By: David Aiken
I’ve had the distinct privilege to attend the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival A LOT! Here’s a run down of all of the years that I’ve done shows at the festival (so far):1989, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2013. That’s just under one-third of all of the festivals. I’ve brought my own show to this festival, directed my third wedding to the same woman as a show at it too, debuted new stunts and three completely new shows, made lifelong friends, and been challenged to stretch myself repeatedly in an environment that not only supports the taking of risks, but encourages it.
July 1989—weeks before my 21st birthday—I walk into the hospitality suite for the opening meeting at the 5th edition of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival and the floodgates are opened for me. This is an event built for performers and performing, and I get to appear beside an incredible collection of both the old guard and a new generation of buskers from around the world. My reality at that point had always been very self-motivated by a fairly simple equation:
1. Go out
2. Do a killer show
3. Make a killer hat
And I certainly had the opportunity to do this in spades, but for then-producer Dick Finkel, this was only the beginning of a much larger vision of what he wanted from me and the other acts that were invited to his party.
Yes, he wanted great shows—that was a given—but he also wanted everyone to be even better than my previously stated simple equation. He wanted us to take bigger risks, to collaborate with people we’d just met, to be brave enough to try something and fall flat on our faces, to–in a word–GROW! I’m not sure I fully grasped this concept on my first visit to Edmonton, and I was frustrated that having done what I thought was a killer job at the Festival, I couldn’t seem to get invited back. Until…
Heading towards the 1995 season I was really excited about a new finale I’d been working on. I had only got to perform this new experiment at a few festivals in 1994, and when news of me doing something different reached Dick’s ears he was swayed into bring me back. Something new, something different, a new set of risks. This time when I came back I sort of ‘got’ the idea of taking risks a little more.
Late Night Madness—by then an established feature of the festival—gave me the opportunity to throw out two completely untested ideas in collaboration with two different performers: a jump rope straightjacket routine performed with Glenn Singer, and a chainsaw-through-bunny magic parody that ended up closing the first act so the stage crew could clean up the carnage. Bring something new, take a big fat risk, challenge yourself to GROW as an artist, and yes you’re welcome in this creative sandbox! And the thing about taking these sorts of risks is that it becomes a bit addictive.
Winter of 1996/1997: I attend a friend’s wedding reception in Osaka, Japan. I watch this event unfold that looks more like a show than a wedding celebration, and it dawns on me that this would be a perfect theme for a Late Night Madness Show. I get in touch with Dick about the idea, full of confidence that YES I’ll be able to pull this off! Let me be the director and I will give you a show like you’ve never seen before. Fast forward a few months: I present this idea to the cast I’m given.
OK… We start out with the Dating Game and by the end of
the show we have a wedding… HELP! In the week leading up to the show the pieces fall into place, and my then four-months pregnant wife—who’s Japanese is far better than her English—agrees to marry me for a third time with The Butterfly Man conducting the ceremony and the Flying Dutchmen providing a shower of clubs for us to walk through once we’d said our vows. I threw out a bold idea, took an enormous risk, and leaped into thin-air praying the net would appear and the show would be a success. It did, and to this day, that show is still one that is talked about. Take risks, ask for help and trust others… Once again I was asked to GROW!
For too long I had been able to lean on the crutch of my juggling skills—if the performer/audience dynamic wasn’t going well I could always just wow people with a reasonably impressive demonstration of dexterity. But could I do a show without any juggling? Flash forward to July 2000 and the festival’s new producer, Shelley Switzer, allows me to test this notion out. I teamed up with my friend Richard Berg to create a storytelling show based on the legend of King Kong that we brought to the Festival. The structure of the show was made up of devices that I’d seen work for others, but never tried myself. Would they work? Would I fail? Was failure even an option? OMG it was clunky as the week began, and did we ever have to shift and adapt to make things work—of course. Was it a struggle? Was it painful? Was I tested to the limit? Did I GROW? Yes, yes, yes, and by bounds!
The main point of producing The Kong Show was to wrap my head around the storytelling methodology. Armed with a greater understanding of how this style of show worked, I took the experience to Japan to perform the classic Japanese Tale of Momotaro with my friend Iori Mikumo. Shelley heard about this show and wanted to bring it to Edmonton in 2002, but because the folk tale wasn’t known in Canada I offered to come up with a three-hander instead. How’s this for a risk? Let me work with a guy from Japan who doesn’t speak very much English, and a guy from Edmonton who doesn’t speak Japanese, and throw me in the middle. The result was a show we dubbed “The Executives.” A crazy opportunity for me to toss a bunch of wacky ideas against the wall to see if any of them would stick and be supported on this journey by Iori and my good friend John Ullyatt. To my delight, there was virtually no juggling in the show. Although we didn’t specifically tell a story, we did make the show work by sheer force of will! Shit happened that just made me come to grips with the fact that the audience didn’t care about structure as long as the people on stage were making each other laugh and my gawd did we ever make each other laugh. And gawd did I ever GROW!
During the 2002 Festival I got to know Geoff Cobb and in the following couple of years we became very good friends often joking that street performing had become too formulaic. “Look at that guy” we’d say “He’s doing something right off of page 17 of The Book.” The
Book, of course, was our imaginary Manual on Street Performing. We kept joking about The Book and finally got Shelley in on the joke by saying that we wanted to create a show that was a parody of the formula. This also necessitated that we actually write The Book. The concept was simple and silly and crazy. Two Sherpas get stranded in Edmonton and have to use The Book to generate enough funds to return home. We had furry Sherpa coats tailored, commissioned an abominable snowman head that went on a volunteer, and created a show that both parodied—as well as took advantage of—the formula. The challenge this time and where the GROWTH really came into play was that Geoff and I had such radically different approaches to how to make the show happen. We ended up attacking each other on a personal level that stirred up all sorts of deep-seated emotional baggage and the tension not only rocked our friendship but also my confidence. Throw into this chaos the fact that we had offered to direct one of the Late Night Madness Shows—which I ended up taking over as a solo director—and for the run of the festivalI was stripped raw emotionally.
And there—in that moment of fear and doubt and a total lack of confidence—something magical happened. On the last Saturday Night following what ended up being a very successful Late Night Madness Show—in spite of my devastated emotional state—I walk into the Hospitality Suite and Dick Finkel awards me the Golden Finkel Award. I was floored. It was a tip of the hat—both literally and figuratively—to being willing to push so hard, to challenge myself past what I thought was possible, and to once again GROW!
2009 – I get asked to be a Special Guest at that year’s Festival and I discover that being a special guest means you’re scheduled for fewer shows. That may not have been the intent,
but that’s what the reality felt like. In the context of doing fewer shows I discovered that my time could be spent helping others. The theme that year was, “Watch, share ideas, and learn to let go of the need to perform myself in exchange for the opportunity to help with the growth of others.” It was weird not doing so many shows, but AWESOME being able to contribute to the success of so many while I was in Edmonton that year. GROWTH of a different sort perhaps.
2013 – 24 years after my first visit to Edmonton I’m asked back again and walking in–I GET IT. I’m here to grow… How can I grow? What challenges are you going to throw at me this year? How about teaming up with a real musician and playing duos around a kids’ hospital? Done! How about collaborating with my friend Gareth Jones from England and adopting a French accent? Done! How about doing group shows: one with the Raspyni Brothers and one with Karl Saliter? Done! Get made up in clown make-up and purposefully drop during a club passing routine? Done! How about just be open to the wonderful opportunities to take risks and GROW that is present in this amazing event? Done!
As this Festival turns 30 this year it’s a chance to look back and marvel. Both Dick Finkel and Shelley Switzer have created a special sort of festival for the citizens of Edmonton, one that has grown and flourished over the years. Beyond just catering to the festival goers, these two have also guided, shaped, and nurtured so many artists along the way—like gardeners watching with a mindful eye, providing ample encouragement, beautiful sun-shiny days and a steady supply of “MIRACLE GROW!”