Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travel Stories: Audience Wrangling for British Jugglers 101

The San Francisco farmer’s market at the ferry plaza is quite the experience: it’s a bustling Saturday marketplace with dozens of vendors selling everything from organic oranges to artisan cheese. My favorite part, however, were the street performers.

In February of 2010 (yeesh, was it really that long ago?), Mary and I were strolling around the market, waiting to meet our cousin and her fiancé. This is what I wrote about the experience:

There are several musicians out; a group of five pounds on homemade drums; a ten-year old in a sharp suit plays the trumpet. There’s also a vaguely androgynous man who is “contact juggling” a glass orb, making it appear to float and stick to his hand, moving it fluidly over his arms in ways that seem to defy gravity (he’s from Bellingham, which makes me happy). 

Then we see a crowd and discover three English acrobats-in-training. The front man (we call him “William”) is compact and muscular with an eyes-in-the-sun squint and light brown cornrows. His brother (we call him “Tom”) is skinny and less handsome, playing the comic relief. Their sister, the third, is short and pretty, with striking blue eyes. She doesn’t talk at all. They perform impressive feats, everything from dancing on their hands to running atop a ladder to balancing on a ten-foot-tall unicycle. 

For some reason, in my diary entry I neglected to mention the most interesting part of the show: the audience reaction. For the first ten minutes, the audience was silent and dead, like couch potatoes watching a TV. Mary and I whooped and applauded as much as we could, but the audience at large was strangely still.

He proceeded to do a handstand on his sister's stomach, but my camera died right after this shot.
At the ten-minute mark, a guy on the front row pulled out a cell phone and answered it. “William” zeroed in on him, strode over and snatched it out of his hand. The audience came to life in an instant, tension crackling. William playfully yelled at the guy for answering a cell phone during a show, and the guy stuttered out that his mom had called. William spoke into the phone, and seemed surprised that it actually was the guy’s mother. “Yes… thank you, I like your accent too,” he said into the cell. 

The audience erupted with laughter, and I felt a noticeable shift in their energy. William made the guy help him with his next trick, and then sent him back into the now-laughing-uproariously crowd. For the rest of their show, the audience cheered, whooped, and clapped at every trick; they laughed at every joke; they were at ease and responsive. It was fascinating to see the sudden shift that came from the simple act of embarrassing an audience member.

By this time, Mary and I both suspected the guy was a plant, which we later confirmed by catching a glimpse of the acrobats’ next show. But in an odd way, that made it just as fun. These acrobats had figured out that doing great tricks or even being great showmen wasn’t enough— they had to reach out into the audience and wake them up.

At the end of the show, “William” holds out a bag for donations, saying in his lovely English accent, “If you can give a five, brilliant. If you can give a ten, even better! And if you can give a twenty—” Here he lifts his shirt to show off a ripped six-pack. “—you can take me home.”

Chuckling, Mary and I gave them what would have been our bus money, and then wandered onward into the marketplace. It was a nice day.


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