Gently disturbing the status quo


By Angela Matheson

SYDNEY — Jane Mitchell is an escapologist. She earns her living escaping from a laundry sack tied securely with 15 metres of rope by volunteers.

"To be tied in a dirty smelly laundry sack is hell on earth", she said after wriggling her way to freedom in under 20 seconds. The Circular Quay audience is impressed and shuffles forward to drop coins into the proffered flying cap.

Mitchell is one of the street performers who organise continuous entertainment on Circular Quay each weekend. On any given day audiences are entertained by comedians, slow motion artists, actors and fire eaters.

"Performers get together to share a pitch and coordinate the events for the day", says Mitchell. "If there aren't many people we'll only put on one show at a time. It's important to keep the crowd's energy concentrated."

Performers find it hard to get Sydney audiences to participate. "People are scared," says David Lehmann, a slow motion artist from London. "They want to become involved, but they are insecure and alienated. Becoming involved means becoming visible and active."

Mitchell agrees. "We're always working our butts off to get the crowd in closer. When everyone straggles 50 metres away instead of forming a nice tight circle, the group energy dissipates. But when everyone's close, the excitement becomes infectious."

Street performers insist that no other job would do. "It's freedom, and I love doing it", says Richard Beeb, an acrobat from Cork. "No-one dictates to me. I do what I like and the crowd enjoys it."

Jean Francois Verdot, a diabolo thrower from Paris, says "Performance is like a drug. I used to sell cheese in a market. I wanted to kill myself. Voila! Now I throw diabolo."

Lehmann is motivated to perform to add beauty to alienated cityscapes, he says. "I look at newspapers and TV and listen to people. It's all pain, misery and suffering. What I do is create something beautiful and still through slow motion movement. The audience response is brilliant every time."

Street performers cast themselves in the role of community therapists. They believe street theatre allows the public to open up. "You always get high concentrations of street performers in cities where stress levels are very high", says Mitchell. "People may not know it, but they're attracted to performance because it allows them to have a good time and feel part of a community."

Beeb adds, "It's also a great equaliser. Everyone, rich and poor, can come to see us. You can get away with paying 50 cents — street performance is available to all." The rate of payment from audiences is a bone of contention for most artists. Sydney crowds, they claim, are "tight". Sterling Hayden, who has performed juggling and acrobatics all over the UK and Ireland, believes Australians give far less than their European counterparts. "It averages out at about 10 cents per person", he said.

Lehmann puts the low payment down to fear. "It's the old problem", he said. "People don't put their hand into their pocket because they're scared. They want to give, but coming forward with money means they have to be visible."

Sydney street theatre is strictly controlled by city councils. Performance is banned in the Pitt Street Mall, and amplified music is not allowed without an expensive special licence. "We're told the shopkeepers find us too noisy but I don't believe that", says Mitchell. "The Pitt Street mall would be perfect — great for performers and great for all those jaundiced workers at lunch."

Lehmann says, "I am not sure what the motivation to control streettheatre is, but I guess it's because we're activists. We disturb the status quo."