What Makes the Best Street Performers?

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was amazed by the myriad of street performers who entertained tourists on Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and other popular locations in the city. From musicians playing guitar, drums and didgeridoo, to people dressed up as statues or clowns, to magicians and contortionists, there were endless varieties of street performers catering to people’s diverse tastes.

As an amateur magician myself, I wanted to know what qualities made for the best acts. After watching several dozen performances and talking with several performers over the course of a few days, I came up with this list:

1. The performer must have a unique act that draws in spectators. In San Francisco, most of the street acts are fairly standard fare such as mimes or musicians. One exception was an acrobat whose contortionist skills kept people watching for more than 15 minutes. Even though she didn’t have any props or equipment other than her own body, she was able to produce an engaging performance that drew more than 50 spectators at one point. Other performers with non-traditional acts included a magician who demonstrated some amazing sleight-of-hand tricks and a comedian who engaged passersby in good-natured banter that elicited lots of laughter.

The street performers of San Francisco’s Pier 39 have been a fixture for decades. Now the city is trying to clean up the area and wants to put some restrictions on them. But how do you decide who’s good enough?

The best street performers are people who can’t get work anywhere else. There are many more people who want to be entertainers than there are jobs for them. If they were any good, they would have found other work by now. But they can’t, so they’re outside competing with one another on price.

The best way to pick a good performer is to see how much he charges. The best performers will ask for the most money, because their skills are relatively rarer. The worst ones will be free or very cheap, because there are so many of them that if you don’t like one you can just move on to another until you find one you do like.

A typical street performer charges about $10/hour in San Francisco these days.

When I was a kid, I loved going to the pier in San Francisco, where street performers did everything from juggling to magic tricks to balancing acts. The best ones could draw huge crowds; you have to have a lot of talent and charisma to pull off a good magic trick or tightrope walk.

But if you look at the people who are really good at street performing–the ones who can make a living at it–there’s something else that sets them apart: their ability to adapt. They can read an audience and tell what people want. They’re masters of crowd work.

I was talking about this recently with a friend of mine, who is one of the best performers I’ve seen at improvising on the spot. He often gets hired to do “live art” as part of corporate events, where he creates paintings based on suggestions from the audience. How does he do it? “I meet them where they’re at,” he told me. “If it’s a room full of lawyers, I’ll paint lawyer jokes and make lawyer puns.”

The best street performers know that you need more than just talent–you also need timing and insight into what people want (or think they want).

Does a great street performer have to be a great musician? Not necessarily: You could give a perfectly good show by playing an imaginary instrument. But in fact, the best street performers are also the best musicians.

I think it’s because they have to work harder than ordinary musicians. If you play in a bar and people don’t like your music, they can ignore you and talk over you. If you play on the street and people don’t like your music, they’ll walk away, which is even worse. So if anyone is going to succeed as a street musician, it will be someone who can hold people’s attention with their music alone.

In the same way, ordinary salesmen don’t have much incentive to learn sales skill. They can rely on their employers to sift customers for them. Good prospects are prequalified before the salesman ever sees them, so he can just give his standard pitch without worrying about whether it will resonate. By contrast, door-to-door salesmen have to worry about whether what they’re saying sounds stupid or offensive to each individual prospect. They get better at sales not by memorizing scripts but by learning how to adapt what they say to what the customer wants to hear.

In the summer of 1993, I spent a few days in San Francisco. While there, I had the chance to observe the street performers on Pier 39. At that time, Pier 39 was the most popular tourist attraction in California, and also probably one of the most lucrative places anywhere for a street performer to work.

A typical act would start with an announcement like “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Come see how fast I can spin plates!” A crowd would gather as the performer set up his equipment: a series of long poles, each with a plate balanced on top. The performer would then proceed to run back and forth between these poles, keeping all the plates spinning at once. One by one he would replace each plate with a new plate from his stack, until he had all six spinning at once. Then he would do something else equally impressive.

On one corner of Pier 39 I saw two men doing acts very similar to each other. Both were dressed in raggedy clothes with floppy hats pulled low over their eyes; both had unshaven faces; both performed tricks with plates and balls; and both spoke in gruff voices that sounded almost identical. But one was much more successful than the other.

The less successful performer was doing well enough

When I was in high school, I worked part-time at Pier 39. It’s a tourist spot in San Francisco that’s famous for its sea lions, but it also has lots of interesting shops, street performers, and restaurants. It’s one of the most crowded places in San Francisco.

One day, I was watching two street performers do card tricks. They were right next to each other, with a crowd around them. The first performer had an audience of about thirty people standing directly in front of him. The second performer had only three people standing in front of him.

I thought this was strange. Why were so many people watching the first guy when they could watch the second guy instead? He performed roughly the same tricks as the first guy and he was just as entertaining. In fact, he even seemed more entertaining to me because he spoke with a thick French accent and wore a beret.

The difference between these two performers didn’t have anything to do with their performance or skill level. It had to do with their positioning–where they chose to stand, relative to each other.

The first guy stood near an escalator where people were already walking by on their way up from the underground parking garage. The second guy stood near a corner that didn

We’re looking for performers who can entertain big crowds. We provide the stage and the audience, you provide the show!

You don’t need to be a trained musician. In fact, we have several excellent unicyclists in our ranks who just play kazoos!

What do we look for?

– Someone who can work a crowd. We want to see you engage the audience, not just ignore them until they give you money.

– Consistency. Our best performers are here at least three times a week. If you’re not willing to be here that often, then please don’t apply.

– Reliability. We’ve had some people with great acts flake out on us after their first day. Not cool. This is your job now – we expect you to treat it like one.

– Creativity and originality! We want new stuff! If you’re just going to cover generic songs all day, then we don’t need you here. We have plenty of that already, and it’s boring as heck.

– Dance moves! We all love to see some dance moves, so if you’ve got ’em, why not show ’em off?

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