Theatre is what we are living | PETRA ŽIŠT

September 27, 2013

Lifestyles of street artists in movement

People who work and perform on the street, street artists, travelling theatre, new circus performers, etc. are not outsiders just because they are performing outdoors, but are also outsiders with their unconventional way of thinking and expressing, with their specific worldview, because of their lifestyle. Of course, given the scale and diversity of street performances we cannot generalize and say that is true for all street theatre artists, but it is obvious that the nature of their work requires specific social practices in everyday life, when life is “not played”. Even variety of performative ways itself conditions their diversity, both “on stage” as in “backstage”.

Mason (1992) has provided a transparent typography of street theatre, in which he classified street theatre protagonists into entertainers, animators, provocateurs, communicators and performative atists.[1] He also classified performances according to the mobility and logistics of various sizes and types of activities (ie fixes performances, solo and duo performances, small groups, large groups, site-specific works, mobile performances, processions, walkabouts). Besides that, also performers themselves can consider that they have nothing or little in common with the other performers regarding objectives, methods and levels of professionalism.  Groups or individuals with longer tradition, for example, are reluctant to compare themselves with buskers.

As Jana Drašler (2005: 82) notes in her study about circus, what is different from the rest of social life, is exposure to gazes of performativity, “which causes that both becomes conscious and as such has a strong influence on the self-perceptions of circus artists”. “This conscious performative situation manipulates with identity even after the show. It settles down in the bodies of artists and accompanies them through sequences of the tiniest everyday practices: “Internalized sense of ‘otherness’ forces them that in every contact with members of the local community – in the store, the bank, on the street and in the restaurant – they emphasize their presence, display themselves, playing ‘those from circus’ and at the same time remain distanced, anonymous and objectified with exactly the same ‘game’ with which they identify so strongly and fully” (Carmelli, in Drašler 2005: 82). Or, as Radharani Pernarčič (2004: 24) says about artists, “they cannot escape what they are and what they are doing, neither by a morning cup of coffee”.

This anonymous exhibition is probably also possible by the fact that street theatre artists are never really known and famous. There is no stardom in this business, and it would be difficult to establish it because of nature of their migrations and nomadism, less media interest and the hybrid nature of their work (never is enough clear what street artist will be doing tomorrow; never is even very clear what he has been doing previously) (Mason 1992: 187). The reason why street players are not as famous as film players is also in the fact that theatre actor displays its artwork for the audience by himself, with its own personality. According to Benjamin (1998: 163), the film due to the “collapse of the aura”, however, creates personalities outside studio and thus establishes the cult of celebrities.

Groups and individuals, who appear on the streets, choose “alternative” way of life, associated with identities of expression. We are talking about alternative lifestyles, in which politics cannot be separated from identity and the way of life (Hetheringtom 1998: 4). For the groups founded on common interests and common views, on emotional identifications with same-minded, which generate themselves through accumulated experiences and are selected, Maffesoli (1996) invented the term “new tribes”. In these groups a sense of belonging and authenticity is attributed also to the wish to express through certain lifestyle (Hetherington 1998: 50). These “tribes” are at least partly “nomadic”, in motion between festivals, travelling between “non-places” (Augé 1992), with means of transportation, by air, railways and highways, to the “places” from which they will make “places of memory”, “identity, relational and historical places” (Augé 1992: 100-102). Travel practices, alternative ways of living, social dramas and forms of protests are important performative practices in the development of identities of expression, seeking authenticity and belonging (Hetherington 1998: 99). Through these practices carnival agency can be observed.

Beyond the mask

“Even if the money is often the biggest motivation, street artists cannot live by bread alone.” (Mason 1992: 27)

Antagon is a group of twenty-five artists who “live and work together. To a great extent theatre is what we live.” They create and live in places of cultural center on the outskirts of Frankfurt. In spite of the fact that they get some funding from the state, they emphasize their ability to be independent. “It is important to remain independent, to go to the scene wide open, with what we found out ourselves, made ourselves and, doing so, we leave a message.” In Antagon they say that every day is Sunday for them. “As we work also on Sundays. In such a funny way we adapt our reality. In fact, we are working every day.” They never cease travelling and when they are at home they have too much work to verify and prepare things. There is not enough money to afford someone else who would manufacture scene, costumes, repair bus or anything else. They call themselves as “recycling theatre”, theatre which remakes already used: “Things for the scene we pick up from the trash, we find things; of course we have to make few things, but most of them are taken ad recycled.” Sometimes they get something from “rich, state theatres”, something they no longer need, after they remake by themselves, impregnate against fire and similar. “It is a shitty job, but you can do it alone. Trailer, in which we have a musical stage, is also the whole scene. In fact, they wanted to throw it off because it was damaged, but we fixed it. In this group we have a lot of very good technicians,” says Bernhard Bub. Each of them is more than just an actor. “Only an actor with tiny little fingers who cannot touch anything,” is useless. “In the street and for the realization of such a theatre, for survival, to exist, of course is important that you are a good actor, a good dancer. But sometimes it is more important to know how a car works when you are on the road. Because on the tours it always happens that tire bursts. To know what to do when it rains, when there is a storm … There is a book about street theatre which states that in street theatre is better to know how to weld rather than how to dance according to style.”

Actors are selected after two-week workshops which are organized each year in Spain. “Outside of all reality, almost like in a desert, under difficult conditions, there becomes evident if they belong together or not. This is the thing we know it, it appears spontaneously.” It is therefore also not important whether their members have prior formal theatre education. Once you become Antagon member, there is nothing you would not share with others. Even money. “No one has pockets full of money, but also nobody is without money. We all have little.”

Similar with Antagon group, couple South Miller and Jacob Brindamour of the ensemble Les sages fous also make by themselves the scene, clothes and puppets which are used in the show. The work is divided according to aesthetic and technical feasibility. Large wooden ship which is a major scene part of their performance Bizzarium was made by them. It travels to Europe taken into “thousand pieces”; it takes three days to put it together. However, when travelling in Europe, it is only partly dismantled, so that the three days are reduced to three hours. This work is carried out by South and Jacob alone after the show and they refuse all offers of help since they understand dismantling of a boat as their little ritual, which belongs to the phase of their transformation from fictional characters back to reality. Moreover, “profane” even cannot understand how ship is assembled or disassembled because instruction book is needed to be deciphered.

They come from Canada, where they actually spend eight months a year, usually in fall and winter time. This is time to rehearse, to make props, develop new ideas and performances (they do it also during the breaks on their tours) and organize “microfestival of unfinished puppetry”. During the winter months in Canada where they are “truly exotic” with their street theatre, they perform also indoor. They never get bored from travelling, only sometimes travelling becomes tiring. “Once we travelled together with other people from other show. This was in fact the most difficult. Not because of the people, they were wonderful, but because constantly being with other people, always being a group, can become a bit tiresome. Even if it is very nice.”

Karen Blazer, co-founder of the group Feuervogel in which nowadays she performs and also performs the role of choreographer, makes all the costumes herself. Hermann Schug, co-founder and artistic director says that each is contributing with his or her various talents to the group. Their members come from a variety of acrobatic and artistic directions. Among them is a new member, gymnast who in 2001 won the silver medal at the world championship in gymnastics. Harmann worked as a stonecutter for twenty years like his father and grandfather before him. Then he wanted to become a photographer, and he went to Berlin. Then he finished faculty of sports in Cologne. Together with Karen they form one of frequent street theatre couple. Their children also perform when there is no school. They travel, he says, “too much”.

Acrobatic theatre group Mimbre spent half of life travelling. “We perform on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and perhaps Monday, on Wednesday and Thursday we travel to another place, or if we are close to England, we return home. It depends.  And then every weekend so. Since the beginning of May to the end of September. We perform at about twenty festivals in one season.” Firstly, they start a tour with a new show in England where they are already famous and festivals know them. After this first year they mainly perform around Europe and, without large constructions, around the world. In 1999, a group was established by Emma Norin, Lina Johansson and Silvia Fratelli, who met in the circus school in London. Ema and LIna come from Sweden. They met in a circus school in Stockholm and appeared in the streets as buskers together with another guy.

Silvia is Italian. As a child she practiced gymnastics, and then she studied languages. When she visited England to learn English well, she once again got into acrobatics and found herself in street theatre. Among the reasons why she landed in “this business” she mentions a passion for travel: “I love it. But then, after ten years it can become more tiring, especially if you are away from family. But I like it. I would travel all the time. It is really a good way to visit places and work at the same time. But behind travelling there is a lot of work in the office to be able to arrange a tour.” She uses her knowledge of languages in administrative work, when establishing contacts with international festivals. Usually their day is divided into morning work in the office and afternoon rehearsal. “If we are lucky. And when we rehearse before performing and repetitions, we take a whole time. If we have many office work, we can be there for a week, and if we have to practice before the performance, then we practice all day long. It depends.” “I think it is a way of life. Which becomes job. I mean, it is a job which is a way of life. It is both. But is definitely a way of life. It is a specific way of life, and if you are not in this way, then it is very difficult to carry out the work,“ says Silvia. Emma, who has a few months old baby girl who sometimes accompanies her on trips, says: “If you are few weeks away this is not the end of the world.”

Von Trolley Qabaret, a group with musical spectacles in which they combine comedy and acrobatic skills, was founded in 2004 when they toured in circuses around Australia. Gareth began to perform in circuses when he was twelve. Together with his wife he also established a duo The Pitts and they frequently perform on the street in a couple. In their shows occasionally performs their three-year old son with stunning acrobatics. Trent, whose profession is electronic technician, recalls that once when he was nineteen, he “had a job”. French guy Sebastian joined them only recently, before he was a chef. They came together also because they are all musicians, “and then music goes on street, adding to it grumbling and you play a clown, so we have more audience.” Otherwise, they say that they play for money. And immediately add that they work for pleasure: “It is work we choose by ourselves. Surely, it is a job.”They do not work in winter, in winter they organize summer tour, manage the website and advertise themselves. They start to rehearse two weeks before the summer tour. Trent often takes his two children with them on tours: “It is not easy to be a parent and act in the performance at the same time. And it is also not easy for the children. It is difficult when I don’t have time to give them attention. Yesterday we performed at eleven in the evening and finished only at midnight, kids already felt asleep and I had to wake them up.”Sebastian says that he likes to stay at home but he also likes to go: “If I have to leave home I like to go away for a longer time. In summer we play in twenty different countries or something like that. “

Lupus who loves to travel, “because could never stay in just one place,” says: “It is nice to have a house, but I also have to escape from it in order to be able to return.” He started as busker in his twenties, “like a little punker on the street”. After twenty years of practice, however, it is already possible to live or survive from playing on the street, he says. He can afford to perform alone since he already made a good name. It took him ten years to become famous. “Great varieté artist needs ten years of training, and when he finally has it, when he wants to show his mastery on the stage, is already too old,” he says in a joke. He has much work, in December he performs every day.

Ali Salmi, artistic director and producer of Cie Osmosis collective, says that “with his personality of artist” he can live well with street theatre, but he adds: “For this I have to work too much, too much, I have to be crazy. If I am a good dancer, my life can really be like a dream. Previously, it was easy. If you worked, you succeeded. Today, they all want to be performers. It is very easy to survive in France with what you do. But it is not necessarily that with it also quality comes. And then there are many people who claim they are artists, but they are not. Then you just have to decide what you want to be. Many younger groups are now waiting to take my place. I know it is so. But I do not prevent them from being successful. That’s how it is. We have to work hard. In the end you also have to pay the people. I pay much attention on how we spend money. At the same time you have to be an artist and an economist. My father had a very difficult job and was working very hard in a factory. Every day, eight hours a day, but he was killing himself. Alone I earn five times more than him. I work a lot for it. Sometimes we can earn a lot of money, sometimes less, but let’s be respectful to all. And sometimes we lose. People cost, we are three dancers, three drivers in performance, technician, singers, video technician, assistant for travel, my assistant and some others. Fifteen people. This is economics.” When he has some free time he spends time on his land in Alsace: “My freedom is to return back home to my beautiful house. I have a beautiful studio in the middle of nature. And a large garden where I cook … I do not spend enough time at home with my family. We are now on the road for three months. Last time I saw my wife it is a month ago, and I saw my little daughter a month and a half ago. At this festival we finish on Saturday, we are moving to Maribor, during the week we are off to Belgium, then to Arles, and then a few more places in France, after this to Tarrega for a week, in September we are in Trieste,” he knows the itinerary of his performances by heart.

From conversations with street theatre artists we can say that their artistic creation is a result of vital interest for the creation combined with enjoying in it through travels and ways of life that this kind of work brings with it. But it is also a part of a survival strategy and resourcefulness, which are embedded in the system of the market economy; a result of inner and outer manifestations which are necessary, “if it is to orient himself and to survive with creative thinking within the market (consumer) oriented needs of society” (Pernarčič 2004: 13). Art demands a whole man; both process and product are part of him and he is part of them (Pernarčič 2004: 15, 16). Regardless street theatre as art work is “a consequence of extremely personal efforts of each artist, at some point simply becomes goods.” (16)

 

References

Augé, Marc

1992 Non-Lieux: Introduction à une antropologie de la surmodernité. Paris: Seuil.

Benjamin, Walter

1998 ‘Umetnina v času, ko jo je mogoče umetno reproducirati.’ In: Walter Benjamin. Izbrani spisi. Ljubljana: Studia humanitatis. Pp. 145-176.

Drašler, Jana

2005 ‘Na robu mesta, v središču sveta: Diskurz o cirkusu.’ Neobjavljeno diplomsko delo. Ljubljana: Filozofska fakulteta, Oddelek za etnologijo in kulturno antropologijo.

Hetherington, Kevin

1998 Expressions of Identity: Space, Performance, Politics. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage.

Maffesoli, Michel

1996 The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE.

Mason, Bim

1992 Street Theatre and Other Outdoor Performance. London and New York: Routledge.

Pernarčič, Radharani

2004 ‘A si ti tud’ tuki noter padu? Saga o frilenserjih.’ Neobjavljena seminarska naloga. Ljubljana: Filozofska fakulteta, Oddelek za etnologijo in kulturno antropologijo.

 

Petra Žišt is a PhD student of ethnology and cultural anthropology at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. As a result of her long-lasting research about street theatre she presented the paper Freedom of Street Theatre Captured in Festivals at the conference Journeys of Expressions. Her article with the same title was published in the volume Celebrate to Prosper (2012). Among her research interests are art, performance, mobility, migration, multiculturalism.


[1] Although he is aware that with such a classification the issue of diversity will not be resolved, as it is impossible to find quite clear examples, as well as within each group exceptional diversity of artistic taste and style can be observed.

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