A Brave Path
Jodi Wright has pedigree as an artistic director, festival producer, and award-winning writer. She has earned respect for her mahi in Aotearoa having ignited Christchurch’s arts and events community as a Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of several New Zealand festivals and events, including the World Buskers Festival, The New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival, WORD Christchurch Writers Festival, and The Southland Buskers Festival.
We asked her to pen an article on why you couldn’t possibly pass by those compelling and brave street performers.
Street Performers—the original pop-ups who can turn a dreary walk through a CBD into the greatest thing you’ve seen all week. With over 25 years as Festival Director for the World Buskers Festival, street artists have always been close to my heart. There’s something about strangers gathering on a mundane corner to see something magical unfold that feels essential to the pulse of a city; a chance encounter that becomes a shared experience for people who live alongside each other but would ordinarily pass each other by.
Once eye candy for wandering tourists or a reason to walk the other way, a new breed of Cirque de Soleil style street performer emerged in the 1990s. These spectacular acts quickly became exciting additions to the CBD, presenting a reason for locals to head into town. In Christchurch, along with cities around the world, this new wave went on to evolve into a remarkable legacy; cementing the streets as a place where outdoor performance – accessible to all – could thrive.
Jodi Wright. Supplied.
Brave Flexing of Skills
But it’s not just communities that benefit from street performers. Busking is a fundamental part of the artist pathway – providing a space where budding talents can test out new material, develop their skills and ultimately grow as an artist.
Busking is a fundamental part of the artist pathway – providing a space where budding talents can test out new material, develop their skills and ultimately grow as an artist.
The best street performers/ buskers are brave, quirky, talented, generous, and have skills. Skills that few of us have or want. Skills that took years for them to master. Skills that can turn an empty parking lot into a theatre space complete with an audience. And occasionally the most skilled of all street artists; the busker who keeps our feet glued to the footpath with his complete lack of skills.
There are a few New Zealand artists who’ve used their busking experiences i.e; getting strangers to do ridiculous things with them and for them, to their advantage, including the Topp Twins. Not only are they fun and funny, they can handle a large crowd better than anyone. And Sam Wills, aka Boy with Tape on his Face, aka Tape Face, made it big after an appearance on a TV competition. Once a kid with a rolla bolla and a machete performing to a lunch crowd in Cathedral Square, now a fixture in the Las Vegas scene playing to packed houses. I wonder if he ever misses counting coins?
Compliance and red tape
Not many make a living from busking on the street these days. A good show needs a big audience and it isn’t as easy to crowd gather as it used to be. Cities once noted for being busker friendly now have trams moving regularly through the best busking areas. Councils have adopted stricter rules for street performers, and there aren’t many circus schools funded well enough to offer courses that can make a decent clown into a great street performer. In short, restrictions and regulations which compromise the vibrancy of performances are driving buskers away from city centres – and our communities are the ones losing out.
And there’s the cash issue. With fewer people carrying cash than even five years ago, opportunities for buskers to make a decent hat have become difficult. Some are equipped with a portable unit, but lining up to swipe a card post after a show just doesn’t feel the same as throwing five dollars into a performer’s hat and getting a quick wink or a thank-you.
The best thing that’s happening in the street theatre industry is seeing major arts festivals embracing circus and cabaret and street theatre.
Fabric of our cities
The best thing that’s happening in the street theatre industry is seeing major arts festivals embracing circus and cabaret and street theatre, providing work for many who began their performance career as a busker.
Busker, street performer, pavement artists, the lady who plays the violin on the corner, the guy who juggles machetes on the terrace stairs, they are all street artists who contribute an accessible element of fun to the fabric of our cities and there just aren’t enough of them.
Bread & Circus - World Buskers Festival runs from Jan 23 to Feb 16. Visit Breadandcircus.co.nz.