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Scared Money Never Wins

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Jun. 17th, 2012 | 09:45 pm

Every gig has a schedule.

In Dublin, walk to the pitch around noon, warm up, throw down three scheduled shows hour-on-hour-off.

In Edmonton, 11AM draw for two show times, sometimes three, plan our day from there, Facebook the schedule to our fan list. 

London is different.

You only get one show a day.

Because Covent Garden has only one pitch. Technically, there are two performance areas, but the indoor pitch is too hot unless it’s raining and you have to sign up two weeks in advance or else put your name on the freebie list—if another act is a no-show five minutes into their time, you can go on, any disputes to be settled by the freebie list written on the back of that receipt stuck up in a crack in the wall.

You only get one show a day.

And at 8AM every morning the performers slouch in, paper coffee cups in hand, for The Draw.

Sham (big shoes, giant unicycle),
Shandy (pop and lock dancing),
Ossie (handstand walk over a line of people),
Sam from Australia (sword swallow on giant ladder)
Sam from New Zealand (knife juggle on giant rolla-bolla).

Everyone’s name written by a number, the paper scraps picked from a hat, write your name by the time you want. The time we want is 4:40PM, which means a 6PM show since by that time of day Dr. Phil (slack rope), Sam from New Zealand, and someone else will have run over and the pitch is running behind. We’re not picky – 5:20 will also do.

The time everyone else wants is 2PM. We’ve discovered we are not an afternoon act. We don’t fight hard enough for our crowd, we don’t hector them into staying, bully them into giving, and yes it sounds like we are all virtuous and thee-AH-tri-cal, but what we mostly are is unsuccessful.

That is, we make about the same money as everyone else and have the same size crowds and don’t end up canceling shows after the first horrible twelve minutes when No-One Stops To Watch or even after the first twenty promising minutes when No-One Will Be A Volunteer.  (In ten days we see five acts—mostly good, experienced acts—bail on shows. The first day, the pitch is running an hour late but our show suddenly happens on time when a sweet girl juggler walks off the pitch unable to get a volunteer.)

We are not used to doing as well as everyone else. We are used to doing better, to being the biggest act around, hi-five-hi-five-lo-five-lo-five, Queens of the Festival, pour the money out like rustling water.

Here we learn a lot.

Like, half the crowd does not speak English. The other half is English, and no, they Do Not Want to Play, thank you very much. Spike and I need three men to foot the trapeze rig while we set it up. The first day, seven men I ask to assist turn me down stone cold. I’m back in tenth grade and not going to the Spring Fling.

Like, don’t apologize for being American. In Canada, it’s a moment of irony and shared cultural understanding. Here, the Brits don’t care, the Americans get offended because they’re as homesick as we are (we’re pretending the dollar is equal to the pound, otherwise it’s too painful to buy anything), and the Europeans don’t understand.

Like, don’t do two aerial acts in one show—at festivals, hoop brings the audience at the beginning and they stay through silks at the end of the show. At Covent Garden, once they’ve seen an aerial act they’re ready to go, we know what that big tripod does now and shouldn’t we go get in line at Madame Tussaud’s?

Like, transitions are the key—the next act has to start before the audience realizes the previous act is done. Like, don’t go out to the audience for the hat pass (it’s a Renaissance Festival thing to haul ass to the back of the audience Before They Get Away) because it lowers your status, makes you a beggar. Stand in the middle. Let them come to you. Then haul ass to the three bar balconies (you remembered to talk to the balconies in the show, right?) and hat the post-work drinkers while the other performers take down your rig.

Like, HOLY CRAP THE OTHER PERFORMERS ARE TAKING DOWN OUR RIG. Because at festivals, you Do Not Touch Other People’s Gear. But here—while the act before you is finishing their hat pass, you take down their stuff and move it—with the help of whoever else is waiting for a turn—so that the next act can get out there and Maybe We Can Get The Pitch Back on Time.

Like, that guy who juggles five, casually, almost without thinking, will probably not show up for his 6PM show. We watch him practice in the churchyard in the afternoon, the red balls catching our eyes as we kill the ten hours between The Draw and our show. He handles the balls calmly and quickly, without the desperate air of the guys who are really pushing it to just get them around once for a ‘flash’, confident, solid (he can also flash five clubs on a giant unicycle, astonishing even other jugglers), the years of training and performance visible in every sure catch for this, his only act of the day. Around mid-day, the substances he shoots and snorts and pops will claim him, and we will be able to relax a little and run our show ten minutes longer.


I would trade him the 10 minutes.


Mostly, we learn what works. There’s a reason all big unicycle shows look alike. There’s a reason everyone talks up the big tall finale and stalls for ten minutes before the last trick. There’s a reason there’s a bonus trick after the finale.

And we change our show to make it more like everyone else’s. To make it work.

Second-last day. Bach floating from the musicians’ pitch in the South Hall, ticket touts shouting and waving for Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Lion King. There’s a magician on the corner and another waiting his turn for the magician’s pitch. Our transitions are tight, our hat is high status, we use non-Brits to set up the rig and as show volunteers. As we go into silks for the finale (now the only aerial act) it starts to rain. We tell the crowd, open your umbrellas, go under the awnings, we’re at the finale. And they shift, but they stay. They stay, and they give. And afterwards Sparky Mark (juggles chainsaw wearing gold Speedo) and Dr. Phil congratulate us on holding the crowd, keeping them despite the rain.

Monday, it’s still raining, and we sign up for our 5:20 and for a 5:40 on the indoor freebie list. We’ll take whatever’s workable. We dump last night’s hat into Sid’s tray at the Money Exchange and he sells us dollars better than his best rate to get rid of them, to be nice to us, the daily girls. After Sparky Mark treats us to tea at the British Museum, our one tourist experience, (finger sandwiches, little cakes, pots of roobois tea because this is the modern London) we get nailed by a downpour and stagger over to the pitch, ducking and running from pub doorway to pub doorway like the opening credits of M*A*S*H. Technically, we are about to miss our spot, but Alex (giant unicycle) is ready to go and trades times with us. Our circus performer friends from Germany and IT friends from outside London and public space architect friend from inside London have come to see us, and we relax.

We are done with making the show all things to all venues.

We are done with changing our style every day to try to make the most money.

We do the acts we like the best, the acts we want our friends to see. And it is grace and illumination under the rainy glass roof, it is a crowd that stays and grows and stays and (because all the beautiful poetry in the world Doesn’t Pay The Rent) gives.


A short video of Covent Garden Street Performers, including clips from whipchick's act and most of the other performers named above, is here.

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Comments {25}

imafarmgirl

(no subject)

from: imafarmgirl
date: Jun. 18th, 2012 01:37 pm (UTC)
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I loved this entry. Your words seem hurried when the time is a rush and that just makes it more real.

How many people do you travel with to do your shows?

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

We normally travel in a group of three. Sometimes four or five, if the gig is big enough, sometimes only two. Three is just right - enough people to carry things and then the other two people can hang out with each other when I don't feel like being friendly!

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(no subject)

from: genesisdesire
date: Jun. 18th, 2012 07:43 pm (UTC)
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This struck me so hard. I'm doing that weird crying-smiling thing. Thinking of London makes me ache, thinking of the buskers makes me grin. I love love love your life. Thank you.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
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I miss London, too :) I'm glad the piece worked for you! Thank you and you're welcome :)

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Jun. 18th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC)
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Love this!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
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Thank you! Thanks again for the very helpful feedback!!

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notodette

(no subject)

from: notodette
date: Jun. 20th, 2012 01:21 pm (UTC)
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Beautifully described from the inside out.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

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basric

(no subject)

from: basric
date: Jun. 20th, 2012 11:07 pm (UTC)
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I love the cadence of this piece, well done.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
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Thank you! I'm glad you noticed that, I was trying for a certain rhythm :)

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m_malcontent

(no subject)

from: m_malcontent
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 03:48 am (UTC)
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Really captures the flavor, enjoyed the video as well.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

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C.S. Inkheart

(no subject)

from: frecklestars
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
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I think that's the best way of performing: do the acts your friends want to see. And those are the acts I inevitably love best. Because I don't give a crap if the performer can do the big-ticket wow tricks. I want to see what's in their heart. <3

OH and HOLYSHIT I've never seen a slack drop done on a portable rig. That looks _terrifying_!

Edited at 2012-06-21 04:48 am (UTC)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
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Agreed - sometimes my problem with Cirque is that the acts are stunning but cold.

It's not too bad on the portable - you just have to allow an extra few inches for bounce, and the rebound is actually a bit like a bungee, so it's not as hard on the body. I did once slack-drop while rigged on a rope between two pick points, and the bounce left me with bark chips in my hair! Never again will I cut it that close :)

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Jemima Pauler

(no subject)

from: jem0000000
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 08:40 am (UTC)
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Very well-written. :)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

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Jemima Pauler

(no subject)

from: jem0000000
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 08:17 am (UTC)
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You're welcome! :)

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m strobel

(no subject)

from: mstrobel
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 09:22 am (UTC)
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Oh man, I loved reading (and experiencing) this too!

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
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Thank you!

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alycewilson

(no subject)

from: alycewilson
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
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Having been to Covent Garden more than 12 years ago, this was fascinating. Loved the video.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
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Awesome! I can't wait to go back, as hard as it was to get into the groove. Thank you :)

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Ellakite

(no subject)

from: ellakite
date: Jun. 21st, 2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
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Great fun. Great stuff. You already knew that, but still...

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 04:34 am (UTC)
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Thank you - and your feedback was so very helpful, I really appreciate it!

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The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

(no subject)

from: halfshellvenus
date: Jun. 22nd, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
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And we change our show to make it more like everyone else’s. To make it work.
This is such a concise use of the prompt. This story works really well for it, because you need to connect with the audience to make your money, and if it's not going well (and continued not well!) you start to panic and second-guess everything. You'll revise and revise yourselves until you no longer remember who you are.

And with that, lose your polish and grace in exchange.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 24th, 2012 12:51 am (UTC)
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You are so right on - I want to go back and work there again, but it made us "hard" last time around and I want to see if we can avoid that! It's tough to find the way to be true to your own aesthetic and still make money.

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