A couple of weeks ago at Tell (tellfredericksburg.org) the topic was Mistakes. What follows is my story, about a mistake I made in July, 2008…and then again yesterday.
I thought the job might turn out to be a Gig from Hell. ArtScape — an outdoor arts festival in Baltimore. Three days in July, three hundred thousand people. They had art stalls, craft booths, food courts, exhibitions, concerts, film venues, and a small army of people whose job description read “street performer.” I was invited to join that small army.
Storytelling is not street performance. Street performance grabs the attention of passersby and pulls them in. You see a juggler with five balls in the air… You see a guy swallowing a sword or eating fire… You see a clown pulling coins out of somebody’s ear, you go over to them and check out what they’re up to. You see an old woman standing on the curb talking to no one in particular – you cross the street to avoid having to make eye contact.
I was almost certain this job was not a good fit for a storyteller. But the money was really good. And I really needed the work.
I got to the festival and checked in, picked up my map and instructions, and wandered around until I found my performance space. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a tent set up with a little stage in front of about a hundred folding chairs. Closed on three sides, it was a contained space where people came on purpose to sit down and be entertained. It boded well.
Granted, there was a rock concert going on in the amphitheater across the park. And a drum circle on the back side of the tent wall. Next to a car show. And intermittent marching bands in the vicinity. Still… I wasn’t without some attention grabbing tricks of my own: I had brought origami paper, the better to dazzle my audience with paper folding magic in the event my storytelling didn’t grab them by the throat.
Backstage, I got myself organized and scoped out the act just ahead of me. Magic tricks and a little juggling performed by a winsome twenty-something kid with good patter and great rapport with the audience, which was mostly 10-year-old boys. I thought, Perfect! My inner child is a ten-year-old boy, and I do well performing for that slice of demographic pie. No worries.
The magician had come to his finale. And it was a grand one involving a unicycle, a chainsaw, a bowling ball, and an egg. The chainsaw roared, the bowling ball soared, the egg didn’t splatter as he juggled them all while pedaling the unicycle. The ten-year-old boys and I were impressed. And then…
He silenced the chainsaw and tossed his juggling paraphernalia to the stage manager in order to free up his hands for the piece de resistance:
Still perched on the unicycle, he pulled a long skinny balloon – of the sort used by strolling clowns – out of his shirt pocket. It was white, which made it all the more evocative when he started stuffing it up his left nostril. Talking all the while. And then he coughed and sputtered, stuck his finger down his throat and pulled the end of the balloon out of his mouth. Holding onto both ends he then proceeded to “floss” his nostril with the white balloon.
The ten-year-old boys went wild!
But there was more. He pulled the balloon all the way through his nose and out his mouth, then he inflated it and twisted it into a little dog, which he handed off to a little girl sitting in the front row.
The ten-year-old boys were delirious! They leapt to their feet in the most heartfelt standing ovation I have ever witnessed.
Now it was my turn to take the stage. I laid out large squares of bright paper on my little table, adjusted the mike and … looked up to see the ten-year-old boys settle down and notice that their beloved magician had been replaced with someone grandmotherly who obviously brought nothing to the stage that made noise or might be construed as boogers. As a body, they rose up and walked out.
So, yes, that day in Baltimore did qualify as a Gig from Hell after all. And I went home thinking, I’ll know better next time. Lesson learned.
Fast forward 3 years.
Yesterday I worked a triple header. In Baltimore. At ArtScape. In a corner of a huge tent where children were making a dozen different kinds of art with a reggae band playing 50 yards away. My first set got off to a ragged start, but it ended well. The second set actually felt pretty solid. And the third set felt like hard work. As grownups wandered through the performance space to claim the kids I had worked so hard to engage, the back of my mind was saying, Next time, I really will know better. For sure, I have learned my lesson.
But on my way out, as I shook hands with the organizer (who was up to her eyeballs in gluesticks, tongue depressors, and felt-tipped markers), I heard my voice say something like, Great event! Keep me in the rotation. I’d love to do it again.
The money’s good. And I don’t foresee a time when I ever won’t really need the work.
(Jack met me in Baltimore, and this morning before we headed our separate ways we spent a few hours at the Visionary Art Museum and brunched at Mr. Rain’s Fun House. On the balcony. Eyeball level with the mother of all whirligigs.)