By: Sheree Vickers
So there I was, fresh from drama school, standing on the West Piazza in Covent Garden suddenly realising I knew absolutely nothing about performing – and I was terrified. Everyone was either ignoring me or looking at me with disdain and here I was, trying desperately to do my show. A show that I’d spent a measly three weeks putting together. I had a brand new second hand case full of a variety of ‘wacky’ props and Oh Boy did I fail. Big time. I came off quivering and to this day I have never had to face anything as frightening as that day. I got through it because of the immense (quiet) support I knew was behind me. The other street performers were there – talking, waiting, watching – and when I emerged after what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact less than five minutes, it was their encouragement and support that got me out there again the next day – where I actually managed to pull a show together – albeit ‘playing to the step’ (in other words playing to people already sitting down) – and I even made some money (£4.29 to be exact)! That was in May 1993 and by August I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe where I was holding a circle show and cracked my first ‘tonne’. The following year I introduced a fiery finale to the show and by year three my apprenticeship was over – I was a fully-fledged street performer! Now it was time to hit the festivals and start touring and for 10 years that was my life. My wonderful, amazing, often difficult life. I am so immensely proud of my street performing history. The friends I made and the fact that my time on the street still gives me the right
to be part of the worldwide community.
Even more so, it gave me the training I could never have learned at any institution. My degree in acting took three years to achieve but it pales into insignificance when compared to the three year apprenticeship I undertook at Covent Garden. Everyone who wants to work in the arts should do it. The energy it takes to maintain a show. The understanding of space. The ability to engage with individuals and create an audience – an audience that is made up of the widest demographic of people who didn’t necessarily want to be an audience in the first place! Who knew it would also be the best training I could ever do for the work I do now.
Now I run a theatre company and a large part of our remit is to work with disadvantaged, disengaged and isolated members of the public. We literally aim to ‘engage the un-engage-able’ – with some of our most challenging projects seeing us work with teenagers who ‘effing hate drama’. We’ve had chairs thrown, windows broken, been spat at and called every name under the sun – thank God I was a street performer! The amount of times these kids think I’m high on cocaine because of the amount of energy I bring to a workshop. The ability to change strategies, adapt to changing spaces and over time engage with this ‘audience’ is all too do with my experiences on the street.
And then there’s the hat pitch. That’s not changed either. On the street I would do my show – put in a mountain of work and then ten minutes before the end – just before the ‘big finale’ – make my speech and get my hat ready (and in England, pray it didn’t rain and your audience disperse before you could make some money) – all that work for nothing!
NOW it’s all about putting in a mountain of work on a project proposal (the show), putting in the funding application (the hat pitch) and hoping you get the funding (fingers crossed it doesn’t rain) so you can actually DO your project (the big finale)!
I do still miss the street. There’s an honesty and freedom about it. You don’t have to jump through hoops (metaphorically at least) to achieve the aims of funding bodies or spend your time keeping abreast of political agendas and local priorities. You are judged on your show and your ability to hold an edge – and if you’re new, there’s support from the community to help you develop. (There is still support working ‘inside’ but the concentrated learning and ability to develop your craft is a lot more drawn out.)
Of course it could just be nostalgia, as I’m currently facing three months of paperwork, preparing funding applications and project proposals for the upcoming year – urgh! Although, if I’m being honest, as the summer is coming to an end, I’d rather be in my cosy inside office than getting up at the crack of dawn for the morning’s draw, dragging my props up to London and watching weather reports in the hope it doesn’t rain – and although I don’t have any plans to go back to the street, it’s always comforting to know it’s there.