By: Dana Smith
“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.”
– Charlie Chaplin
“Watch carefully,” the busker said rolling up his shirt sleeves, “I’ll show you one more time.” And then, voilà, thirty years vanished in the blink of an eye.
This sleight of hand tinkering with the clock of time has turned out to be an act of pure street magic. By Sunday this summer, the evening of July 13th, the 30th edition of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival will be a “fait accompli.”
This once a year busking beguilement has been a lifeboat, a refuge to the wildlife theatre world species known as a street performer. This is in large measure their story, a survivalist’s manifesto, a fateful flirting with poverty, fending off their debtor’s one dollar at a time. It is a quixotic death-defying tale of comic warriors. This story has no end; busking has cheated death again and again. The whole affair was going to be a flash in the pan, about as durable as taxi dancing, as useful as running an air-conditioner in the middle of winter.
I got the address book, went through the whole thing. Every name and every number, and called anyone and everyone, and not a soul, not a one, imagined this festival would go on to enjoy the remarkable legendary storied status that it has earned. Time testing was never the aim of the festival, but it is the result of its formula’s durability. Long term survival is Darwinian; it’s like a novice fire eater working for spare change in the French Quarter. It begins by putting food on a table. Then, with time, for the veteran, the once virtually impossible act of bread winning becomes an immutable truth.
The Producer’s Sofa
The birthing of the street performer’s festival was the brainchild of a pair of puckish pranksters. It began as nothing more than a sparkle in the eyes of Sheldon Wilner and his accomplice, Dick Finkel; both remain to this day unrepentant self-confessed fabulists. Against all odds the men embarked upon the task of convincing yesteryear’s powerbrokers to go all-in on this new festival concept.
In the 1980’s, the winds of change filled the air. The counterculture was on the march. In 1985 Sheldon Wilner was in Edmonton and he had a budget, Dick Finkel was in Winnipeg at the Folk Music Festival and he had an idea: it was called a “street performers festival.”
Each man lacked what the other man needed. It was a thing of beauty and how partnerships are created. What they didn’t have and were desperate to receive was the requisite approval, and they were going to need a lot of it; Big Rock Mountain Candy helpings of permissions.
Imagine the Mel Brooks’ film, The Producers, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, slow the pace down, suppress the zany antics and you get close to how our two impresarios might have come across. That and the fact that there was no sofa, no rich elderly women desperate to be seduced knowing it was all a con. No, there was none of that.
Still, they were both driven men of vast appetites, both producers, and the hunt for cash was on. What they both believed was that street theatre was poised to merge with the mainstream. The two visionaries (odd they both wear glasses) talked to anyone who would listen. They had a propensity for belly laughing and being infectiously persuasive. Their confidence was intoxicating and, wouldn’t you know, supporters fell into line just as P.T. Barnum had predicted.
The modern day offspring of Edmonton’s practical minded settlers were their targets. The two men talked the powers-that-be into hitching their civic bandwagon to this new event. The festival would stand built on a type of serendipitous entertainer which native-born Albertans feared were nothing more than modern day vagabonds, romantics and gadabouts. A direct line between the buskers’ irreverent shows could be drawn straight to the heart of civilization’s doom and peril.
More than a few of Wilner and Finkel’s reluctant supporters were sure the new festival would close for good right after the first edition opened. The whole thing was too farfetched and harebrained.
You can almost hear the Mayor screaming at the top of her lungs after the city manager, (he probably looked like Marty Feldman,) broke news to her about having funded the event. “Have you people lost your mind…!”
A mother whose daughter once dated a busker explained, “He was handsome as the devil, sweeter than a bowl of sugar, and I swear to god I tried, but I never could believe a word he said.”
As the saying goes; a good street performer is like the paint job on a brand new car; it’s something to worry about.
Then, there was Expo’ 86 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It had opened and closed to positive reviews. The street performers it turned out had stolen the show. This was the kind of high-octane notoriety Finkel needed to fuel the new festivals escape velocity. In 1985 and 1986, Finkel had tested ideas he was preparing to use on a grander scale, in miniature. By 1987 the full-sized festival was rolled out onto the pad at Sir Winston Churchill Square, ready for launch. Destination: Hit Show status.
Facts, as they say, are stubborn things and here is the ultimate clincher: when you come to the Square, you will find a sprawling, raucous riot of human-made fun still tickling funny bones each July all these long years later.
And, as far as Wilner and Finkel having any resemblance to Mel Brooks’ famous sendup to show business, if anyone believes what I’ve just explained to be gospel truth, so help me god, I’ve got a used sofa over at the StreetFest office I can sell you cheap.
Tea for Two
The festival has had only two producers, the first being the esteemed Dick Finkel. This New Jersey-born immigrant and now Canadian citizen, as time would tell, didn’t just have a knack for launching a new festival, he had the talent for running one. Laughter has always been infectious.
The jaw-dropping excellence experienced on the Square is no fluke. I asked one of the festival’s veterans, Flying Bob Debris, about this. His reply: “What made the festival successful in the 80’s? Dick Finkel’s skill in choosing a great mix of performers; not just for their performance skills, but also for their ability to hang… He wouldn’t just pick performers who got along with each other, but also some who had slight friction. A unique energy would be created. That energy – on and off stage- translated into some absolutely legendary late night shows.”
Finkel was a keen judge of talent. He had instincts. He was genuinely interested in people. He was an empathic, laconic and graceful man. And, he had a good ear; he listened. He was a man willing to think things through. He wasn’t on a short fuse. Dick let ideas ruminate. He sought out advice, and when he found wisdom in a thing, he used it. His directorial style unleashed a wave of busking energy greater than the sum of the individual parts. He wasn’t overconfident about the festival’s initial success. He knew trouble could come find him any day. For 15 years he elaborated upon what busking could mean to the community. The producer literally conjured up an annual busking festival dream come true. Dick Finkel, as it turned out, was going to be a hard act to follow.
Ultimately the baton was passed to Shelley Switzer. The first time I met Ms. Switzer was in 1989 in downtown Calgary at the Palliser Hotel. We were putting a show up inside Jack Singer Auditorium. Finkel had asked her to do the stage managing. I was directing. Finkel was making it look easy delegating everything to everyone. That’s producing.
Shelley was a too young, too talented stage manager type. Cool as a cucumber, a tremendous hand holder, compassion dispenser extraordinaire, met her deadlines, clock keeper, on task, clipboard always near at hand, vivacious, long brown haired visionary type (again what’s with the glasses?). Like Finkel, away from the business of show biz, she stalked life, ready to pounce on fun, laugher and an occasional friendly game of cards.
After Calgary’s success, Finkel brought her to Edmonton. She had come aboard early on and earned her wings stage managing a string of late night shows held off the Square inside the nearby theatres. Highly experimental, not every show was a success. But some went off like a stick of dynamite, leveling audiences senseless in the mirth that is busking’s potential for hysterical madness.
With pluck and time-tested skill, the highly-regarded Switzer has capably navigated the festival since Finkel’s departure. The idea of following Finkel’s first 15 years with another successful 15 years is all on Shelley Switzer. Had the festival faltered, and it could have, she would have been blamed. Instead the festival found two sly maestros, back to back, that by luck and passion sustained the festival’s quality and attendance. That’s three decades of excellence, a string of pearls, the yellow brick road, and the happiest ending.
“Shelley Switzer called me up,” Jason McPherson, now a cabaret act explains from Berlin. “I asked her to be patient with this clown. I still didn’t quite understand who she was.”
Shelley waited for Jason to finish, “I don’t care what you’re doing this this summer. I can tell you with absolute confidence, we are better.”
Jason finishes. “To this day the 2004 festival remains unrivaled memory.”
The Art of a Deal
Soon after its inception, the festival emerged as an influential international institution for consolidating street theatre’s legitimacy. Huge crowds, big hats, and performers collaborating in late night hit shows fueled the buzz. Word spread worldwide. Agents scouted the festival. Communities across the continent in both Canada and the U.S. suddenly wanted to put on their own busking festivals.
The deft artistic direction has had an enlightening influence on the art of the hat-passing show. Here on this ground, in the heart of Edmonton, this place high on the prairie north, the performers and audiences answered the call to dance to the nature of her better street performing angels. The result of this relationship is that Edmonton has become busking’s shelter from the storm…but with some conditions attached.
Shelley explains having a preliminary negotiation with an act seeking to return to the festival. “We were at a restaurant at the Fringe, a place called Chianti,” she laughed. “He was working me over to come to StreetFest.” That’s what deal-making feels like when an act starts in on a producer before they’ve had a chance to finish their first glass of wine. Switzer decides to mix it up a bit, counterpunch. “I said; if you want to come to StreetFest you have to bring me a new show…”
Producers are chameleons. They go fast, they go slow. They act sweet, they get tough. They’re in the business of getting what they want. And what they want is the best performance they can get out of an act. Get it? That’s their job description: “Wanted: honey hearted butt kicker.”
A perennial favorite street act, David Aiken explains his experience, “Both Dick and Shelley stretched my boundaries. The producers pushed me outside my comfort zone, helped me understand my creative process, and grow.”
A Love That Will Not Die
In the festival’s first 30 years by the back of an envelope approximation, 1500 performers have played the festival. There have been about 40,000 performances sprinkled across three decades, spread out like laughter’s marmalade over 300 honey dripping summer days. As a result, Edmonton has been schooled. Citizens don’t just know good hockey, they know good busking too.
Those who have been paying attention know that a number of the festivals’ artists have also performed on Broadway in New York City. First of firsts on this list is Avner the Eccentric. His appearance on Broadway smashed the box office record becoming the longest running one-man show ever.
Another festival vet, Vince Bruce, went to Broadway in the Will Rogers Show. He choreographed and performed as the stunt double in the musical. The show never would have been made if the brilliant Mr. Bruce had not been signed to play this key role. Vince died a few years back and is regarded to be the best trick rope artist the world has ever seen. If you were in Sir Winston Churchill Square in 1987 or 1991 you can say you were lucky enough to have seen him perform.
Next, a host of busking favorites that includes Tom Murphy; Tomas Kubinek;
Jon O’Connor, Kevin Hunt and Rob Williams (collectively known as The Flaming Idiots), all earned their way to Broadway in NYC. All have played Sir Winston Churchill Square.
The street has proven to be a great incubator for talent.
The Greatest Fans in the World Syndrome
Edmonton and the buskers was the perfect match. The affair was sparked by curatorial acumen. The process was started by deciding who would be in the cast, creating a schedule for the circle shows in the Square, and then imagining what kind of off the Square shows the cast would be scheduled to be in. The festival’s highlight reel is a three decade through-the-looking-glass answer to the “what kind of show” question. Funny is an understatement. Seeing is believing, those that did know, and those that didn’t, now wish they had.
The intimacy between the artist and the audience on the Square is an example of fair and square capitalism. At a show’s end, a busker aims to convince the audience to surrender what they have in their trouser pockets and put it into the artist’s hat. Coming down to the Square and being swept up into the laughter and applause with fellow citizens out on the commons is in some sense as if you are holding the very beating heart of civic life in your very own hands. This is one part artist and another part audience, sharing the pristine present “busking” moment. The three decades of Edmontonian generosity is now legacy.
By design, the festival’s non-profit status shifts the focus. The whimsical nature of the enterprise is about winning hearts and minds. The bottom line is located exactly where it is supposed to be. The service rendered comes first and foremost.
Imagine the audience and artists as pickled in a barrel of ‘win-win’ brine. In a very practical sense, a case can be made that busking is good for business and a bustling business district in turn is good for busking.
Every year there is the same song and dance. Even after three decades, fans of the festival fall for the same ploy. Who can help it? Laughter like kisses, is a weakness. Even if the audiences have no idea what this year’s event might look like, after 30 years they trust the festival to knock them off their feet.
Remember last year? the voice inside their heads say; it was a blast! Remember?
They had a laugh, then another; until their belly ached and begged for mercy while finding themselves dragged onstage involuntarily volunteering to help with the act. The buskers were better than good. And the fans knew that they had to go home. But, they didn’t. Instead they stayed until dark, ended the night at a pub and then walked the empty streets to their front door opening it stumbling down the hallway until finally they fell on their bed and who knows what time it was? Who cares? And, then the alarm goes off. They get up, dragging their weary soul out the door, heading to work—gloriously exhausted, utterly exhilarated.
You know who you are; you go into the restroom, gazing at your likeness, still half asleep, looking at those dark circles under your eyes and smiling at the face looking back at you, and you say… I’m alive again!
Veteran festival videographer Alan Plotkin from Austin, Texas explains, “Edmonton is one of the best. The people are an educated audience like Boston is an educated sports town. They get it. They support their beloved events and the performers know that. That engine, that relationship, drives great festivals.”
Street theatre is a democracy’s most decorative form of free speech. It is an affirmation that citizens may assemble peacefully for the purposes of exercising certain rights and freedoms sanctified by the divine and ratified by the people’s government.
Again Alan Plotkin: “The performers seem more serious about their craft and more serious about the business of show business. It seems like it used to be adventure for adventure’s sake but now it’s adventure for business’ sake. Not saying that’s good or bad – just a different vibe at festivals.”
Mimes to the Barricades
The “vibe” is different. That initial first wave of street acts back in the day brought to their work a sense of being on a journey with no end.
“I’d come from the streets of Kansas City,” veteran busker Michael Trautman explains, “…to Harvard Square. It was 1981. Initially I was working to avoid arrest and make some cash.”
He continues, “A real clown is an anarchist. He knows the rules only so that he can bend or break them. Our acts were a protest. Laughter was a piece, but so too were the physical skills, and in that era our willingness to speak truth to power.”
Somewhere on the streets ever evolving through time, the element of political protest has been muted. The political targets have been deposed and in their place social issues are used as a busker’s foils.
Again Michael Trautman: “I had a street show. I could make a living. And I had a solo clown show that fulfilled my creative ambitions. To me a clown contains the potential for changing the world.”
One of the festival’s best friends, Penny Mathis, explains how busking may be some kind of end in itself. “It is sort of like a corporate conference, except instead of a huge hotel, you have downtown Edmonton; instead of suits and ties, you have crazy costumes and props; instead of sitting in a chair, someone is balancing a chair on their face. These guys prove that laughter can feed the masses.”
On Sacred Ground
Think of the festival as being engaged in an extended eleven thousand day dialogue; together we have been on a three decade master class in the artistry we describe as street theatre. The soul of the festival is to be found in its authenticity
Veteran acts return as spirit guides; they are the embodied ghosts of festivals now long since passed, illuminating the means and methods of this festival’s storied path. The producer, the performers and the audiences together hold in their minds the temporal coordinates, the guideposts and soulful landmarks that map the festival’s journey to what has always remained the festival’s purpose.
“Go slow,” the veterans urge the novice acts. “Take your time, they’ll forgive you.” Dick Finkel and Shelley Switzer often have reassured, “Relax, trust the audience, be yourself; they’ve seen it all, every trick in the book, what they haven’t seen is you…”
Edmonton’s own Kristi Heath, now hailing from Toronto said, “Dick Finkel remains as a huge influence in my life, and the guy who gave me a chance. Despite the incredible caliber of artists at his festival, he was still willing to give a spot to a complete newbie. This is one thing that absolutely sticks with me.”
Again David Aiken: “First Finkel and then Shelley bring together players they know have the chops to deliver, provide enough structure to ensure success, then trust the artists to dispatch the laughter.”
It’s an approach premised upon the sanctity of the relationship between the producer, artist and audience. David explains, “As an artist you feel as though your contributions are respected.”
Imagine a day in the life of street performing, not during the festival, but during the rest of the year. It may well be an unusual job, but at its core it is still what someone does to make a living.
Then, something altogether different happens. An act hits Edmonton, arriving as they all do with expectations. The festival’s energy is palpable; the buskers unpack, go to a pub, meet one another, look in the night sky walking back to their room, and for perhaps the first time in their lives look up and glimpse the mystic wonder that is the aurora borealis. Imaginations are hijacked. The entertainers are caught in the gravitational pull of a creative storm, immersed for ten days in one of the wildest rides of their working lives.
The experience can be unnerving. Every moment is anything but dull. The creative tumult can fill the unfettered mind with a sense of peril. Anxiety sets in. Everybody wants to “kill;” nobody wants to “bomb.” That’s how buskers come; they are hard-wired survivalists. They live for the laugh and die in the silence. High priest, psychotherapist or shaman, all would be hard pressed to soothe the sheer majesty of a busker’s fears.
Silent clown Rob Torres: “This was a chance to explore my character and delve into more layers of him and me. I was allowed the space to improvise and take an audience on a journey. Until then there are only a few places I had worked that offered me similar conditions. This blew my mind. I’d found new directions, new ways to create… different ways.”
The skillful producer deploys a fire hose of confidence to fight off the flames of anxiety. With the reins of fear loosened, the artists stake out a more fully liberated performance. Their boundaries expand, new possibilities open up. Much of the pyrotechnics are in the moment, once in a lifetime, but if an act has found its way to this new place once, they may well divine the means of returning to this new emotionally charged place again. The festival is a gateway…threshold…breath-through. Many an act has come to Edmonton and never been the same.
Toronto busker Kristi Heath, explains, “I always try to remember that performers have to start somewhere, have to be given the freedom to try new material and have to have room to fail. Edmonton was the springboard for my whole performing life.”
“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.”
– Jonathan Winters
Thirty years ago is no further away than 30 years from now, yet time travels but one way. If youth is any guide, there is a chance many of today’s lads and lasses will be in the Square with their children 30 years from now. Look around when you come to this year’s festival at all the laughter and applause filling the Square. In all likelihood the next festival director is already here. Who could that person be?
If history is any guide, that person will be only the third or fourth producer appointed by the Board to lead the charge and herald in the 60th edition of what surely is one of the world’s most remarkable performing arts festivals of any kind.
It sounds odd, almost impossible to believe. It’s like who would have ever thought back in 1985 that the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival would still be here?
I looked around for a clue to this puzzler. Here’s what I found. It is in a song by Paul Brandt. “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
Veteran busker Andre Vincent, now a British television actor, put it this way, “What else have the Canadians got? Curling and drinking… Ice fishing…?”
And now for as close to a miracle as you are likely ever to see… Happy thirtieth Edmonton…