Basic Rules Expanded

1. Attract the attention of passers-by

There are two ways to attract attention, i.e. visually or noisily;

My preference was to use a combination of both. I would walk out with a bag and unpack it, the first few props were heavy and would make a noise when thrown onto the ground - the main performing area in Covent Garden Market is a large cobbled piazza surrounded by buildings and any noise bounces back. During the unpacking of my bag I would ignore the audience and nothing excites interest more than being ignored and shut out of something about to happen.

If this introduction didn't work, I had no choice but to stand in the middle of an empty area and shout about how great I was and how much fun they would have. Outside of Covent Garden Market I have climbed up trees, lampposts, anything to attract attention and make me more visible while I touted my show.

The subtle, silent approach worked well in 90% of performances around the world but I remember my first time performing on the street in Seattle in the USA - it was in wonderful festival called the Bumbershoot festival. I tried and tried and the approach was not working. As a street performer they allowed us to pay the normal entrance fee then set up a pitch somewhere. I moved pitch a few times but I couldn't get large enough audiences to warrant expanding the energy I would normally use. That evening Anna and I bought a bottle of scotch and drank pretty much all of it while we discussed the problem. The next day we went back and watched other performers and the solution was simple - I went out and ordered anyone who walked by to stand where I told them to and remarkably they obeyed.

2. Invite them forward and position them

Once you have stopped enough people, when I say 'enough people' I mean when you decide there are enough to help build a larger audience, invite them to walk forward - never leave them where they are, assert your authority immediately but in a fun like manner.

This part is tricky and the instinct only comes with experience, decide how many people you are likely to get.

Street performers talk about "the edge" and this refers to the outside edge of your performing area; basically the smaller the edge the smaller the crowd that can view what you are doing and ultimately the smaller the amount of money you will earn. If you have a small edge, the audience is too close to you and anyone coming later to join the crowd cannot see what is happening in the middle of the ring of people. A large edge keeps the audience further from you and anyone who arrives later should be able to see what is happening without having their personal space invaded.

As you invite your audience forward, calculate what size your edge should be. An astute performer will have checked the pitch at various times of the day and watched to see how fast people are walking by, the amount of potential visitors to the area as opposed to regulars (anyone who works in the area) - these are only two of the many factors going through the head of the performer.

Some performers carry a long length of rope and put this out to show where they want the audience to stand.

3. Teach your audience how to be an audience

A silent audience will not earn you any money and with a group of unrelated individuals it's difficult to warm them up. Most people are shy in an unknown company and this should be addressed before the act begins.

Teaching the audience to be an audience has two purposes it teaches them to clap and cheer on your command and rid themselves of inhibitions but it also helps bring other people to the show, when passer's by hear the clapping and laughing they are more likely to want to join in the fun.

My standard approach to this was to be honest and tell the audience I needed their help in getting a few more people before I start. I would ask them to clap and cheer on the count of three (standard street performer stuff) when they clapped and cheered I would jump up and (or climb up something if there was anything handy, Covent Garden Market had some wonderful Pillars to climb up on) and announce that "these people are enjoying themselves, you too can join in the fun and jollity just step forward - my act is about to start." Most of the audience would laugh at me stating that they were enjoying themselves when nothing had happened yet.

Sometimes I would move sections of the audience to "help spread out the laughter" - this would get a laugh but it was also a way of controlling the audience and making them do what I wanted.

4. Entertain them

During the act use the audience as much as possible - interaction gets the strongest reaction. You do not need to be a funny person to get a reaction, without an audience there would be no need to perform so use them in the act.

Getting people out to help is sometimes a problem and if you don't achieve this after asking the first person you are likely to lose your audience. I have seen many a crowd disperse because of the timidity of the performer. The process seems to start at the edges and then works its way into the middle of the crowd.

I have always been a people watcher and during the initial few minutes I would spot potential assistants then I would keep an eye on them to see how they were reacting. During my act I would only ever get males out to help, when I first started as a street performer there was a huge political correctness movement and the thinking was that if I got a female out to help, I would stereotype her as the traditional magician's assistant.

A short aside: while I was working the University Circuit I was fortunate enough to get a gig at the Student Union Annual Conference - this was a big deal, screw this up and I would probably not get any more university or college gigs. The headliner was a punk poet called Jools; she was a massive draw everywhere an did huge concert venues as a support act for punk bands. I was the new-kid-on-the-block, and she explained I had to be politically correct or I would get thrown off the stage. This was alright with me as my act was politically correct so I told her that there were no concerns in that area and my act would offend no one - she looked me up and down and said "so what's funny about it". She was correct; all comedy comes at the expense of someone or organisation.

Let's get back to spotting a potential assistant; my ideal person was someone between the ages of 25 and 40, a father with children (and someone to look after them while he helped) was always a safe bet, but in reality it was someone who was vociferous and enjoying the whole experience.

For one routine I did I would talk about how I always wanted to be a magician and if I could see someone who looked like me, I would show the audience my first trick, I would have spotted my intended assistant but would look at a different person in that area as I spoke and I would walk directly towards the person I was looking at, they would get worried then at the last moment I would grab my intended assistant and say "you'll do" then look at the other guy and smile. The audience would laugh at the situation I had created, I had suckered the guy I was leading out, and I had no one try to back out.

Occasionally I would go to someone and put my hand out as if I would shake their hand and my left hand would go up to their shoulder and press fairly hard, the natural instinct of the guy would be to push back and as soon as I felt the push I would walk backwards allowing his own momentum to move him forwards. I always got away with it because they felt committed and I think the sheer audacity caught them off guard.

As a final resort if they refused I walk up to them, suddenly swing down and rugby tackle them taking their legs away from under them then I would carry them back to the performing area. I only used the last two methods when I wanted to increase tension a little and make the next routine a little edgy; it was an instinctive thing to do if the act needed a lift. Apart from using the audience you have to give an entertaining show and finish on a strong note.

5. Bottle them

If you need to make money, then this part is crucial, and it is the culmination of the process of control over your crowd.

As stated earlier, at least one third of your crowd will leave for a variety of reasons and your role at this point is to limit the amount that walk away.

One way of doing this is to use a "bottler" i.e. someone who collects the money for you. In the UK the money collected is known as your bottle but in the USA the money is generally called the tip. In the UK we call it a bottle because at one time the money was collected in a type of bottle, with a narrow neck for the coins to slide down but too small for a hand or a finger to slide coins out of (not all "bottlers" were honest with the performer).

"Bottlers" will either walk around during the performance or wait until the end. With a musician the "bottler" would roam throughout the time allotted to the act. After one or two songs if the musician is not engaging in banter with the crowd they will wonder off and see what else is happening so the "bottler" is there to catch them before leaving. A structured street performance will not need a bottler until the end because they should have enough control to keep the crowd.

Personally I have never liked the idea of bottlers and have never used one. I liked to think my crowd would come forward when asked because they had enjoyed my performance and wanted to give me a small donation. The attitude of some performers was "I did the work so I need paying for it" this was not why I was on the street, with that attitude I may as well have been in regular employment.

Over the years I tried many "bottling speeches" and they changed depending on the crowd and what happened during the act. One idea I had that worked amazingly well for cutting down the amount of people who walk away was simple in concept. My final routine was a straight-jacket escape, and it was obvious that this was the big finish so after I had taken a quick bow and milked the applause a little I would announce that I would make half the audience disappear. I would then say "think about it, will the person standing next to you still be there in a few minutes, check them out because you may not see them again". It immediately stopped many people from walking off because it intrigued them, I would let this sink in then I would pick up my hat and hold it out while I smiled at them. By getting people to look at the person standing next to them seemed to embarrass people into not walking off when the hat came out. The message was clear but in a light-hearted manner and it worked in cutting down the amount of people who walked off.

Once the laughter died down, I would look at the crowd as if I was counting them and say "just a moment" then I would put the hat down and pick up a big bag to collect the money in and before they had time to move forward, I would pick up a much larger bag and smile again. While they were putting the money into the hat, I would talk constantly and thanking them for their donations.

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