Alexander: Kings and Peasants

London is a prohibitively expensive place – I knew that before I moved here but didn’t realise to what extent that would affect me. It means I’m in a scenario where I’m unsure how I can fund surviving, let alone extras like shows. Even travel is expensive, and if I can’t get to gigs, I can’t perform.

On the bright side, I’m not jetlagged.

Moving to London has been a long time coming. There’s so much here to see and do; opportunities to perform. Show seasons here last for three months, not two weeks like in New Zealand.
I nearly said back home, but that would be to admit that New Zealand is the place where I belong. Which option is better when choosing between the place where people know and love you (you hope, anyway), and where you can realistically follow your dream? At this stage, I’ve picked the latter – it’s important to take a gamble while the chance is there. No one will be surprised though if the findings eventually change though. Careers are important, but so are people.

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I’m in a four bed hostel room about the size of my room in New Zealand. Instead of going up in the world, I’ve gone down (spacewise) by 75%. I have no record player or books; just a pen, paper, and computer. So far it’s been focusing on writing by hand, then transferring it electronically when I have the time. Getting out the events of the day, excitement, despair (not yet) out of my system is nice.

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The word nice doesn’t mean anything. The problem is few other words get across the simplicity of good feeling in the same way. It’s not a heavily layered positive feeling; just free floating and pleasant. Just nice.

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Street shows are the ultimate test for a performer because all the conventional barriers stopping audiences from leaving (that also almost force them to make an effort to enjoy themselves) are not there. Price of admission, allocated seating, a room of people to disrupt, a quiet space . . . none of those exist. With a positive outlook, they are restrictions that are lifted. Boundaries for the audience are not there, so they are also lacking for the street performer.
They can do what they want.
Think about how liberating that is. If someone heckles, or interrupts in any way, the retort does not need to be said through a mic. If someone walks through the show, or is talking during it, or in any other way affecting what is going on, the mic is not the only source of reply. Repartee is not necessarily needed. You can get right into peoples’ faces, you can impersonate them, or take the piss, make a fool of them. If done with the right amount of wit, you can win them over and make a friend. The options are yours.

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I was talking to one guy after his show while another set up and started their own. I turned around in time to watch the new guy, and a crowd was lined up, row after row, from one end of the square to the other. By just being in the right place and having an interesting look, one man was able to stop a market place of people. Being behind him looking towards the crowd made it feel like I was onstage, and to see that amount of people gathered in public to watch must be the best feeling. For the 15 minutes he entertained the crowd, he was a king.

I watched another man crushed today as his show failed to impress, or even to attract, a crowd. The previous performer had hundreds of people watching him; this one had a crowd of tens. Maybe 25 in all (which, for Covent Garden, is atrocious). The crowd was either unimpressed or shy. I’m leaning towards the latter because while I wanted this guy to succeed, I also felt hesitant to be the only one loudly clapping or cheering. My lack of strong response contributed to his failure, but if he couldn’t attract a crowd, perhaps he shouldn’t have been performing in one of the best attended street performance spots in the UK.
He’d waited all day for the spot, and after the fifth trick failed to get a response, he gave up. Before he packed up though, he said something I’ll never forget: “I’m not doing this. I’m proud of this show. I’m proud of my show.” And he left.

His belief in the show, despite how badly it was going, impressed me. Rather than carrying on hopelessly, he maintained his dignity by taking a step back and saying he deserved better than the response he was getting. Whether the move he made was the right one or not, I can’t decide. He should be able to win back the crowd – but I should be able to sell out tours, and you should be a CEO, and our parents should have massive retirement funds. We have to come to terms with fact that we are not perfect. We have little right to step on those who are trying – and not always succeeding – to achieve their goals.

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People think stand up is scary; doing it well is hard, but it isn’t scary. Scary is having no safety net, no opportunities to guide the audience’s expectations; trying to hold people through the appeal of your act. Having to literally stop people in the street and reel them in, make them stare, and then pay for the privilege of watching you. I think that is scary. That is a true skill, and one I’m looking at developing – potentially another asset to my shows with de Sade. Why not take every opportunity to improve the work I’m already doing, even if it puts me out of my comfort zone? The same question applies to you. Consider what you want and where you’re currently headed, change track if the one you’re on is leading in the wrong direction.

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I saw a king and a peasant perform today – or that’s how it appeared to me. Everyone wants to be at the top, but the chance of hitting the bottom is there no matter how much we want to ignore it. Maybe we just need to keep looking up.

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