This article was written by Stacy Zang on behalf of Dolphin Creative
When David Aiken or the Checkerboard Guy, started the podcast series Stories From The Pitch in 2011, his purpose was simply to document the life stories of artist Robert Nelson, also well known as ‘the Butterfly Man’ in the circle of street theatre. A street theatre artist himself, David has always looked up to the Butterfly as a mentor and as inspiration. After being diagnosed of cancer, Robert relocated to Pahoa in Hawaii with his wife and spent his last few years there. During this period, David initiated a project to arrange and record ‘interviews’ between Robert and his friends either through Skype or in person. After Robert passed away, the project continued and grew, with a clear vision to create a living oral history about street performance and to honour its greatest practitioners.
Street theatre is a form of performance and entertainment in outdoor public spaces. While it is arguably the oldest form of theatre in existence, street theatre is perhaps the least studied and least recognised, and it is often excluded from the history of theatre. Theatre, from ancient Greece to the postmodern era, is considered as high art, high on the pedestal. However, street, usually associated with peddling, the traffic, and graffiti, has the connotation of being crude, vulgar, and banal. No wonder people who are not familiar with street theatre tend to misunderstand that it is for performers who are not good enough for the stage, or for people who cannot get a sit-down job.
It is indeed a huge misunderstanding. Different from other types of theatre performed for a specific audience at a specific time, street theatre is spontaneous and unpredictable. In addition to crafts perfected over years ranging from juggling, clowning, acrobatics, mime, and magic, a street performer must also have the capacity to grab the attention of passers-by and to make them stay and laugh. The audience of street theatre are random, with mixed interests and expectations, and of diverse cultural and social backgrounds. A good show always invites participation from the members of the audience, and therefore, each show is unique and just for that moment. Another characteristic of street theatre is that it is open to all. Street performers always give before taking any voluntarily donations. They are so generous that they are ready to bring happiness to you for free.
Having said that, no matter how unstable and insecure the profession may appear, street performers can be financially very successful, i.e. making thousands of US dollars per hour. In our time, there are myriads of jobs on the market and many of them offer similar travel opportunities and certain autonomy, so why people choose to become a street performer?
David explained jokingly that most street artists felt neglected by their parents when they were kids, so they need to get approval from strangers to feed their ego. David enjoys reaction from the audience and the interaction with them. ‘Their laughter validates me as a human being’, he said. At the age of 13, David started teaching himself juggling. The 80s witnessed his heyday when he gained great popularity at festivals around the world. Nowadays, David mainly performs on cruise ships. ‘Street theatre is young people’s game. You need to be very driven and focused. But I am getting softer and older,’ he chuckled. Now he prefers to spend more time with his wife, two sons, and their dog in their home in Vancouver.
Magic Brian, based in New York, is from a younger generation of street artists. He is David’s colleague at the Busker Hall of Fame, a team of street artists who also help to produce the podcast series Stories From The Pitch since its formation. Different from David’s experience, Brian started off as a professional circus performer. About 16 years ago, he moved from the stage to the street. Growing up with supportive parents, Brian did not have any similar childhood issues. He simply thrives on instant approval from total strangers, just like David. Brian evinced that, ‘being a street artist means you need to always become better to survive’.
At its core, street theatre is about happiness. For street artists, they feel happiest when they make people happy. However, as David points out, in today’s media, happiness is much undervalued. Indeed, if we look around, we are surrounded by news of earthquakes, political scandals, social injustice, family violence, and animal rights. Happiness rarely makes headlines. We are more used to conflicts and anxiety. Happiness seems so superficial, and sometimes, it is just not cool enough. Or is it?
Imagine, a random crowd is drawn together by a single man’s performance. They do not know each other, nor do they expect to meet each other. However, both the performer and the audience immediately establish unconditional trust among themselves, suspending all their worries and doubts and just relishing the happy moment together. David admits that he is addicted to communal happiness. He sees it as an exchange of humanity and a larger-than-life experience. Each show creates a positive force on the world. There are all kinds of boundaries in the world, but we are really not that different. At least, we all enjoy a good laugh. In each show, everyone gives their time, attention, and love.
Nevertheless, street theatre is facing new challenges. While technology has facilitated our communication, it has paradoxically decreased real personal interactions: face-to-face and heart-to-heart interactions. People are less open to unexpected events or strangers on the street. Moreover, since we can find anything online without waiting, we all have much shorter attention span now. As Brian observes, people get jaded by TV shows like America’s Got Talent. They want spectacles immediately. A street theatre act normally takes 30 to 45 minutes, artists nowadays have to be more aggressive to attract interest and make people stay.
Therefore, the Stories From The Pitch is a very timely project. David and Brian not only aim to document the history and tradition of street theatre, but also to record guidance and advice from more established artists for newcomers. The audience of the podcast are mainly performers from the same tribe of street theatre, and sometimes fans who have chanced upon their performance somewhere around the world. While David spend about 10 hours on editing each episode, which lasts between one hour and one hour and half, he does not get instant approval as he does in performing. They occasionally receive enthusiastic emails about an episode released months ago. But it is all good. ‘Sometimes the destination is the journey, and I am enjoying the drive’, David said. He believes they are doing goodness, and goodness will give rise to more goodness.
David’s office where he edit the podcasts. Image courtesy: David Aiken.
All the podcast episodes are available on the website http://buskerhalloffame.com . For people who are interested but not sure where to start, we have asked recommendations from David and Brian. You search for specific episode from the ‘index’ section.
Who’s been your favourite guest on the podcast personally?
David: Robert Nelson. We made 3 episodes about him.
Brian: I enjoyed my conversations with Charlie Caper, Clarke McFarlane and Master Lee the best. Interviews I did not do that are some of my favourites are Captain KeaneO, Johnny Fox and Mat Ricardo.
Who had the best bit of advice?
David: For me, the best advice comes from the interview between Robert and Al Millar. They talked about one should always try to contribute to the world in some way and to do something new.
Brian: I think Silver may have given the best advice because he talked about “paint by number” shows (generic) and how terrible it is. Not so much advice but hopefully encouraging people to be original.
Who had the funniest story?
David: I laughed at every episode. I spend a week to edit each of them, and it has been a great way to connect with the community.
Brian: Shay Horay has the funniest stories. Both of his short stories are great.