Instant performance

The 2nd annual St. John’s Busker’s Festival is coming. Elling Lien sat down for a beer with handbalancer Cory Tabino, magician Michael James, and contortionist Mason Dangers to ask the how and the why.

MJ – Michael James
MD – Mason Danger
CT – Cory Tabino

[To CT] How did you learn to busk?
CT: How did I learn? I was broke and I was living in San Francisco on somebody’s couch, and that person’s house just happened to be a busker. I had one-armed handstands, backflips, all these high-level circus skills that I learned from Cirque-du-Soleil, and I went out on the street and tried to do it one day. I got blown out of the water. I didn’t even make 3 dollars.

Really!
CT: Yeah, because if you do something interesting on the street, somebody will just go “Oh that was fun!” and then they’ll walk away. But you have to set it up properly…

[To MJ] And you – magic?
MJ: Magic, fire-eating, and escapology. I was raised in Corner Brook. I started doing magic when I was about seven and did it all my life… No that’s not true, I did it ‘til I hit puberty and then I discovered girls, and then I stopped doing magic.
MD: He discovered real magic.
MJ: True magic. That’s right I did. [laugh] And then again later on in my early twenties I picked magic up again. I moved to Hollywood to study it…

When do you say to yourself, “I want to do this”?
MJ: It was a hobby for years, it was fun to do, and I met a magician – a guy from St. John’s actually, a guy named Bill Jackman – who saw me doing some magic and said “You! You’ve got to start doing this for a living.”  So I started doing it as a part-time thing. I was a radio announcer at the time, and then I got a magician apprenticeship in LA. So I decided I was going to bite the bullet, quit my job and go at it full time.

[To MD] What is your show?
MD: I guess it’s a danger show. I’m a contortionist, so I do contortion bits in my show, and I do things with whips and pushing the human body to its limits.

How did you get into that?

MD: I was in Germany and I saw how well it worked with an audience, so I learned. I learned how to eat fire and I learned how to do some other things with pain, like the bed of nails and stuff with broken glass. I just got into the sideshow thing really hard. Then I discovered that I’m a hyper-flexible person and then I started training for contortion.

How do you find out that you’re a hyper-flexible person?
MD: Accidents. [laugh] …I rolled over on my shoulder and my shoulders just popped out and I could pop them back in. Now I can do it voluntarily and I happens with other parts of my body as well.

Should I ask?
CT [to MD]: …Don’t you pull an audience member on a skateboard by your earlobes?
MD: Yeah. But my show is 90% comedy, 10% thrill, I guess.
CT: Like life. [laugh]

[To CT] What do you do as a busker?
CT: For the finale of my act I lay three audience members on the floor and I light my feet on fire, then I walk over them on my hands. So if I fall on them I burn them to death. It makes the handstand really solid.

[waiting for a laugh] You’re serious? How do you light your feet on fire?
CT: They’re special shoes. They burn me a little bit but they’re not that bad. It’s a fun show.

You’ve all seen buskers perform around the world – Is the outrageousness of the show what makes a show special?
MJ: It’s hard to say, I mean there are lots of acts out there. People doing everything you could imagine and a whole pile of things you couldn’t imagine. Some of it’s outrageous, some of it’s not.

[To MJ] For your act, what kind of magic do you do?
MJ: I mainly do sleight-of-hand magic. But the other elements of my show aren’t magic at all. Fire-breathing is a stunt, and escapes are a science, so I like to mix it all up.

And how did you start busking?
MJ: I was thrown into it. I was working primarily as a stage magician. I was the guy out on the stage in the tuxedo, tails, the white gloves and the doves and stuff and then I got invited to go to the Halifax Busker’s Festival in ’99. So I called as many people as I could and got as many tips and pieces of advice as I could. I took bits and pieces from different shows that I do, combined them into what I thought would work on the street and then I just jumped in head-first. The show was less-than-perfect at first, but you know, after you’ve done it for a little while you pick stuff up from your audience and it makes your show grow.

What are the differences between performing on the street and performing on stage?
MJ: When you’re on stage, you’re performing at your crowd. You’re on stage, there are lights in your eyes, you don’t see the audience. You do your show, they applaud, you leave stage, they leave the theatre. They know what they’re coming to see, they pay their money before they go in, and even if the show sucks they’re still out the 25 bucks. But on the street, you’re down there, you’re on the ground with your audience. You’re not performing at them, you’re acting with them. You have to be able to grab their interest, get them to stop. Then you have to hold their interest, get them to stay. Then you have to make them enjoy what they see so they open their wallet and pay you for a job well-done. It’s a huge challenge. There are a lot of great stage performers out there who would be eaten alive if they were thrown on the street.
MD: [laugh] Most of ‘em!
CT: Hardest job in the world, man.
MD: …Entertaining the unsuspecting public. For everything else, people buy a ticket and then they expect to be impressed.
CT: How many times do people walk out of a movie and demand their money back? But if people don’t like your show on the street, they’ll walk away without dropping a dime.

So why do busking?
MD: It’s real, man. We do real shows. It’s an honest living. You can’t get paid more honest than that.
CT: It’s true.
MJ: Yeah. When’s the last time you went to a show and decided how much that was worth to you? It doesn’t happen anywhere else except in the street.
MD: It only happens there. It’s the ability to pull something out of nothing. Nobody knows what’s really happening in a busking show. They’re just entertained. They don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at the end or… Maybe they can guess. [Gestures to MJ.] He’s got a straightjacket lying around, I’ve got a beartrap… If you’re all physical skill and no people skills, they’re gonna walk. You could shoot flames out your ass, but…
MJ: [laugh] I know a guy who does that.
MD: Tom Comet!
MJ: Tom Comet does that.
MD: Yeah, but if you don’t know how to sell that to the unsuspecting public, then it’s not going to work.

How do you learn how to sell it to them?
MD: You learn by dying.
CT: Crash and burn.
MJ: But when it starts working, it’s great. Instant gratification. I had a friend of mine who was a teacher and when he was in university he used to paint houses. He started teaching but eventually he decided to go back to painting houses. He taught every day and got nothing out of it, but with painting he could see what he accomplished. Same thing with busking – you get out there, you set up your gear, there’s nobody around, you draw a crowd, you do a show, you get the applause, they reward you. There’s your instant gratification. There’s nothing else like it. 

The St. john’s Busker Fest takes place this weekend from Friday to Sunday. Pick up a copy of The Scope for a complete listing.