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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Street performers


There are an unnatural number of street performers on Circular Quay which means there is always something to watch whilst you eat your lunch. Street acts are one of many things in life that tend to polarise people, you either like 'em or you don't . Generally - this will come as no great surprise - I don't. I do not subscribe to the theory that they enliven and add colour to a bleak and forbidding urban landscape as they tend to congregate in the most open and pleasant areas and get in the way until you give them money, ruining the pleasant stroll you were having. Having said this some of them are quite good but they vary in quality from pointless semi-gentrified begging through one-trick-pony and bizarre sideshow all the way to bloody hell! Circular Quay has all four...


Pointless Semi-Gentrified Begging
My objection to this isn't so much the begging as the fact that the performers in question are attempting to pass off something which is badly thought out, requires very little effort and would be illegal begging if it weren't masquerading as performance. This seriously detracts from other performers who are actually trying and should be punishable by a year at a Grotowski based theatre school.* There are a few contenders for the title in this category, mostly of the if I dress up like something stupid people might give me money type, but the one that springs immediately to mind is:
  • Bad Effort at a Pantomime Horse - A one man pantomime horse, badly executed or at least he should be. Maybe not so much a bad panto character as a one trick pony, his entire act is being dressed up as a crap pantomime horse but without the comedy of there in fact being two people inside. What else does he do? Nothing, absolutely nothing. He could have a poorly made toy jockey on his back with a carrot suspended from a fishing rod which he could chase around. He could find a friend and make a proper pantomime horse that has a back end that attempts to move in the opposite direction. Maybe he doesn't have any friends or maybe he just isn't trying at all. I found this act so bad thast it confused me. In a daze I sauntered over to a trio stood not so far from Bad Effort at a Pantomime Horse and started staring at them waiting for them to do something with the odd collection of sticks and strange wheeled vehicle the had with them. Snapping out of it I realised that they were in fact three old people, one in a wheelchair, waiting for the minibus driver.

  • Dress Up Like a Ten Foot Dickhead Man - At least I think it's a man, you can't tell under the costume. Again not so much of a performer as a clothes horse (can I get any more bad GeeGee gags in this post I wonder?). This one has not only a stupid costume but a stepladder. He looks a bit like a character from a Japanese mythic painting, face-mask and all. Apparently welded to the back of the painted mask is something that looks like a metal peacock. Under the highly coloured and decorated robes the "performer" is a not so cunningly concealed stepladder on which he is standing, giving the "amazing" illusion that he is ten feet tall. For some reason this is supposed to want to make you give him money. The stepladder renders the idiot standing on it immobile if he wishes to stay inside his costume meaning that he is limited to gesturing at people as apparently wearing an elaborate costume and standing on a stepladder renders you mute.

For once and all: if you are going to wear a stupid costume at least do something whilst wearing it, otherwise you may as well be a mannequin and mannequins don't get paid.

One-Trick-Pony
A category reserved for performers who can do only one thing (often in a stupid costume). Such as:
  • Paint Yourself Silver and Pretend to be a Robot Man - He has bought a child's face mask and covered it in tinfoil, ruined a suit with silver paint and has mastered the art of standing still for long periods of time and occasionally moving in a jerky vaguely mechanical fashion. I have several objections to this:
    1. Robots, like mannequins, don’t get paid, ever.
    2. Animate Robots don’t exist and if they did they would scare small children too.
    3. This is performance is a cross between a mime artist and a clown, which on it's own is reason enough not to attempt it, it also has a sci-fi theme, requires large quantities of silver paint and could be easily put together by a children's TV presenter. None of these things in themselves constitute a red flag but all three together is a serious warning.**
    There seem to be several of these and they differ only in the tint of their paint. Some paint themselves white and pretend to be statues, how startlingly original.

  • Oriental Fiddle Man - This is too culturally different from Australia's largely European musical roots. The far greater use of minor tones in Japanese music would put a lot of people off on its own. If that doesn't do it then the instrument of choice almost certainly will. The Japanese two string fiddle, whilst capable of some beautiful tones when acompanied, takes on a sonorous and rather grating quality after a while. As the fiddle has only two strings, its timbral range is very restricted and it is tough to know when a new song has begun or even if the player has finished tuning up. When a performer saws away at it all day and half the night it becomes just plain irritating. Shame really, it's very different from anything else round there.

Bizarre Sideshow
There are a few of these, they tend to be musical in nature and confound your expectations. I have no real objections to this brand of street performer they tend to stay out of the way and they at least cover the noise of the traffic.
  • The Sensitive New Age Economic Realists (actual name) - A small band made up of retirees (not to be mistaken for The Sensitive New Age Bluegrass Cowpersons, who are from Perth and perform rock hits in bluegrass fashion, All Along the Watchtower is particularly good as I recall). They have guitars, violins, a squeezebox and not once have I ever seen them play them. They normally seem to be sat around in the sunshine drinking beer which is what I plan to do with my retirement. How they make any money or if they even intend to I cannot tell.

  • Rasta in White - This guy is pretty cool. He is extremely black wears a very white suit and has long greying dreadlocks. He plays pop hits from the Eighties on his steels drum including Love is in the Air, Lady in Red and Brown Eyed Girl. Good but weird.

  • Sammy Davies Jr Jr - An Afro-Caribbean guy with a pretty good voice who rather sadly has a face like a 1950's stereotyped charicature of a black man - big lips 'n' all. He dresses like he is in Run DMC and sings Frank Sinatra songs to a backing tape. He is either being unbeleivably ironic in a post-modern manner that would have Baudrillard breathless and afraid of a genius capable of such brash sweeping statements, or he just happens to be a black man that likes to sing Frank Sinatra songs. At any rate Ol' Blue Eyes seems a little different in his latest reincarnation.

  • Didgeridoo Techno - A troupe of Aboriginal Australians that play traditional instruments over a dance soundtrack. Not bad, but not unique either.


Bloody Hell!
Normally circus performers, typified by a guy I saw at the Edinburgh festival and again in Covent Garden. For his closing piece he would lie on a bed of nails and get people to drop a bowling ball from the top of a step ladder to crack concrete slabs held on his bare chest. The next two performers make the audience keep their distance with the aid of that most robust of safety devices - a length of rope on the ground. They treat this like a magic circle, performing the most amazing feats of skill and dexterity with hot stuff and sharp things in the firm belief that the rope barrier will protect the audience. Strangely it seems to work.
  • Fire Eating American - Not Bill Hicks reincarnated but an actual fire-eating American. You can feel the heat from his act from the other side of the walkway. I have no idea how he has managed to retain facial hair, surely this can't be safe for a fire breather.

  • Token Brit - There's always one. This guy is a real showman, he spends quite a while talking to the audience whilst laying out his kit. As his kit includes many sharp things, including a chainsaw this attracts a fair bit of attention. His closing piece is eating an apple whilst juggling machetes whilst riding the tallest unicycle I have ever seen. He does it all in the name of proving that he is "not a pom", despite his pronounced Bristolian accent. You could be forgiven for thinking that he is trying too hard.


There aren't any pictures of the performers themselves to go with this post as if you take a picture of them they expect you to give them money, an expectation that summarises my main problem with street artists. In the main they expect to get money for doing the absolute minimum. If you are a musician sell your CD or play a variety of tracks, if a mime artist or performer be entertaining - I don't mind you asking for money if you are entertaining - but put some effort in or you don't get nuffin' you dole bludging waste of silver paint.

*For anyone who doesn't know about middle-european physical theatre - i.e. everyone - Grotowski's theatre school was more of a Gulag designed to weed out the uncommitted so for the first year you would probably have been getting up at 5am to sweep the corridors and clean the toilets for ten hours being fed only on a thin soup. If you were very lucky and looked like you had really got to grips with cleaning toilets you would be rewarded with a 3 hour lesson in the most physically and vocally demanding avant-garde theatre practice that a serious-minded Polishman could think up. Now that's what I call punishment.

**Sci-fi theme: lots of good things have come out of science fiction, mostly athletic women in tight clothing and hangover friendly TV.
Silver paint: anything that requires large quantities of silver paint and is not a German sports car should be treated with suspicion until its' usefulness is proven.
Children’s TV presenters: have put together many good things, usually other television programmmes with a strong psychedelic element and drug habits of superhero proportion.