performers' library

How Are We Perceived?
Steven Ragatz

How we are perceived not only depends on how we present ourselves, but on the context of that presentation as well. I suppose the obvious things that modify the audience's perception would be the act itself. Within the writing elements of the routine are embedded messages and cues to the audience to teach them about the individual performer(s.) You could get wrapped up in the analysis of character etc., but I think that when talking about street acts, it's unnecessary since most simply present the character as being themselves. Real people make pretty interesting characters - sometimes.

But, outside of the act is the context in which the act is perceived. That is, how the act is framed. Much of the success or failure of a street act is dependent on this factor. "Location, location, location!" I hear you cry! If the context of the act isn't conducive to the act's vision, then much of the performance effort is wasted. Hey, just check your hats.

For example, several years ago, I was sitting on the steps of one of the large museums in Chicago. Just in front of the steps is a three-way intersection with traffic lights. There is a street musician and a mime, separately working the crowd that is sitting around me. The musician has a full sized harp, which is a pretty impressive thing to be able to draw a small crowd with, and has set up off to the side. She is very talented and obviously has had a great deal of formal training. The mime is doing typical Shields-type mime. She has a "classy" look and he has a more "low-brow" look.

The poor harpist is fighting the traffic noise and has a very hard time drawing any attention in spite of her very well developed musicality. I listened to her for a while before being pulled to the action in the street. The mime is doing all sorts of things in the intersection including the "oh!-I'm-pulling-the-bus-with-an-invisible-rope" bit when the bus accelerates from the stoplight. In that context, the mime's material was completely appropriate and very entertaining, even if predictable, where as the harpists' was not.

I'm sure that there could be some scenarios where the roles would be reversed, and the context for the performance would be more supportive to the musician than to the mime. (Maybe a recording studio?)

Anyway, this may seem painfully obvious and not worthy of mention since it isn't really difficult to determine if a location is "good" or not, but the material within the act needs to project the correct image for that location, wherever it may be.

Another example that comes to mind is working in theme parks. You can take a street act off of the sidewalk, clean out the offensive language, and place the exact same routine it in a theme park. To the audience it is the same scenario - the audience can choose to watch your act or move on. The situation is a little bit different, because there usually isn't the expectation of having to tip the performer, but in my experience, the big difference is that the patrons paid to get in to the park, and more often than not, they have paid a lot. That payment alone projects credibility onto the performance. After all, they put money up front for admission, and since this is an act that they have already purchased, they had better stop and watch.

I found that when I performed in theme parks the crowd-gathering task was trivialized to the point of simply starting the show and watching audience magically materialize.

Also, since you are inside the park, it is obvious that you are employed by the park, and therefore have a job — something that most guests can relate to. If you are simply on the street, then you have to fight the stigma of being un-employed. (To most of the world, street performers are not perceived as being "self-employed", but "un-employed" with benefits.) If you can convince the audience that you do this by choice, as opposed to necessity, then I think you have a better chance to with them over.

Another experience I can think happened several years ago while working in Santa Monica, along the Strand. I had never spent much time in California before, and had always heard about the great street-performing going on the Boardwalk and on the Strand in Santa Monica. I was working on one end of the beach and living in an apartment on the other. Everyday I would walk up the strand to and from work, passing by anywhere from three to six acts working the tourist crowds.

I had high expectations this experience to be enlightening and fun to get to see some acts that had continued to work the street for years. I was enlightened all right. It is sufficient to say that there wasn't a single performer that could keep my attention longer than the congenial five-minute trial period that I and most other prospective audience members give, let alone hang around for the epic conclusion to each demonstration.

First, and foremost, the thing that I was surprised by was that all of the performers looked like street people. I don't mean that they were street people; I do know better, but the accepted street performer costume seemed to be a T-shirt covered in sweat with cut-off shorts. At first I thought that the guys I was watching were new to the area, but then I came to realize that these were pitches that they occupied for many years. The beach-bum image seemed to prevail.

Additionally, the material wasn't appropriate for the tourists. The humor was way off base. Now, I have always been under the impression that one of the distinguishing characteristics of a joke is that it be funny. If it isn't funny, then it simply becomes a stupid remark. It wasn't just my deluded perception, because the crowds were dead quiet throughout. I remember one guy spouting off anti-heckler lines right and left, keeping the crowd at bay, in spite of the fact that there were no hecklers! That was his show, to fight hecklers, and it was dead in the water when he had a quiet, polite audience. This guy sounded like he would have been more comfortable performing for prison inmates.

In a parallel universe, the acts that I saw while I was staying in Montreal, down in the old part of town, were very well presented and fit the character and nuance of the area very well. The biggest difference between those acts and the ones in LA was that I got the feeling that these were street performers by choice, not by necessity.

I don't mean for this to offend any of the other readers on this site. In all fairness, this was several years ago, and the scenes may have changed since then, but it pointed out to me that how you are perceived doing a show on a sidewalk isn't really any different than how you are perceived doing a show in a glitzy theater. The material that you present has the greatest influence. If it works, then the perception is a positive one. If it fails, then you have to pick up the pieces. But, outside of the act itself, there is a context that supports or contradicts the act. Simply paying attention to the context of the performance, and trying to place the act in a proper context, will improve how you are perceived.

Steven Ragatz

Steven Ragatz has studied mime, stage movement and juggling with Fred Garbo, Tony Montanaro, George Pinney, and Michael Moschen. He currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, Lisa, and their two children, Andrew and Melissa. Someday he'll have his web site running.

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