By: Lee Ross
There we were, the 2nd year of the Halifax International Buskers Festival, 1988, a $10,000 first place prize, great pitches and thousands of people tossing money into our hats like
there was no tomorrow. Master Lee and I were getting ready for a huge night-time team show… We wanted that $10 grand first prize. We were waiting for our time slot, the crowds watching various circle shows in both directions on the main drag.
Standing next to us was veteran San Francisco iconic juggler, Ray Jason. Ray had a tan leathered, been-in-Florida-too-long, look to himself–he must of been around 50 at the time. Ray was wearing skin-tight 1970’s bodybuilder clothing from the
early days of music videos. He was a true veteran,
going back to the time when street performing first
began in San Francisco…along with Robert Shields, and a few years later, The Butterfly Man.
William Lee and I were in our early 20’s at the time–life was one big bowl of cherries, and we were standing there thinking to ourselves, “Who is this old guy? How is he still rocking out shows? And why isn’t he selling insurance to my parents?” At the same time, Ray was looking at me & Master Lee and had this to say…
“I like your energy. With a little work developing your skills,
you guys are going to have great shows in the future. It’s good
to see the younger generation making progress.”
William and I looked at one another with the same thought passing through our collective conscious, “This old fart is out of his mind, we could crush him with our act.” But we both smiled, nodded, and thought, “what is this Ray Jason going to do in a few more years when he can’t juggle bowling balls anymore?”
It’s a question most every performer will faces at one time or another. Who am I if I am not my act? What happens when I can’t physically do my show anymore? What do I do if I have a serious accident? How do I modify my show if I can’t move like I do now?
This has happened over the years for many acts. The original Calypso Tumblers, (long before any other tumbling act was around the original three–amazing entertainers who delivered groundbreaking performances!) Will and I were there with them when Superman tumbler Phillip shattered his ankle and ceased flying gracefully through the air over 10 people with a bend at the waist. His solution to the dilemma of what to do next was to commit suicide, the pain of not performing too great to bare.
Another example is the quick-witted sharp tongued
British magician and comedy-entertainer extraordinaire, Gazzo, whom suffered a massive stroke in the 90’s, which effected the use of one side of his entire body and compromised his speech and facial expression. These necessary street-skills were gone in an instant leaving this street-icon who had a young son in his life, to endure a grueling rehabilitating in order to relearn all the moves and routines that were once second nature so he could return to the loving crowds who would throw him money.
Who am I went I cannot be who I think I am???
It isn’t always a physical injury or illness that stops us in our pursuit of entertaining the masses in exchange for chump change. Sure there are the megastars of the streets, those
who can afford houses, travel and are constantly able to maximize their profit margins at 25 feet up in the air, setting hat records with no insurance or game plan. But what if I fall?
Tumbleweed Tom, came off his 8-foot-tall ladder and shattered both his ankles and knees on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado when an upset heckler pushed him and his big mouth into obscurity. I knew Tom back in the day, in the late 80’s, New Orleans & later in Boulder Colorado in the mid 90’s. Tom, was good-looking, driven and a protégé of Michael James. Who knows where Tom is today or what he is doing?
After our time within Cirque du Soleil many of my then colleagues opened up Circus arts schools and became teachers of acrobatics, object manipulation, clowning, and formed touring theater companies with their new students in the limelight. Other acts I have known, settled for some other simple business or entrepreneurial adventure, returning to employment associated with their original university degrees or the work they had before the street enveloped them.
One of the legendary Venice Beach acts, featured in the buskers documentary film by Mad Chad Taylor, Matt Copper, became a technology entrepreneur. Matt used to perform a great straitjacket and chained escape to the appreciative crowds on Venice Beach only to trade that all in and become a web-designer and is now a successful businessmen in new media!
How did Matt move into this new career,
redefine who he is and reinvent his wheel?
Who am I? Underneath this question of identity is a list of elements that comprise who you are now and maybe who you can become…
What country was I born in? Was I well-educated? Am I male or female? Was I socially-
successful in school? Did I have trouble learning? Did I have both parents? Did I have brothers and sisters? Was I loved or beaten? Was I told what to do or was I left to my own devices?
All these questions may inform what you will do when you hit what William and I call – “The Wall.” The wall is when you just can’t do it anymore. Your show just feels like your job, the thrill is gone, you hit the biggest hat you’re ever going to make. You’ve made a record amount of money in one weekend , you’ve been on TV, you’ve refined your act to a money making machine with that new prop ending, and yet you have to keep going because what else is it that you are going to do???
Perhaps like late 80’s/early 90’s street superstars Edward Jackman, Tokyo’s, David Ramsay, & Canadian mega act, Rick Lewis… All 3 parlayed their former busking careers into name brand booking agencies giving other performers a gig and taking their cut.
Even if you’re not at this point in your career, it’s a good thing to think about…what will I do when I hit the wall? What happens if I break my leg? Or what is the world going to be like in 5 more years when it’s all a digital currency and everybody has to pay me through my device or via Google Glass wearable headset… now that money is not printed anymore.
For me, the evolution and process of discovery… of identity, creativity, and saying the word “Showtime!!” in a different way has steered me into a journey that is still ongoing–in fact, the last time I was at the Edmonton International Street Festival was around 2002, over 10 years ago. It took me 15 shows to get my mojo back. It showed me beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was not interested in that canvas to express myself anymore. This was after my tour as lead clown with with Cirque du Soleil – if you have not heard about that story please click here.
We as performers all know when we have those magic moments, the one where you and the crowd are truly one, only this one big moment…it’s better than any $$ hat, it’s the feeling of Unity, of the magic that you can create with your own special brand of spell-casting that is yours and yours alone. It is something to cherish and miss when the time comes to put down that outfit, let go of the amplifier, surrender the fire torches, and look to the horizon of tomorrow and contemplate what else would I like to do and how can I manifest that in todays ever-changing world???
Is it time to go on a retreat? Get out of the city you live in, go to a weekend workshop learn meditation, try going to a seminar or attend a conference or festival?? Reinventing your self–translating the old into the new is sometimes a seemingly insurmountable mountain up ahead. Aside from raising a family, settling down, there will still be the entertainer desire to be seen and heard in some new way. To find that way, you must take the risk that you took a time long ago when you did that very 1st street show…
If you still love performing and being onstage that’s great, I’m not saying to give everything up… In fact, when I was first on the streets of New York City, from Washington Square to South St. Seaport or Central Park there was a guy called the Turtle-Man. Mitch was easily 55 years old in 1985, his act was turtle racing– he carried around 8-10 small turtles in a special crush-proof container … he would gather a crowd and then on a bullhorn call out the race, with each turtle having a number on it’s shell. It was a living, there was no escape. Was Mitch happy? I have no idea.
The race is really within your self & the only act
you’re competing with is in the mirror.
For me, today, it is the bigger picture of our larger community that I am interested in. I realized recently when I was working for a user experience design company (UX) that what
I was really doing on stage during my clown solo in Saltimbanco was designing an
experience based on rules & ritual that have developed through years of performing &
understanding story structure.
We are all storytellers–embedded inside (on some unconscious level) is the ability to take a crowd of people through the beginning middle and end of something and allow them to appreciate themselves within that. That’s what the great comics have always done, the great storytellers, the great film makers, the great content creators, it all comes down to story.
After 10 years in Los Angeles, going to Sundance with a movie I wrote, and another feature film about to release, I finally left LA and moved to the middle of nowhere Iowa to begin again… Reboot the hard drive, reconfigure the disc, and allow something new to emerge is what propels Lee Ross right now. I discovered I did not want to play the game in Hollywood anymore. I still want to tell stories, I just need to know it will not take 7 years to finally see the finished product.
May we all find our way and may the Ray Jason of your Life show up so you can appreciate the next generation of street performers when you turn 50 as I did this year : )
* Photos of Ray Jason, The Calypso Tumblers and Lee Ross at the Edmonton Street Performers Festival courtesy of Dan Shulruff.