight into what sets a beginner apart from a veteran. It helped a lot that while I was in lockdown, I was working on my juggling and circus routines – on the good days.

I’m not talking about circus skills though, I’m talking about the art of performance. Currently, the only venue open to me is the street. Still, I’m sure this is relevant in any aspect of performance. Some performance skills come naturally. Some can be learned through training, but mostly, what I noticed separates the novice from the professional can only be learned through going out there and doing it. There is a noticeable social intelligence that performers gain from being in front of an audience time and time again. The more often an artist performs a routine, the more patterns they can see and the less likely it is that they will be caught off-guard by their audience.

My Zoom Show Setup
Covent Garden 2020

When you are watching a performer, you want them to be in control. If you lack confidence in the performer, then you lack confidence in the whole operation. The person on stage is the captain, and nobody wants to be on a ship that could go down. During my first few shows back, I was fumbling in my case, looking for props, I was uncertain about what routine came next, and I would start a sentence without knowing how to finish it. I quickly tidied up my act and gathered some kind of credibility. Even then, it wasn’t until I’d done it a few times that I remembered why some routines happen in the order that they do or the best way to pack my case so I can pull things out in the right order. I went from incompetent to passable much faster than the first time I took this leap. When I first started performing my street show, it took me about six months to work up my first real script. In March 2021, I did it over a weekend.

But I don’t want my street show to be passable. I want it to be the best it ever was by Summer. I realised one of the most clear-cut signs of a professional over an amateur is the precognition of how the show will play out. The more I performed, the more I knew the result in advance. I now know when a laugh is coming, I know when there will be applause, a gasp, a cheer, a groan. I know what the audience will do long before they do it because every other crowd has done the same so far. It makes the whole experience more comfortable for everyone. I’m not talking over people trying to laugh. Nobody is in the audience clapping by themselves and becoming embarrassed. I’m not waiting for the reaction – I’m anticipating it. The more shows I do, the more I will learn, and the more this captain will lead the crew.

It’s a live show; anything can happen, especially on the street. Suppose I continue to recognise these patterns and learn from them, I will develop a script that seems spontaneous and unique without deviating from the plan. Understanding what will happen then playing with it is crucial. It makes the performance more enjoyable for the artist and more comfortable for the audience. And when something unusual or unexpected does happen, it should come from somewhere so strange that the audience and performer can laugh about the absurdity of what has happened together.

Juggling Photo: Antique Diaries by Alex

Being Myself Again

Southbank London

I have returned to work. This means I’m out on the street juggling and telling my jokes to anyone walking past. In normal times this is always seen as positive and beneficial to the atmosphere of a street. In the middle of a pandemic though, this buffoonery could be controversial. We are still in the late stages of a lockdown and I imagine by performing, I will face criticism from many different angles. I am setting myself up to face pushback from the public, friends, and family, other performers, councilmen, and jobsworths. It can come in many forms, but a man must work.

I need daily practice to improve. I have always tried to rethink my performance and my skills to make them more entertaining and satisfying for my audience. It’s easy to respond that nothing is stopping me from training and practicing skills from home. This is true and it’s what I have been doing for the past year. (Honestly, it has been great for my skills). I have learned many new tricks and perfected routines that used to give me a lot of trouble. How long though, can a performer be expected to train for a show that seems like it will never happen? More training isn’t what I need at this point in my life.

What I need now is to practice the art of performance – something I can’t learn from my bedroom. After the first lockdown, street performing came back for a few months over the Summer. My first show back was a mess. I was hyper-conscious of Covid-compliance and didn’t use any volunteers. I sanitised my gear and maintained social distancing while reminding my audience to do the same.  I had to rethink my whole performance and rewrite entire segments of my show. The first few weeks were tough on my mind, body and voice and each show suffered for it. That is the same story this time around, except I’m still not out of this difficult period.

I’m also seeing the same positive results in my personal life as I did at the start of the year. After just one show I began to work harder on the other aspects of my life. I was sleeping better, exercising more, watching screens less. I had to stretch properly and eat healthier to support what is a physically taxing job. All of these benefits just from being able to be me again.

I have adapted again and again. I have had to reinvent myself 1000 times this year. During the many days and weeks in lockdown, I have read new books, picked up new hobbies, learned new skills and reassessed my priorities ad infinitum. But at the end of all of this, I have not been true to myself. I became ‘Richard in Lockdown’. I became the man I would be if my parameters were limited, and I wasn’t at liberty to choose my own path. ‘Richard in Freedom’ is a completely different machine. Better, in my opinion. These lockdowns have taken away my freedom, my ability to provide and essentially robbed me of my identity, forcing me to become the person I needed to be to spend all day every day locked inside. It feels good to be myself again – outside in the real world.

Photos – BNW Thomas

Back to Work

Well, it’s been a full year now. As the end of this madness is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to work. It’s been an impossible year for us all – live performers especially. But it is time to throw off our shackles to head back out there and share our passion once again. After being promised Christmas, only to have it taken from us with just a few days to go. From then until now, I have been waiting with anticipation to get back to work. I need to perform again, soon. The longer I go without performing the more challenges I will face when the time comes for me to put myself back out there. 

I write my own material and if I can’t write it, I improvise it. I’m not going to be able to just go back to the same old routines and jokes. Performing now means rewriting my routines and rethinking my whole show – again. The stop-start nature of this year has allowed me to perform a few times but each time I’ve faced the same question. Who am I as a performer? I’ve been reckoning with that riddle more than a few times this year. I’ve had to re-establish what matters to me and how I could possibly express it through jokes, humour, and circus tricks? Sitting at home practising won’t do me any good. I need experience. It could be days, even weeks before I can bring the goods again and perform to the standard I expect of myself.

I will struggle and suffer at first. Furthermore, I will be trying to get as many people as possible together to watch my embarrassment. This is something all performing artists must face. Almost everything that happens on stage is worked up in private, displayed, then quickly adjusted with hindsight. It takes failure, challenges, and repetition for an act to develop its rhythm and style. This process takes time. In most cases, it is endless. To constantly be scrutinised and scrutinise myself I need to be courageous and have thick skin. Inviting people into this moment to experience my growing pains with me is embarrassing. It’s something all performers need to get used to and over time we learn to accept it and some sadistic people even come to enjoy it. This year however we have all grown soft from sitting in the comfort of our houses, performing on zoom occasionally, and watching Netflix in anticipation for our re-birth as performers. 

Time is passing quickly; Summer is the busiest time of the year (apart from Christmas) for me and I need to be ready. I need to be at my peak for those sunny days and the festivals they bring. It looks like the legality of live performance is going to be debatable up to June. I know I can’t wait that long. I need to go out and work. I expect that the only venue available for a while will be the street and that’s exactly where I intend to start.