Street performers are like professional wrestlers. By "street performer" I'm not talking about buskers - musicians who play on the street. I'm talking about acrobats, escape artists, magicians and comedians who gather a crowd, usually in the context of a festival, or some place where large numbers of people are walking around and have time to spare. They put on a show, usually lasting forty-five minutes or so, which builds up to a finale - escaping from a straightjacket, juggling machetes while seated on a tiny perch atop a fifteen foot pole - and then pass the hat. By "professional wrestler," I'm talking about the famous ones, the flamboyant ones, the "fake" ones, not the kind that compete in the Olympics. Street performers are like professional wrestlers.
Both create handles and become known by these invented names. A few go by their regular names. Bill Ferguson. Ken Patera. Daniel Craig. John Cena. But most have super-duper names. Alakazam aka The Human Knot. The Rock. Miss Behave. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Dan Dynamo. The Undertaker. Flyin' Bob. The Honky Tonk Man. The Checkerboard Guy. Randy Macho Man Savage. Their names are meant to help them enter your perception with a splash. Just like the bright clothes they wear. They're not meant to blend in. They're out to hold your attention.
The both do physically demanding work. Most street performers I've seen have been extremely fit. And coordinated. It's no easy thing to ride a unicycle, squeeze your body through a stringless tennis racket, or do successful back flips on the pavement, show after show after show. Wrestlers are big and muscular. Even though both participants in a match know who's going to win from the start, this doesn't lessen the weight of the of grown man you're hoisting off his feet and throwing, show after show after show. Some wrestlers perform outright acrobatics, engineering their "opponent" into two-man moves, always doing what they can to wow the audience. Wrestler Mick Foley (variously known in the ring as Cactus Jack, Dude Love and Mankind) opens his autobiography Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks with an account of the match in which he got entangled in the ropes (elevator cables in this particular case, to up the ante for the crowd) and his right ear tore off. He points out how in any other sport, play would immediately stop, and the athlete - Michael Jordan with a twisted ankle, say - would be given medical attention, "But in my sport, the fake sport, there's one rule: the show must go on." He had the ear kept by someone at ringside, and continued to wrestle out the allotted five minutes of the match before going to the hospital. His book's back cover shows a full body picture, with arrows and labels pointing out his myriad injuries over the years. His skill as a wrestler, he'd discovered early in his career, was taking pain. Doing spectacular "bumps" - falls in response to his opponent's attacks, making them look really good, like they'd completely pummelled him. Quite often these bumps involved absorbing genuine pain. Lots of it. And then healing. And coming back the next week. And doing it again. Week after week after week.
Both know the all-important need to win the crowd and keep them. A street performer gathers her audience from passers-by. She'd better be quick, charming and funny, the kind of person strangers might spontaneously decide to sit down and watch for forty-five minutes and then give a twenty. Street performers work to keep their crowd too, making jokes out of everything that happens - passing sirens, revving motorcycles, the indifference of some passers-by, the reactions of a volunteer pulled up from the crowd (who has probably never performed before, and must be shepherded through the performer's routine). The street performer arranges her show so that the audience is hooked in early, with a trick or feat that proves she has something to offer, and then tantalizes them along to the finale, always preceded by the hat speech: "this is what I do for a living, if you liked the show, an appropriate donation is etc etc." And then she gives the audience even better than they expected. Wrestlers fight for the audience's interest - the only measuring stick of their abilities and careers. They make speeches to the camera if they're part of a televised event. They posture in the ring. They cultivate their persona and come up with catch phrases, favourite poses, signature moves, theme songs, rivalries. They play to the crowd, they work the crowd. They make you cheer for them, they make you boo them, they make you passionately care about the outcome of their match. The matches usually follow a set pattern I described in another piece (a pattern that has a deep resonance with the soul, incidentally). No matter how many times the audience gets taken for this same ride, they still go for it, and relish it, and can't wait to get back on and do it again.
Both have shared material. There are certain jokes you hear practically every street performer make. To a passer-by who walks through an area of pavement the performer has staked out for their show: "Don't worry, that's just a stage you're going through." To a young volunteer, pulled from the audience: "How old are you?" "Five" "Five years old… you know, when I was your age, I was five years old too." Who wrote these jokes? Who owns them? Everyone and no one. They're common property. They continue to work and they continue to get used. Newcomers adopt them very quickly as they're learning their craft. And then come up with some of their own lines. Sometimes. There are tricks many street performers do in common. Newcomers draw from the common bank, and come up with their own variations on the theme. Sometimes. Wrestlers have a common physical vocabulary. Signature moves are generally only used at the climax of a match. The bulk of wrestling involves moves anyone and everyone else does. The clothesline, the full nelson, the suplex. Who came up with them? Who do they belong to?
Most importantly, both street performers and professional wrestlers get short-changed in many people's perception. A street performer friend told me of having a stand-up comedy impresario dismiss his work as a prop act. Newspapers don't review their shows. Acting schools don't teach what they do - although some circus schools do. They can't join Actors Equity, and have no union of their own. Wrestlers aren't considered real athletes, or actors. A wrestler who makes the move to films or television is viewed with condescending amusement by people who don't watch wrestling. Some people disdain street performing and professional wrestling as "mere entertainment," a sentiment that not only undervalues the importance of entertainment, but underestimates how truly great an accomplishment it is to win and hold a crowd's attention and love, time after time and time. It's an exceptional skill, and those who make a living at it accrue their ten thousand hours in front of audiences, and play their crowds like masters. If you don't believe me, give it a try.
Street performers and wrestlers have the adulation of The People as recompense. Their audiences - absolute masses of them - love what they do. They're genuinely thrilled by them. They get emotionally involved in their performances. No one watches them out of guilt, or an obligatory sense of eating one's cultural vegetables. And they get laid like rock stars.
Street performers are like professional wrestlers. And both share all of the aforementioned characteristics with rappers.