Can I let you in on a secret? I’m a little scared of clowns.
Don’t ask me to explain the whys, wherefores and what-have-yous. There’s just something about them that leaves me uneasy.
So, too, with street performers, (many of whom are, of course, clowns.)
From the ones that grab your hand and don’t let go to those others who call out names while you’re not looking, it’s all one big gag reel with yours truly at the butt of the joke.
And there’s no escape, under normal social circumstances. I mean, we could scream and run for the hills but to most folk that would seem like an overreaction.
And so, instead, I grin and bear it. (While wondering whether everyone else is doing that too.)
All of which brings me to covering the Edmonton Street Performer’s Festival, a gig that left me more unnerved than the time I got into the water with a croc.
So here’s the lowdown.
I was in western Canada covering five festivals for the wonderful mustlovefestivals project. Rodeo fascinated me; Vancouver I longed to see.
And Winnipeg, well, it just has too amusing a name to miss.
But Edmonton? And street performers? It was honest work, it was intriguing work. It was a wild card.
And so it was, that I found myself one late Sunday morning standing all alone in Sir Winston Churchill Square, with passer by after passer by wondering whether or not I’d been mistaken, that instead I meant the Fringe Fest.
The joke’s already begun, I thought. They’ve sent me to the wrong place.
Lest I be mistaken for a street performer from standing still for too long, I ducked into the nearby Art Gallery of Alberta. All swirling, whirling sheets of metal, the architecture alone made it worth the trip.
Canada has a reputation for being a friendly place, but with few exceptions, it’s extraordinary to notice how friendly indeed it is. I got chatting with the guys on the desk, the security guard monitoring the silver knots and scarlet daubs of paint and again with a fellow visitor who alerted me to the best view up on the second floor.
I emerged to see a corn dog van, long squidgy balloons, hula hoops and tents that told me I was on the right track.
A friendly traffic guard confirmed as much.
But the square still snoozed its way through Sunday morning and it was no easy task to find out who’s who and what’s what.
Who was audience and who was performer? One wrong move on my part and I’d be forced to shake someone’s hand til the sun went down while everyone else laughed and tracked down the best elephant ears and beaver tails on sale.
No, there had to be a better way.
Eventually, I decided to follow the wires. Even for live street performances, the night shows need lights. Lights need wires and wires need someone to operate them. All I had to do was follow the wires and look for men in black, the signature style for backstage crew the world over.
I found them. I found my media pass. I was in.
Someone who’s afraid of clowns, that’s who.
It was time to get to work.
“It’s all about saying no and wearing my grown up pants.”
So says Shelley Switzer from the Edmonton Street Performers’ Festival, and I’m assuming at this point that Canada, like America, means trousers with pants, not undies as Britain does. But then again, British pants in this case would perhaps be more fun.
Regardless of sartorial preference, the serious topic she’s talking about is in fact the festival’s tough selection process for performers.
As the Artistic Producer, Switzer is the mastermind behind this year’s event. She joined the project in 1989 and she graciously agreed to talk to me about what the whole thing is and what it tries to achieve.
And she’s not aiming low.
“At the theatre, you pay a price (if you can afford it) before you go in. You don’t know what you’re going to see. If you don’t think it’s any good, well, it’s too late. You’ve already paid.
“On the street, the lights are all on. There’s nowhere for the performers to hide and there’s nowhere for the audience to hide. And at the end, people vote with their wallet.
The Edmonton Street Performers’ Festival relies heavily on volunteers, another aspect Shelley is keen to emphasise.
“We have everyone from doctors (dodgy people – Ed) to the homeless helping out around here. We don’t turn anyone anyway.”
Most volunteers need to take two week’s annual leave, a hefty commitment in a fragile global economy, but the festival is in hot demand.
From a performer’s point of view, not only is it prestigious but it pays well too (though no-one will quote me a figure. Fair enough, I suppose, I wouldn’t either to someone I’d just met in the street.)
“People in Edmonton know what to do,” says Darka, another of the festival’s organisers.
In my foreign confusion, I ask what she means. It turns out it’s another of those things you’re just supposed to know when it comes to travel in the northern Americas: tipping.
So how much is a decent tip?
“It depends. But people here know what to do.”
And, er, hapless foreigners?!
“Whatever you feel is right.”
Tipping policy from the US mixed with politeness from Canada. What’s a girl to do?
Immerse myself in the crowds and watch and learn, of course.
Besides, Shelley has just introduced me to another of the festival’s key acts.
He says he’s a clown.
An angry clown.
I make appropriate pleasantries. Try to chat even. But it doesn’t work.
He’s got that look. I’m nervous.
I need to be among the people.
Armed with a media pass and a mighty big camera, I feel safe. Enough.
I figure that no clown in his (or her) right mind would want to rob themselves of any publicity by dragging me into the drama. Plus squinting at the LCD screen seems a good enough excuse to avoid eye contact.
I wonder where to start.
Behind the chicken poutine and deep fried pickle vans, two men in suits are saying nothing but folding newspapers.
On a Sunday. Eccentric commuters or…
One of them does a handstand.
It’s time for an act.
The two men carry on silently for a while. I learn later that this is the Crowdbuilding Phase, one of the hardest aspects of street performance. The pros don’t pitch up and start performing. They deliberately delay, pause, tease and take their time. When the crowd is big enough, they begin.
Within moments, one hapless voyeur finds himself the mix, standing on one leg as a hat stand, holding an umbrella. Moments later, another man is humiliated and a small girl takes to the (fake) stage.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
By the end of the second day, I’ve seen the act through to its completion several times from several angles. And it’s always at this point that I feel truly impressed.
You need to package what you can do. You need to know how to entertain. How to handle the people. How to feel their pain, guess their rewards.
And know how to deal with an eight year old child who may just choose the 10 dollar bill over a lollipop, pee on your shoulders or actually well and truly steal the show with her quips, sass and sweetness.
Fair play and three cheers to them all. Each time I watched, something else happened and each and every time, they dealt with it with panache.
Interestingly, they’re not from England at all but Melbourne, with a laid back Aussie drawl. Hamish McCann plays the silent partner during the act. Off “stage,” he’s warm and approachable.
He explains that their street performance work rose out of “desperation” during a lean period for their usual acrobatics and gymnastics work.
They liked the idea of the English gents because of the props, the style and the fact that they’ve always found the Brits “a bit funny.”
“We’re silent in the crowdbuilding phase. That’s how we get them. And then we wondered how to keep them…”
“So we stripped,” added partner Denis Lock. “And that seemed to work.”
It certainly did.
But then there’s the third part.
“I’ve seen great acts, really great artists walk away with nothing because they forget to sell at the end,” he says. “And others who haven’t put on such a good show do much better because they’ve got excellent sales skills.”
Ah, and so it is with so many creative walks of life.
As they say in the act, they’re professionals. “That’s why we stand on the street and beg for money.”
That’s part of the act, too, as it happens, since they spend nine months a year in London as part of the prestigious La Soiree
All in, the English Gents have certainly been the highlight of my time in Sir Winston Churchill Square. But that’s not an easy claim to make.
I’ve seen a ballerina who melted the most cynical of hearts with her ribbon fluttering routine involving children, a local breakdancing band, fine folk on stilts and a man who earns a living by roping the audience in to pelting passers by with bricks of bread (yes, it’s cruel, but oh, it’s so funny.)
I even plucked up the courage to stand and watch some clowns.
So is it time for me to put myself behind me, get over my shyness, shake someone’s hand and get roped right in?
After all, they’re a professional, talented bunch, we’re in friendly Canada, and in all seriousness, really, what could possibly go wrong?
What do you think?
Disclosure – I travelled to Canada as part of the #mustlovefestivals project with sponsorship from Expedia and Destination Canada. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what’s the point?