Story by Angela Matheson
Photo by Lisa Iley
SYDNEY — Street performers at Circular Quay are downing unicycles and banding together to protest against the threatened banning of busking.
Shopkeepers annoyed by large crowds gathering at performances have complained to the police and City Council, and buskers have been warned they may be closed down. "It's ridiculous", says Victor Surkuy, a player with a Bolivian folk band. "Hundreds of people enjoy our music every weekend, and yet one or two shopkeepers don't like us being here and we can be banned. What is the purpose of the quay? Is it for the public or is it for business?"
For certain shopkeepers, the answer is clear, "The performers are nothing but a nuisance who make noise and cause a mess", says Kevin Pearson, a florist. "They obstruct the doorway and no-one can get into my shop. It's bad for trade." Shopkeepers complain regularly to the City Council and intend to increase efforts to bring "order" to the quay.
Alex Kuzeliki is an acrobat and circus performer. He is a major draw card at the quay, attracting crowds of up to 400 people. Audiences stand up to five deep on tiptoe to catch his act. Kids love him and vie to be taught how to do a back flip.
Alex has been shut down by council officers on a number of occasions after complaints from shopkeepers. "I don't understand it", he says. "We draw crowds to the area. It must be good for trade. What would the quay be without buskers? It would lose a lot of its life."
By law, busking at Circular Quay is illegal. The area was gazetted a reserve by the state government in 1989, and the statute prohibits performance. The quay area is under the trusteeship of the City Council, which has revamped it and turned it into a major tourist attraction.
The council has chosen to turn a blind eye to street performance. "The council doesn't want to be a killjoy", says Judy O'Connor, public relations officer for the City Council. "In spirit we have no objection. In fact, we think performers enhance the quay, and we keep a low profile."
But council benevolence comes into conflict with obligations to protect ratepayers. When shopkeepers complain, ordinance officers are sent in and performers are moved on.
If street performance is so popular, why is it illegal? "I don't know", says Judy O'Connor. "A lot of the rules came over with the First Fleet and haven't been changed."
The NSW minister for the arts, Peter Collins, doesn't know either. "As far as we're concerned, street performance can only be a good thing for Sydney", says Collins' press secretary. "It's beyond me", says Bronte Morris, industrial organiser for Actors Equity. "I know it's necessary to have fire controls and to keep tabs on noise levels, but is Circular Quay likely to be burnt down?"
Buskers are organising a public petition to protest against the closure of street theatre. Jane Mitchell, an escape artist, is working to have a referee appointed who will arbitrate differences between shopkeepers, performers and the council. "Performers deserve a better deal", she says. "They give so much and cost the government nothing."
The performers face a lengthy legal process. Street performers are a group unlikely to meet the rigorous demands of such a process. Bronte Morris says, "Buskers are powerless. No-one takes responsibility for them. They are not covered by an award, and there's no employer. They move about the country working, so the logistics of organising as a group for an extended period are difficult."
Dr Tony Mitchell, lecturer in Performance Studies at the University of Technology, is a strong advocate of busking as an artistic form. "It's diverse, colourful, multicultural, contemporary and a great way of training to be a performer", he says. Bronte Morris adds, "Mainstream theatre costs a fortune, but busking is free and often the performers are very skilful".
Some see the rules and regulations surrounding busking as indicative of a deep authoritarian streak within Australian culture. "In an economy like this, it's business first and art later", says Victor Surkuy.
Dr Tony Mitchell argues, "It's the old killjoy mentality — thou shalt not frolic. Buskers expose the cultural underbelly of a country, and it is a sight authority does not want to see. Buskers do things on the cheap and expose alternative points of view. It's an anarchic form of performance."
Bronte Morris argues that buskers will pay a high price if Circular Quay is closed to them. "It's hard times for entertainers, and busking is valuable bread and butter earnings for performers who can't get work elsewhere. If the quay goes, then not only is there a loss of employment but also a loss of an important cultural focus point."