Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fringe buskers 'working twice as hard for half the money'

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The priority for organizers of this summer's Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival was simple: keep the indoor ticket sales steadily increasing while whipping up much larger crowds for buskers in Old Market Square.

The latter hasn't happened and out-of-town street performers have endured what they call a trying week.

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"I don't think any of us have done well enough to justify coming back, says Eden, a Vancouver street entertainer. "There has been a solidarity in misery among the performers."

"I never say never but at this moment I'd be surprised if I came back," says Rob Firenix, a New Zealand resident renowned for his Comedy Circus Fireshow. "On any Saturday night I'd be expecting to make four times what I was making last weekend."

Indoor attendance is on another record pace -- 85,000-87,000 seems doable. In 2009 the fest crashed through the 8,000 tickets mark for the first time. This year it has exceeded the mark four times already. That's brought smiles to most indoor performers but not if you are entertaining under the sun and stars.

The buskers who depend on passing the hat to make their living have lamented the small audiences, the reluctant spectators and the not always generous patrons. Firenix has been to fringe festivals all over the world from Edinburgh to Adelaide and notices in Winnipeg the lack of tourists up for spending their money and having fun.

More worrisome, he says, is the public reaction to fringers who have had the run the gauntlet of panhandlers, drunks and drug-sellers to get to the square.

"There are so many of them that when we ask people for money after our shows we get lumped into the category of a beggar," says Firenix, 36, originally from England. "As a consequence there is a reluctance for people to engage us which so important for our art form. It's a two-way experience."

Anyone who has sat down to watch a street performer over the last week will know of their incessant appeal to come closer to the action near the stage of The Cube. Too many fringers are camped on the cement walls surrounding the infield and are reluctant to move, some due to the fear of being picked out and made to participate in the show.

The situation has been frustrating for the buskers and some of them have reacted with what one viewer Kevin Wolk, said was a rant about their tough working conditions. He complained about the terrible outdoor set-up and absence of crowds.

"I felt embarrassed and bad about what he had to say so I went and talked to him after the shows," says Wolk, a proud fringe-goer. "He said in Edmonton he can take in up to $1,000 a show where here he'll only make enough money to get back to Vancouver.

Firenix reacted to the poor crowds by conducting a workshop on street performances as part of his show and educate Winnipeggers about the interactive art form. Usually his act involves 15 minutes of audience-building and 30 minutes of performance. In Winnipeg, he is spending 45 minutes gathering on-lookers.

"I'm working twice as hard for half the money," he says.

Fest executive producer Chuck McEwen says he doesn't expect outdoor attendance to grow much. Rain has caused a soggy infield on the square and a general unwillingness to sit anywhere but on the surrounding wall.

McEwen recognizes that these artists need financial help.

"We need to increase our budget and give these artists more of an incentive to come, providing them with airfare or a per diem so their basics are covered," he says. "If we had an extra $15,000-$20,000 we could bring in a half dozen professional street performers."

 

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2010 C10

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