Essays: Steven Ragatz on Busking

[ Steven Ragatz posted this essay on "busking" in March of 1992. -mpg]

It sounds like you've got the right idea.  Have fun and don't give a
*$&$%^ about making pots of cash.  On the other hand, it's nice to do
both.  In general you will get the best hats (i.e.. $$$) if you keep
in mind a little crowd psychology.  The bigger the crowd, the more
they start to think and act like a unified being rather than a
collection of individuals.  In many respects, big crowds are
predictable.  You can use that predictability to you advantage.

Sometimes getting big crowds isn't easy though.  Here are some hints
that I noticed when I did street theater...

You must actively gather a crowd.  Don't expect incredible juggling to
make them interested.  You have to tell them to be interested.  Don't
think of them and intelligent, self thinking contributors in society,
but rather think of them as, say, sheep.  You have to heard them, then
sheer them...

Depending on your style, you can crowd gather by brute force or by
being clever.  I always made sure that I would be visible.  Be eye
catching.  Do something really big when you start out.  I usually
opened with fire on an 8 foot uni.  Wear bright costumes.  Show them
that you are not afraid or inhibited (even if you are!).  You have to
make yourself extra-ordinary if you expect anyone to watch.

I found that the biggest three factors when it comes to $$ is
location, location and finally, location.  The geography needs to be
good if you expect to make any money.  Play around with different
spots.  Things like noise, traffic, police, shop owners etc. tend to
influence a potential busking location more than anything else.
Finding a good place to busk is the hardest thing to do.  Once found,
the rest is relatively easy!  Relatively...

My hats usually reflected that big crowds are not as important as
dense crowds. Although, in my opinion, all of my crowds were dense,
when I say dense crowds I refer to the number of people per square
foot, not to their collective intellect.  My objective was to get
both.  Big dense crowds are the best $$.  These are some of the things
that I did.

Build a stage: I always used a *stage*.  I put a rope on the ground in
a circle.  This works very well for it gives the audience a *safe*
place and a *not safe* place.  It also puts me on stage and adds
focus.  Kids are usually very observant and do not cross the rope.  I
found that a simple thing like the rope/stage told people that they
were the audience and I was the performer.

Get the first row: To encourage a tight audience, I would do my first
tall uni trick to gather a handful of people.  (A dozen or so folk
will always stop if you are waving fire around.)  After I jump off of
the uni, I IMMEDIATELY introduce myself and TELL everyone to move up
to the rope.  If they do not comply, I insist - with a comic tone and
a couple of knives - that they move to the front row.  The object of
all this is to get a tight first row.  If you can get a tight circle
of people one or two bodies deep, others will see the well formed
group and investigate.  It is important to give the audience a sense
of identity from the start.  Give them something in common. Tell the
first group of people an inside joke.  Let them in on something that
the late comers will have to be curious about.

Plan your act: After you have a small, but tight crowd, the rest
requires material.  You act has to keep them.  You must have your act
well planned and rehearsed.  Don't assume that you will be able to
make up good stuff on the fly.  Inevitably you will, but you need
planned material to guide the show.

Throw out the act: Always be prepared to completely ignore the plan as
described above.  If it isn't going well, throw it out and do
something else immediately!  You must listen to the audience very
carefully.  If it is not working, they will let you know.  (Boy, will
they ever...)

Build to the finale: Let the audience know where the show is going.
Make sure that each new stunt is better than the last.  Keep everyone,
including yourself, on their toes.

Get taller: Apart from the tall uni opening, the order of my routines
after the intro got progressively taller.  Each stunt was visually
bigger than the last.  I did this for one reason - as people gather in
the crowd, they are in the back and they can't see.  If you can make
the last two or three routines on top of something (stilts, unis,
rola bola, somebody shoulders etc.) you will double you crowd just
before you pass the hat.  I used devil stick and boxes early on,
waiting to use five torches and tall unis at the end.  If you are
twelve feet tall, the audience can see you as well as hear you, and
when you pass the hat they MUST hear you.

Tell the audience what to give: When you are finished with your next
to last trick, mention money.  Let them know that after the finale
they are going to shower you with PAPER money (never, never, never,
never, never, (...), never, never mention CHANGE!  If you ask for
dollars you will get dollars.  If you ask for spare change, you will
get spare change.)  Telling them what is expected of them before the
hat pass lets the audience know what to do.  Remember, Baaahahah.

Pass the Hat: Pass the hat, don't toss it on the ground.  People want
to give YOU money, not some dusty old hat.  When you finish the
finale, take a moment to be honest and grateful to you audience.  Let
them know that you truly appreciate that they stayed and watched.
This is the time to take a long, well earned bow, and let the audience
see the person behind the performance.  But don't wallow in self
gratuities.  Take only a moment, because you have to keep performing
until the last person drops the last bill into the hat.  You have to
be your funniest, cleverest, nicest, whatever during the hat pass.  Be
aggressive without being annoying.  Learn a dozen or so hat lines.
Keep the crowd entertained while you pass the hat and they won't

I did most of my juggling/busking in a festival market place in
Indianapolis In.  I made a good living doing so for just under a year.
There were other good acts there but they did not have a good street
show.  The other guys never figured out the timing.  Even though I did
the same number of shows, I would typically pull several hundred on a
good day compared to fifty or sixty from the other acts.  I attribute
all of my busking $$ success to the above suggestions.

Essays: Steven Ragatz on Busking / Juggling Information Service /
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