September 29, 2010

Bread and Roses Shows

Bread and Roses is a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organization that's well connected to musicians and other performers in the area. That's not surprising because it was founded by folk singer Mimi Farina who, with her sister Joan Baez and their friends have personal connections to some of the finest performers in the world.

I was asked to play a small part in their fairly large mission: “... uplifting the human spirit by providing free, live, quality entertainment to people who live in institutions or are otherwise isolated from society.” Last year they presented over a thousand performers to nearly 28,000 people in hospitals, child day care and elderly convalescent homes, drug rehabs, special needs schools and detention centers. In my case this time I was to present a solo show to fifty boys in a juvenile hall. I'd played juvis before on my own and with groups of friends and they are almost invariably among the best shows I do all year. They like the act and laugh in most of the right places but there's something more on both sides.

I'd thought about this “something extra” each time. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid and we often lived in rough neighborhoods and I played a minor role in minor gang life back then but that didn't seem to account for the connection. My high school, Eastside in Paterson, New Jersey, was depicted in the news and later in a major Hollywood film as a tough one where the principal roamed the halls with a megaphone and a baseball bat maintaining discipline but … well, I might not be as soft as they were expecting when they heard that “the bubble guy” was coming to perform for them but in the end I ain't really tough and I'm doing a bubble show not bulldogging or flashing gang signs so it isn't that either.

In most of these performances I follow the show with a questions & answers period where people mostly ask how-to questions but on college campuses and juvenile halls I'll often be asked very direct questions about the business of performing. A question about whether the sponsors pay for the airfare or direct questions about fees are often greeted by laughs from more sophisticated audience members but I can often tell that the person asking the question is nothing but serious. I guess there are reasons why we don't normally discuss these things in public like this but when I answer as openly as I'm asked there's a nice connection that opens up so this time I did. I told them about different prices for different show situations, I told them that the show I was doing for them today was for no money, I told them about the most money I ever got for a single performance, I told them how overseas sponsors will sometimes be asked to pay to bring my “off-stage assistant” and I got a laugh when I translate that term to mean "my girlfriend" (it was once my mom, it would now be my wife).

They dug in. They asked specifics about the bubbles and about my life and I answered as spontaneously and honestly as I could. There was a fun bounce to the dialogue and I'd told about my days street performing, living on the streets and sleeping in the bushes. One kid surprised me first by asking “You were on the streets? So you started at the bottom?” I agreed that that was true and he looked me directly in the eye and spread his arms wide while leading a slow loud round of applause … among the best applause of the night, beating out the one for the tornado bubble (their favorite).

That was the highlight of the evening for me but the county employee who was charged with attending to these young men made it close when he finished the event by recalling for them that I'd told about how I got started with bubbles by focusing on this one thing when coming home from a factory job. He noted the fact that I had found a way to make money from something that I liked doing and he encouraged them to think it through and to find some legal way to make money doing something they liked. He gave them a list of things they might consider but he got a big laugh from them and from me when he ended with “If you like selling drugs … become a pharmacist.”

Many of my favorite Varieté performers create a memorable character on stage and then they respond to situations as that character would. In my case, I feel best and my audiences like me best when I'm completely me. These guys call on deeper degrees of honesty and somehow they know it when they hear it. I like being taught by good teachers.

No comments:

Post a Comment