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Old 02-24-09, 08:52 AM   #1
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Default The Hat Pitch

Before I say anything else, I will say that the best hat pitch I ever saw didn't involve any speaking and took about 5 seconds. The performer had grabbed the hearts of everyone in the audience and all he had to do was gesture to his hat. That was it.

However, if you speak, then everything changes.

Street theatre will always remain the most inexpensive form of education, news and entertainment in the world. If a pedestrian is walking by and they don’t enjoy what they see or hear, they are not obligated to stay and if they don't stay then they certainly don’t have to pay. But if they do stay then it is up to the performer to convince that impromptu audience member that what they have seen carries some sort of value.

Anglo American and European methods are similar in some regards. The only time I saw a large theatre group pass the hat successfully in North America was when I saw The San Francisco Mime Troupe do it to a crowd of 5000 gathered in a park for their show "Big Mo". In France I saw large groups doing it all of the time. A company with 26 people in it, “Tous Fous Toute Fly” had a regularily scheduled season of hatted shows which saw all of them come down from a huge installed trapeze and flying rig to pass their hat after an extremely physically demanding show. The public and I were so consumed by their energy and commitment that we had to make large donations just to feel good about being alive.

In Anglo centric societies the hat pitch is the most important technique that the solo or duo street performer must master and plays second to the actual performance. Regardless of the level of skill or performance prowess that a performer achieves, their ability to survive inside the form, in an English speaking county as a speaking act, is entirely dependent on how capable they are of asking for money.

A delicate balance of light hearted frivolity and functional insistence is essential to a successful hat pitch. I have found it crucial to carefully structure the hat pitch so that the audience has time to assimilate the request being placed before them. It is as much of an education as it is a request.

Every person looks upon street performers a different way, some regards “buskers” as nothing more than beggars who can’t get a “normal” job, others sub consciously recognise their value as urban social convener. Regardless of this it must be assumed that nobody knows anything about street performers and if they thought that they knew something... they were wrong.

The hat pitch must be surgically inserted into the finale of the show so that it does not destroy the momentum of the performance. It is the transitions from performer to salesman and back again which must be carefully inserted. The operation should occur in three phases;

1) The "Strictly Business" Approach

After a moment in the show, near the end, where the audience has provided it’s most significant response, the performer must step entirely out of his character or performance personality and inform the audience of the facts;

“Before I continue I should let you know that soon I will be asking you for money.”

The response from the audience at this point will go one of two ways; nervous laughter or silence. How the performer relieves this tension is vital as it is incredibly easy to trivialise the importance of this request. The best thing to do is to draw attention to the obvious, something I would not normally suggest in a performance situation. This, however, is no longer performance, it is business and the best way to remove the audience from the fantasy world that you have created for them is to comment on their reaction to your request. This involves them on a personal level and the performer must lay it out plain a simple;

“I am a professional street performer. I am NOT being paid by anyone to be here, I am relying ONLY on your generous donations to earn my living. At the end of my show I will be passing my hat.”

At this point the performer should state clearly what they want, where they want it and when. Realism is paramount. The performer must ask to be paid what they think they are worth. If the performer feels that the show was only worth one dollar then he asks for one dollar, if it was worth five, then they should ask for five. Honesty plays an integral part in this request. Asking for ten dollars dismantles the effort and voids the transaction unless it has been presented in the form of a very successful joke. If the joke is unsuccessful, the hat will suffer. In the end, sincerity always wins.

2) Personal Information

Whereas the first hat pitch notifies the audience of performers intentions and gives them time to prepare their donation, a second pitch will persuade those who have not yet seen the light. If a spectator has not been convinced by the performer’s business ethic, then it is important to appeal to them using a more personable method. Speaking to them of who you are and where you come from, of your dreams and how they can help you. Without being pedantic, it is essential to educate them as to the cultural significance of street theatre. As soon as an audience hears rhetoric or table thumping they invariably take a walk. Dealing with any sort of politics or issues on the street is an extremely delicate undertaking and asking for money heads the list of one of the most difficult thing to do.

After the second pitch the performer should complete the finale and give the last pitch;

3) Passing the Hat

Short but sweet, the final pitch will be most successful if the performer tells them who they have been watching, where they are from and caps it with a joke. Sometimes the public will rush forward, other times they will hang back, afraid to be the first one. When this happens, it is imperative to make them feel at ease by continuing a banter which takes the focus off of those coming forward, once the stream has begun, it’s always a good idea to maintain the banter, the longer the banter the more likely that those who are still pondering their donation have to commit. If the performer is silent then the illusion has been created that they have all of a sudden disappeared. People who were at the back of the crowd who cannot hear or see the performer assume that they have left and don’t come forward.

I have always considered asking for money to be a cumbersome necessity. It may seem that the strategy that I have outlined here is long winded and rhetorical, but this is all dependent upon the delivery. The audience is actually interested in this process and will listen intently if the performer is not being pedantic or heavy handed. The secret to a successful hat pitch is the ability of the performer to Bleed into and out of the hat pitch and maintain the dramatic or comedic nature of their performance.

An audience hates it when an illusion is spoiled.

And remember...short sentences!
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For an updated view of what I am thinking now, buy my book "The Pavement Stage". Revised to include observations and articles about street performing, the public space and freedom of speech worldwide. For more information send me an email.
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actor, busking, david cassel, director, passing the hat, producer, street performing, street theatre, theatrical scientist, writer

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