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What the Entertainment Industry could learn from a Street Performer:

We always used to joke that Street Theatre was the second oldest profession in the world, but it’s not too far from the truth. It’s history dates back to magicians doing the classic “cups and balls” routine alongside jugglers in hieroglyphics on the walls of Egyptian pyramids. The Romans would pay Street Performers to stage loud impromptu performances sledging their rivals and wandering troupes have wandered, in troupes since the beginning of time. These days with our ever-connected world, Street Performing has never been so prevalent. 

So, what can we learn from the second oldest profession in the world?

As someone who spent most of his youth shouting myself horse across the globe, I certainly credit Street Theatre wherever I can as I learnt some invaluable lessons which have helped shape my company Laughter House. There are so many things that we can learn from Street Theatre and I shall attempt to do them justice whilst also reducing them to a short list.

  1. Give ‘em what they want?

As a Street Performer you quickly learn that your audience can up and leave at a moments notice if you haven’t engaged them 100%. There are so many distractions surrounding a show that it doesn’t take much for the subliminal mind to wander and peel your audience away from you. A good street performer can engage an audience to such a degree that they completely forget where they are or what they were doing while they hang on your every word. I have watched audiences literally mouth the words that they are hearing and contort their faces to the action oblivious of the outside world as they are transported into the performer’s world. This is an expert craft and one possessed by few but one that is certainly to be aspired towards. The attempt to “hold” an audience’s attention though often comes across as desperate if done badly and unfortunately small moments of magic are replaced with loud music and showy stunts. So, yes. Give them what they want but try to do it with subtlety, charm and finesse.

  1. Don’t disappear up your own arse!

Yeah, I know but I couldn’t think of a better way of putting it. Within the Entertainment and Arts industries, we are guilty of existing in a bubble a lot of the time. From the outside, we are often viewed as elitist and funding for the arts is often seen as a waste of money. Well, in my opinion Street Theatre is the complete opposite to that. The faintest whiff of self-indulgence and your audience will turn on their heels and as a Street Performer, you just can’t afford for that to happen. Unfortunately, the other end of this spectrum is what is often presented in modern day Street Theatre – crowd pleasing trick-based shows – but there are also some beautiful examples of honest, vulnerable and completely relatable people performing pieces of genius on street corners all around the world. These are the shows we should learn from. Real people and real situations are what your audience will relate to so give them that!

  1. Street Theatre is Multi-generational.

Once again by sheer dint of its environment, Street Theatre must appeal to all. In my opinion, no other medium of live entertainment does this so effectively. We are often told that entertainment is multi-generational but I-pads soon end up getting shoved into kid’s hands and parents start scrolling Facebook. Street Theatre must engage its audience 100% or it loses them. It can’t afford for the kids to get bored. In our shows, every moment is crafted down to the millisecond to ensure that the mind never drifts. It’s complete engagement or nothing! This doesn’t mean that every performance is turbo-charged and that the show hurtles along at 100 miles an hour but it does mean complete focus. Some of the most beautiful moments are when nothing is happening on stage, a lingering look, a pause waiting for a reaction. You have to be good at it to hold the focus but plenty are.

  1. Accessibility.

There are many reasons why people don’t experience entertainment in any form. Cost is a big one, to take a family of four to the theatre is hideously expensive. I’m not saying it isn’t worth it, merely that most people decide that they need to spend their money on other things. The Arts are often considered to be elitist as well. People often dismiss incredible pieces of theatre or entertainment experiences as being “not for them”. So many times a Dad will stay out of one of our FREE shows as his family all go in because it “isn’t his kind of thing”. It doesn’t get more accessible than Street Theatre. There is no commitment required to watch a show. No ticket purchase or entering of a venue to put you off. As we always used to say “If it’s crap, you can leave!” If you do stay until the end, there is still no obligation to pay other than through a sense of morality. Even then, you only pay what you think the show was worth or what you can afford. I used to make a joke at the end of my street show that if you couldn’t afford a worthwhile donation that the show was free but if you could afford it, you paid for those that couldn’t! It got a laugh whilst also making the point that you shouldn’t feel bad if you couldn’t afford it. Plus, I genuinely believe that if you can, you should support those that can’t. We could do well to remember that when setting ticket prices. It is better to have a full theatre of people that paid half price than a half full theatre of people who paid double.

  1. On the street anything can happen and it always will!

I kid you not, anything and everything has happened to me on the street. And when it does, you have to deal with it. Street Theatre teaches you to be completely at one with your surroundings and relaxed when the most bizarre shit gets thrown your way. What follows is a brief selection of some of the weirdest things that have ever happened to me and trust me, they are just the tip of the iceberg. A large homeless Lady walked into the middle of my circle and took a shit on the ground right next to me. A drunken, naked football supporter vomited at my feet mid show, only to be topped by a dog promptly coming out and eating it. I turned around mid performance to discover that I was being filmed for a porn movie and behind me was a woman with unfeasibly large breasts “getting off” watching my show. As my double act partner “pretended” to chop my arm off a 15 year-old boy fainted in our front row. I could go on. All of these things happened mid show, in each instance the show adapted to what had happened, made the most of it and concluded with me back in the drivers seat. If I got out of my seat and took a dump in the middle of The Lion King at The Palladium, I’m not sure they would cope so well.

  1. Pay what you like.

How many shows would survive if they relied on the audience paying what they like at the end? It would shake things up a bit wouldn’t it? I’m not saying that it would necessarily be a good thing but think back to all the times that you have watched a show and questioned how much you paid for it… after you had watched it. In Street Theatre you pretty much get what you’re worth. There are hacks to earn you more as there are in any industry but at the end of the day, nobody is making you give. Even if you don’t value what you watched, if someone else is giving, then they did. In my opinion the art is to make enough money from performing on the street whilst maintaining all integrity. There are definitely some people for whom this is not a priority but for me, when I was still passing the hat, I wanted to be able to finish my show by holding my head up high and looking each and every person in the eye as they gave me what they thought I was worth and the minute I couldn’t do that was the minute that I stopped. 

I now use all of the skills above that I learned on the streets to present focussed, engaging and accessible theatrical experiences to audiences of all ages and demographics across Australia and the world. Laughter House presents comedy, circus and variety shows in mini transportable venues as well as producing and programming festivals and events.


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