Performing at Covent Garden, London
The following article includes many specific details that only apply to Covent
Garden. However, there are also many points that pertain to busking pitches,
in general, around the world.)
The written history of street performers at Covent Garden goes back to the
1600's, but the scene in it's current state dates from the late 1970's, when
the covered fruit and vegetable market underwent its transformation into a
tourist site. As a regularly worked busking pitch, its only rival world-wide
would have to be the Pompidou Center in Paris. As an influence on the English
speaking world of street performers, I would say that it is in a class of its
own. Sure, there are nicer places to work. Sure, there are legendary festivals
that we all dream of playing, but Covent Garden is worked by street performers
nearly every day of the year. Many of these performers make the majority of
their money working nowhere else. And likewise, many of them have been performing
at Covent Garden regularly for 10 years or more.
The system of deciding who gets to perform and how to share the time slots
fairly among the many performers who regularly work there has been through
endless discussion and evolution to its present state. No doubt, it will change
again in the future, but I will try to give you an accurate portrayal of what
to expect if you to want to do a show at the famous Covent Garden. You must
remember that any bright idea you have as a newcomer has been argued over endlessly
many times before you ever showed up. So the first rule should be to patiently
observe and learn from the old pros before you try to stir up any waves.
The first thing you have to know is that street performing is ILLEGAL in London.
The same is true of Paris, actually, but both cities are full of buskers who
have to keep an eye out for the police or other authorities at all times. Covent
Garden is an exception to that rule in that the Market Association pays a hefty
fee to the city government for the license to allow street performing. What
this means is that ultimately the Market Management have the final say in what
happens on their property. In daily practice, it is not so oppressive though
because the Management is usually happy to just let us get on with our shows,
while they get on with running a market.
However, the performers are always subjected to being taken for granted; special
events are sometime put on, which might take up the prime spots, often with
little or no notice given to the performers. A prime example is the month of
May every year when an opera festival takes place and there is little room
left for the performers who give so much effort into making Covent Garden a
lively place that would be desirable for holding an opera festival in the first
place. Sounds annoying doesn't it? Well, may I just say that there are lots
of annoying things about any and every street pitch. If you don't like them
you don't have to work the streets. I am just going to continue with this article
to warn you of what you should know. It is up to you to decide if the hassle
is worth it.
Market management requires that every performer must have liability insurance
and must pass an audition. The insurance is easy to get. Just ask another performer
for the address and pay your fee. (£95 is the price of a commonly used insurer
for a year's coverage. Be sure to ask your own insurer if they will cover you
in England if you already have a policy.) The audition may be a little harder
to get scheduled, but is not difficult to pass. You won't be judged on quality,
as the market has a publicly stated policy of allowing all performers, including
beginners, to have an opportunity to develop their shows. You also need to
know that auditions are not held on the weekends when the largest crowds are
around. Those times are reserved for the business of doing shows and making
money as they should be. As mentioned before, the auditioned person doesn't
need to prove he can get a large crowd to pass the audition. Certain rules
must also be followed if you use fire or amplification in the show, but they
are both allowed. The Management will fill you in on the details.
The real purpose of issuing permits (as is sometimes the case in other cities)
is so they can be taken away IF the performer ends up being a nuisance somehow
either by being dangerous to the public or by being offensive. This scenario
is very rare, but it has been enforced in the past. Trust me, the other performers
are usually relieved to be rid of such a person as well.
So now you have your insurance and your permit... How do you schedule a show?
Well, there are two very different locations in the market where performances
are allowed. Well, three actually, but the third one is only for classical
musicians and has a different set of rules. For variety acts, there is either
the indoor or the outdoor pitch. The indoor pitch is scheduled every Monday
for shows on the following week. The outdoor pitch is scheduled every morning
for shows on that day.
First I will explain the indoor pitch. This spot is a gathering of three benches
in a U shape creating a performance space about 12' x 12'. It is sheltered
overhead by the market roof, but still has a very outdoor atmosphere to it.
You never get rained on here and that can be a big advantage some days as the
crowds run underneath for cover. However on sunny days, you may not be able
to get them to join you in the shade. But, then again on very hot days they
On Monday afternoons, anyone who wants to play the indoor pitch puts their
name on a list. These names are drawn to see who gets to choose the most desired
time slots first. You are allowed 4 thirty-minute shows over the next week.
The shows are scheduled between 10 am and 8 pm. As each person on the list
draws out of the hat and chooses their 4 time slots, there becomes less and
less spaces available until either nobody wants the left over spots or all
have been chosen. You then come back on your chosen days at the chosen times
and hopefully have some good shows.
Now for the outdoor pitch. This spot is big. It is intimidating and it can
be very hard for even the best performers to gather an audience. But, when
they do manage to pull off a big show, you will not find a better street location
anywhere in the world. Occasionally, if the performers vote on the day to do
so, this area is split into two pitches for either part or all of the day depending
on the politics. Sometimes that means that twice as many shows happen. Sometimes
that means that some of the performers will try in vain to get an audience
while someone else a few yards away is having a great show. It is all very
unpredictable and depends upon how many audience members there are to go around
and how good your competition is. On that note: you must also realize that
there is competition for audience members between the indoor and outdoor pitches
as well. There is no way of knowing which pitch will win. A less experienced
performer can sometimes top the old pro. You just take your slot and do the
best you can.
To play the outdoor pitch you have to have your name in the draw list by 8:15
am. Yes, that is A.M., very early, unsociable, unreasonable for street performers
to have to put up with. All true. All I can say is, if you don't like it ,
you should perform somewhere else. When your name is drawn out of the hat you
choose your time slot. These time slots are 40 minutes long. Shows start as
early as 10 am and go as late as about 9 pm in the summer, when it stays light
out, or only until 3:30 in the winter. Yes, it gets dark very early in the
winter. Not only is it harder to work in the cold, but there are less time
slots available for what can sometimes be 20 to 30 performers hoping to get
a chance to perform. Even on a winter weekday, there are often 10 to 15 performers
there at 8:15 for the draw.
What does all this scrambling for a pitch tell you? Well you can safely assume
that it means that there is money to be made if you play the game right. But
remember; Covent Garden is more often than not extremely hard to work. The
audiences are notorious for not coming forward when you are trying to build
a crowd. Large portions of the people are European or even more exotic. Lots
of them usually don't speak English. The weather is very unpredictable. And
even when you think you are OK because it is hot outside, just then the audiences
become zombies more interested in lying in the sun than having anything to
do with your annoying show.
If you want to watch street shows, learn a lot about the art, and possibly
have a go at trying what may be the best training ground in the world for street
performers, then come to London and have a look. Whether you are just watching
or wanting to perform, I would suggest that you hang out down there for at
least a week to get a feel for the place. Do introduce yourself to the regulars,
but don't expect them to lay out the red carpet on your first day. You've got
to remember that almost every day in the summer some fresh face youngster shows
up thinking he is going to take over. Trust me; it won't happen. However, I
guarantee you that if you show them some respect and pay your dues, the Covent
Garden performers will accept you into the most far reaching and prestigious
alumni in the whole world of street performing.
originally from Kansas, USA, has spent a lot of time at Covent Garden off and
on since 1988. He currently lives in London, but is not actually performing
at Covent Garden much these days.
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