19 May 2008

Mutually Beneficial


Last Monday, routed through my association with Cirque Boom, I performed at a benefit for the NYFA. They're wonderful people. They even sent me a thank-you card for the event. They paid me, and they formally thanked me. It's enough to make an actor feel sort of worthwhile. (Which we'll have to put a stop to immediately, of course. If we start feeling worthwhile, nobody will be able to enlist our services for little-to-no money, and before you know it it'll be work, work, work for actors everywhere!) And, in the week that followed, I developed a busking/greenshow routine to perform in the half hour before The Women's Project's show, Corporate Carnival, which I performed in all week down at The World Financial Center (see video here). So it's been a very busky, walkabout-performance sort of past week for yours truly. This is a form of performance that represents a lot of the income a specially skilled actor can pick up here and there. People are constantly interested in creating memorable events, or events with themes, or just an "event" in general, and performers seem a really creative way to do that. I applaud people who are interested in employing creative artists for their affairs.

It does not, however, mean that it's necessarily a good idea.

An actor has to be smarter about his or her craft than anyone who employs him or her when it comes to this kind of job. If you're cast in a regular play, with rehearsal time and a script and a director who's competent, there isn't necessarily a need to be the authority in the room. You may do your job best, in fact, by being a bit more of an empty vessel, ready to receive the influences of the process you're about to put your all into. But when you're asked to pitch your innovation into the ring for a semi-improvised solo performance, you'd better see in all directions at once and be ready for any and everything. Because -- and here is the rub -- the people asking you to do something generally have very little understanding of what exactly they're asking you to do. I believe the thought that goes into this sort of notion is something along the lines of, "Oo! Live performers! It'll be like Moulin Rouge!"

To be fair, the two gigs were very different (in spite of both having the word "carnival" in the title, a detail that made my inbox a very confusing place for a while there). The benefit was a costly evening affair in a restaurant in midtown, with wealthy arts patrons and alcohol, and the greenshow (so named because of the tradition of apprentices-to-the-theatre trying out their acts before the show on the "green" outside) was for all sorts of working types in a public space during the daytime. The purpose of the first was largely to entertain. The purpose of the second was also to entertain, but more important was to spread the word of the upcoming free show and thereby garner more audience for it. Still, there were common lessons to be learned by the performer in both.




  • Be a performer, not a salesman. For some reason, the more your act promises to assault the audience, the more excited your producers are likely to be about it. Perhaps it's their imaginations vicariously enjoying the power play; I can't say. Whatever it is, you mustn't succumb to it. The secret to a great busking act is to make something that invites people to participate, rather than forcing them into it. There are many ways to do this. If you're a walk-about character, you can simply look eccentric enough to elicit comments, and that's your in. If it's a little more presentational, you could dress normally, and invite attention more with your actions. Either way, you're not going to get people to play by telling them they have to play.


  • Suit the performance to the environment. This seems obvious, but often times predicting your environment can be tricky. Maybe you don't know exactly how it's going to be set up (see the NYFA event) or exactly how much expectation your audience has of finding a performance going on in a given space (see the Women's Project busking). Be prepared to adapt. The performance I prepared for the benefit turned out to be totally inappropriate for how the space was laid out and what people were there to do, which was pay attention to one another. I tried to adapt, but couldn't be flexible enough to put people at ease and still entertain. I had more luck later in the week, when I went from a very invasive hypnotist character to a very simple, friendly guy who occasionally does physically eccentric things.


  • Speak. I love silent characters, and play them whenever I get a chance. When I busk on my stilts this is fine, because it serves to somewhat undercut the magnificence of a nine-foot man. Plus, you've already got their attention. I planned a mime-like character for the benefit, which seemed like a great idea at the time (he was a consumptive poet, who wrote on mirrors with paint marker) but ultimately did not play out to my . . . uh, benefit. It takes special circumstances to effectively play a silent character in a busy environment. When in doubt, use your gob and be heard.


  • Love what you do. Busking is freaking tough. It takes a ton of energy, concentration and thinking-on-one's-toes and -- as if that weren't enough -- is rarely unequivocally appreciated. So it helps if whatever activity you're utilizing in your act, be it singing, dancing or self-aggrandizement, is something you genuinely enjoy. Because you'll be a doing a lot of it. And you'll often be the only one who cares.


I would be remiss, however, to offer tips to the performers of public acts of entertainment without nodding my sagacity toward the audiences as well. So, a few tips for the rest of you:





  • It's okay. Everything's going to be okay. Remember when you were five or so, and you'd go out on the playground and someone you didn't know at all would just start playing with you? That's all this is. And it doesn't hurt, I promise. We are neither homeless nor crazy; just playful. And it's only humiliating when you fight it.


  • Change is good. Have you ever been to a cocktail party, and run out of things to say? Awkward, no? You know what changes that? Good stories. Which come from good experiences. Which comes from saying "yes" to opportunities that come at you from outside your routine. Keep saying "yes." See where it takes you. It's hard to frown whilst saying "yes."


  • Your status is safe. We aren't here to discredit you, or lay disparaging remarks at your doorstep. If anything, we're here to revel in our own shortcomings, such as they are. There really is no need for pithy responses and one-ups-man-ship. Don't you get enough of that in the daily struggles of normal life? Let it go and be amused, if by nothing else than at least by the fact that there are still people in the world more concerned with your enjoyment than their own dignity.


  • We don't want your money. Okay, well, yeah, we do. Give it to us, if you feel that's an appropriate compensation for whatever we do. (It'll feel surprisingly good to do so; I promise.) But we'll take a receptive audience over a monetarily generous one any ol' day. You don't have to hang back, or hide your appreciation. As that guy on the subway often says, "If you can't give a penny, a smile gets me by, too."


I should conclude by confessing that I'm feeling a little old for busking. I don't mean to say it's beneath me, in any way. Busking can be one of the most rewarding examples of that mysterious alchemy between an audience and a performer, and I treasure several experiences of that I've had. It's just that I couldn't help but remember how joyful I used to be about getting out on a floor to do that, how simultaneously terrified, in my twenties. Now I found myself thinking, "Meh. Here I come, trying to give you something you didn't ask for." Which attitude, of course, might account for some of my angst in the doing of it. Either way -- chicken or egg -- I think I'll be taking a little break from busking. I think that will be best for both of us.

3 comments:

BAMBOUK said...

Jeff...this is required reading. Do you mind if I share some of these thoughts with my students? Hell...with my peers?

-Brian

BAMBOUK said...

Jeff...this is required reading. Do you mind if I share some of these thoughts with my students? Hell...with my peers?

-Brian

Jeff Wills said...

Brian, I don't know why your awesomeness posted twice here. Probably, it's owing to your awesomeness. (Or: my ignorance in Blogger.) Either way, share away! Pleased to have met you and to be of use.