Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Busking offers rejection and rewards

Jake West, a busker who performs with a duo called Both Sides of the Coin Circus, is also appearing this summer on stage with the Canadian Pacific Ballet in Victoria.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 19, 2011


In high school, Jake West was a wisecracking, troublemaking smart-aleck, the hyperkinetic guy who’d do anything — anything — to make the other kids laugh.

In Grade 8, he mimicked a French teacher by leaving his desk to imitating her every move. His classmates howled.

“Who doesn’t like the class clown?” he asked.

Well, Grade 8 French teachers, probably. Principals, for sure. Some goody two-shoes classmates.

“Man, I got in tons of troubles. Tons of trouble! But I couldn’t help it. It’s what I was destined for.”

What once got him sent to the office now gets him showered in coin. Mr. West, 36, is a circus artist who has spent years working the streets as well as stages. He joins colleague Chris Murdoch in an act called Both Sides of the Coin Circus, one of the acts performing during the inaugural Victoria International Buskers Festival being held this week.

As it turns out, Mr. West skipped the opening days of the street festival as he had earned an audition in Toronto with the Cirque du Soleil. Imagine. You are a street performer whose city is playing host to a festival of street performers and you have to be out of town because you’re trying to gain a spot with the greatest show on earth.
Jake West

The Cirque’s tryouts are not for the fainthearted. Mr. West and 29 other aspirants had just two minutes — 120 seconds — to show off what they had learned in a lifetime of making others laugh.

“It’s scary, man,” Mr. West said the night before the audition. “My knees are shaking.”

Good news or bad, he need to fly home immediately afterwards to perform Sunday in three shows on the grey, cold and misty summer streets of Victoria.

The buskers festival, which runs until July 24, features clowns and comics and jugglers and magicians and a one-man band (Victoria’s own Dave Harris) and a choreographed pyromaniacal show and whip-cracking, flame-eating acrobats and Bendy Em, who performs “comic contortions of epic proportions” by squeezing herself into a 16-inch box.

The show by Messrs. West and Murdoch includes clowning and contact juggling, which involves manipulating a crystal ball by rolling it along the body.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays this summer, Mr. West can be seen on stage performing contact juggling alongside dancers of the Canadian Pacific Ballet in shows at Market Square in Victoria.

The performer moved to Victoria a year ago after a stint as a teacher in Japan. Born in Quebec, he is the son of a secretary and a psychiatry professor. The class clowning led to his dropping out of high school, but he later earned a degree in East Asian studies.

While the 36-year-old entertainer prefers to do corporate work these days, he acknowledges Victoria’s Inner Harbour Causeway as a busker’s paradise.

“Tons of tourists with nothing to do. All the time in the world.”

The city issues about 400 buskers licences, while the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority regulates entertainers on the Causeway. Amplification is banned. Bagpipers, whose skills are perhaps best appreciated on Robbie Burns Day or when staring down the Hun across No Man’s Land, are restricted to one street corner.

When a hooligan recently assaulted the busker known as Darth Fiddler, a violinist who wears a Star Wars costume, the police issued alerts on Twitter and released surveillance video of a suspect fleeing. A local music store replaced the busker’s damaged instrument.

Drunks, hoodlums and indifferent passersby are occupational hazards in a craft in which the attractions might not seem so readily apparent.

“Being a busker is so personal,” Mr. West said. “It’s so intimate. It’s Boom! right in your face. There’s no lights, there’s no stage, there’s no fourth wall. You can interact with the audience so easily. It’s so in the moment.”

The audience’s verdict can also be disheartening. A busker faces more rejection in a day than a salesman might in a lifetime.

At the Cirque audition, Mr. West did not survive the first round of cuts. The talent scout told him he was “holding too much tension,” an assessment about which he could not disagree.

Afterwards, he realized he had never auditioned before. He will be trying again.

BOOK ’EM: Tall Tale Books, the mom-and-pop operation seeking 400 supporters pledged to buying books every month, ended their campaign on Canada Day short of the goal. A late surge brought the total to 318. After consideration, Kate and Drew Lorimer will be keeping the doors open to their airy children’s bookstore on Fort Street in downtown Victoria. New book shipments arrived this week. See Kate and Drew breathe a sigh of relief.

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