Windsor International Buskers Fest, Windsor, ON
Never has so much love, indifference and sweat been invested in a car park.
Ken sets it up, his wife Patty's role is to help him avoid a mental breakdown and this year Robert Nelson's wife Kumi stepped efficiently and unasked into the role of onsite programmer.
It's really hard to vent your spleen at a diminutive non-paid Asian whose day-job involves serving you coffee at altitude without poaching your genitals.
And really there was nothing to complain about. Same couldn't be said for various staff members of various service establishments at various times. We left ashen faced chambermaids, simmering bouncers and fragile front-of-house staff in our wake, but we traditionally tip heavily and apologize profusely so it all worked out in the end.
Ken had to stand outside some offices like a naughty schoolboy forging doctors notes that explained which of us suffered from Tourette’s.
And that's because we're all highly strung individuals, so creative, so generous with our gift of producing laughter in others that we sometimes digress from society's norms. It has to be understood that this is just a natural side-effect of our genius and what’s more, to be honest, we're really not much good for anything else.
Ken understands this.
Here are some cast.
Alakazam's subtext and chosen quest relates to physically manifesting an arcane sexual statistic. It is said that one ejaculation contains enough sperm to impregnate every female on the planet. Al's chosen hobby is to do the same thing the long way. Obviously that's a great many people. If any woman reading wants to bump her name up on the list and get seen in the next ten to twenty years rather than later on when he's all wrinkly and jaded, I've heard he sells priority sessions on e-bay. Al's act involves juggling, microbike riding, pole balancing and being a cheeky young scamp that woman of all ages want to sleep with.
Checkerboard Guy is this guy. And the checkerboard thing is like a marketing ploy that grew like a particularly vicious virus until it devoured him whole. He has a great big cuddly juggling show that he can perform in fifteen languages as well as seven obscure Afghan dialects.
Reid Belstock is a clown who has a rare gift of being as funny as himself as he is in character. He's a hilarious mass of contradictions too large to list here. He's the sort of person who, at a meeting, you just focus on the wall and wait for him to ask a question so that you can be entertained by the way his brain works.
Dado looks like Zippy the Pinhead and sounds approximately Irish and spends his career attracting rainfall. Probably a really sad person to be but a really funny guy to watch.
Davio is French Canadian, and if that weren't strange enough he speaks passable English and balances on women's bottoms before climbing a pole and striking impossible poses that last for ten seconds and take years to master. Sometimes whimsy frightens me.
Hotnuts and Popcorn: Slick, sick and pass the shtick. Barely clinging to their sanity, every risk dynamic conquered, the only challenges left being general social norms and in-jokes. If they don't get rescued and taken off the street soon they'll either marry and breed or join the foreign legion. Pulled off a three peaker ninety-minute late night show masterfully so there's still gas in the tank.
Stickleback Plasticus. Peewee and Em deftly use ironic manic enthusiasm as a comic device and are one of the few acts that are funny every-time you watch them. Bear in mind that as performers we get to watch -if we want to- acts as many times as we wish, and that over time, very few acts cannot be digested as formula. Formula aside, no one deals with energy levels like Stickleback. The Don Kings of ballroom dancing plus all the spontaneity and guile of street theater purists.
The Cowguys: Brian and John have a sort of bovine burlesque that involves juggling and the sort of hideous puns that really should only be used in wartime. They have classical training and it's like Shakespeare and Bozo were put into a meat shredder and they've made sausages out of it.
Chalkcircle: Bev and Ulla are two Australian woman who sit in the blazing sun scratching the surface of the planet with coloured sticks. Patterns form and then they leave. I've never understood Australians.
Anti-Gravity Theater... What can I say? A cynical panto-sham with a drinking problem. The only redeeming fact being I don't have an ounce of self-pity in me.
Nick Nickolas is one of those freaks of nature science is still struggling to understand. When small organisms were discovered living in unbelievably hot volcanic flues deep in the ocean, scientists actually called them 'nickyboys' until they were forced to change it to something suitably Latin. Nick has been credited with many things and discredited about twice that often. He is the reason for childproof caps and also for Mormons' special underwear. He is a magician and juggler and a sophisticated urbane raconteur. Even so it is advised that even if he asks you nicely, don't pull his finger.
Marie Claude is a face/body painter whose work and its quality carries her from major festival to major festival. She unleashes animals from the faces of small children and then sets them free. And that's apparently a good thing.
Mad Chad Taylor should be an ambassador for real Californians because he is in fact very real. It's a bit of a shock really—enthusiastic chainsaw juggling, genuine, upbeat, thoughtful. Freaked me out when I first met him. He's the kind of guy who can go to a strip club and it doesn't seem dirty. He's what Alakazam could be with the right dosage of saltpeter.
Lee Zimmerman is the other sort of Californian... sort of Randy Newman, rock and roll show with puppets; deadpan, ironic, self taught, highly skilled and witheringly articulate. Had this great monologue about being the bottom feeder of the festival, with the elevated jugglers being the sharks at the top of the food-chain and him being the only performer who really was risking his life rather than it just being a line because if he went home with no money his wife would kill him.
A challenge known well in advance that's unique to this festival is that it, more than any other Canadian festival, (with Halifax coming a distant second) is a tourist draw as much as it is an opportunity for a community to celebrate itself. It's Windsor and it's just over the river from Detroit. Every weekend, American tourists pop over in large numbers to exploit the slightly cheaper goods and services of their northern mini-me in a sort of 'living beyond, but within our means' sort of 'more bang for your buck' sort of a way.
And before I'm deafened by foaming reactionary flacks, convinced in their own tediously facile way that I am anti-American, I can admit that Windsor depends on it. It's just another example of the dynamic of a border town.
Copenhagen has the same thing with hordes of Swedes arriving every weekend to drink a cheaper kind of beer and have sex with a slightly different kind of blonde.
Now at this festival, which, in my opinion, is a two-and-a-half day fest held over four, the Mayor steps up to the mic and in his immaculately kept, politically astute and faultlessly jovial way, opens it and thanks the sponsors without whom none of this would be possible and to whom we're all exceedingly and sincerely grateful. (Sung to the tune of 'We are the world, we are the sponsors')
He really was remarkable. All the performers were crying and the sponsors and spectators alike were rushing up and hugging one another. One elderly woman was so touched she there and then donated all her worldly goods to nobody in particular and walked naked into the river.
Bear with me, I have a disturbing habit of coming to the point when you least expect it. My point—such as it is—is that the Windsor fest is as much about getting Americans over the bridge to open their wallets at bars and casinos as it is to reward the local townsfolk with a festival that brings them together to celebrate both their diversity and ours. It tries gamely to do both and I think succeeds to a degree at both. For example, it is sponsored by both the Casino (tourists) and a mental health organization (locals.) Lots of others as well but those two sum it up for me.
At the majority of festivals, even though there might be significant numbers of tourists, the performers are generally aware that they are bringing something to the community and that that is their prime function. While at Windsor (though good hats are made and undeniably good times are had) there are times when after strenuous efforts and much laughter, a show ends and at least two thirds of an audience turn their backs and insensitively head off to the next piece of free entertainment. Why? Because they're tourists who owe Windsor nothing more than making their money last as long as it can before they head home.
There was one world-class performer who held it in for an hour or more until safely away from the site before slowly subsiding into tears and as some of you will understand, it had nothing to do with the money. Just tired and spent and undervalued and used.
Ken's great; and more than a producer. And it's necessary that Robert's (butterflyman) there and the locals who turn up year after year as volunteers to support it and others who bring the whole family to laugh and cheer and celebrate are the reason most of us attend. But just because we're romantic doesn't mean we're stupid and the tourist showcase thing just might have to be addressed. (At this point My name gets scratched from every festival casting list in North America because it equally can be argued that the performers make as much as they do anywhere else or else they wouldn't be there.)
Oh, but the moments make it all worthwhile, and really that's our strength. We can take tired old formulas and create beautiful original irrepressible moments. I'll just list one or two.
Moment Pee Wee and Em were starting their show with a couple of hundred people gathered in the daytime, just mucking about creating atmosphere, character and focus when Em notices three children in the crowd, seated and staring intently at the ground. So she makes her way over and asks in a stage whisper
"What are you doing?" The children, serious as only children can be, point to three bugs on the ground and state,
"They're not moving." Em considers this and then asks,
"Are they dead then, do you think?" The kids nod solemnly. After another brilliant pause, Em asks,
"Shall we bury them, then?" They nod. So Em picks up the dead bugs and the kids follow and they walk through the stage and up onto the grass bank behind the stage and they dig a small hole and bury the bugs with all the respect accorded the moment and then walk back down and the kids sit down. The moment is over and the build-up continues.
Moment The festival is over; canceled early by a sudden downpour. Performers have been milling on the covered stage waiting for Robert's decision...on or off; now it's off. There's another tent in which 100 or so public have sheltered hopefully. Nick can't help himself. He cobbles a show together in his head that is not the show he's been doing all season, just bits and pieces he remembers along with whatever props are at hand, and wanders over. He asks everyone whether they want a show and of course they do, although they don't completely trust him at first because he's a bit loose and weird and he's standing on a table that's not too stable. It doesn't take long and it's all ripping along and even though the first two thirds of the show was uphill, we're over the hump and Nick's juggling three balls while trying to strip from the waist up and finally he's done it. His slightly less than pristine body is exposed all sweaty with seismic cutaneous waves sweeping across what years ago might have been a tight form. He's juggling and exclaims, "Ladies and gentlemen, the body of a god." and I swear the kid was all of seven years old and quick as a flash he yells, "Yeah, Buddha."
Moment John from the Cowguys is handicapped by the fact that he's such a nice guy and such a good sport and just by existing in our midst reinforces all that is cruel and unfair and hilarious. He comes up to the busker's area from the public area of the bar and brings with him his dinner and a pint and sits at a table with Pee Wee (judge), Lee (jury) and Nick (executioner.)
One of them addresses him while he's eating and as he casts his eyes back to his meal he notices his beer is missing and Nick's suddenly right across the room with a half-heartedly innocent look on his face and a suspicious pint in his hands. John laughs good-naturedly then makes a critical error. He says,
"You won't misdirect me again." Nick returns and replaces the beer, but then in a rapidly moving, spontaneously planned and coordinated series of events, John, with his arms protectively across his plate, manages to have the contents of his dinner disappear, item by item (I think it was steak, vegetables, mashed potatoes but it really doesn't matter) from underneath his eyes while 'never being misdirected again.' He's befuddled, sitting there with an empty plate while Nick, Pee Wee and Lee weep with laughter when the unthinkable happens; food starts re-appearing on his plate. The humour at this point strayed dangerously close to potential aneurysm and John finally started to get a bit pissed off as he realised that Nick had actually grabbed his nicely prepared steak off his plate, in the millisecond he wasn't focused on it, with his grubby little fingers.
It may have its downsides, but what we do to the public and what we do to each other and the skill and laughter that go with it are reason enough to meet up regularly and Canada really does lead the way in this area.
If I've offended anyone, sorry. If I haven't offended anyone, sorry. Thanks for the moments.