EDMONTON’S STREET PERFORMERS FESTIVAL CAPTURES UNIQUE FESTIVAL SPIRIT
By Pamela Anthony
This summer, the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival will celebrate 18 years as Canada’s oldest celebration devoted exclusively to street theatre. Held in the heart of downtown Edmonton, a city of 800,000 people on the Western edge of the Canadian prairies, four hours east of the Rocky Mountains, the Street Performers Festival presented 60 of the world’s best street performers.
The talent line-up included traditional street acts, roving character actors, dancers, mimes, musicians, puppeteers and performance artists of every kind. By many standards the Edmonton’s Street Performers Festival might be considered a relatively modest event.
The festival’s small staff organizes the yearly event on a budget of just $400,000 CDN for an audience of about 180,000 people in this northern city. Yet the Festival is internationally recognized as a premiere showcase for street talent, and a shining model of the festival “spirit” at work in a community.
It’s the Festival’s reputation – not the size of the event – that stimulates street performers to seek the chance to perform at the festival, encourages audiences to vote the event Edmonton’s “best loved festival” as they return year after year, and draws event organizers to Edmonton to observe the festival. That secret of the festival’s success seems to lie in the simple philosophy of the festival’s producer, Dick Finkel. “Our mission is to present and celebrate street performance as an art form,” he says. “We treat the artists with respect, and I think that attitude translates into the performances the audience see on the street.”
Finkel and the festival’s many ardent supporters believe that simply showing respect for the performers, the audiences and the volunteers creates a unique atmosphere where extraordinary experiences and performances are a regular occurrence – the intangible “magic” that seems to capture the imagination of those who participate in the festival.
Yet the success of the festival is also measured in more concrete terms. One of the ten major festival events in Edmonton’s busy summer schedule, the Street Performers Festival enjoys an enviable level of community support. Audiences have grown steadily over the festival’s history to 180,000, a dedicated corps of 160 volunteers fuels the Festival, and local businesses sponsor many of the Festival’s events. The festival’s budget has grown from an initial $60,000 CDN to a current $400,000 CDN, with much of the revenue from sponsored goods and services. Media coverage of the event is pervasive and favorable; creating a high-profile image of the festival that is stimulating to both the audiences and the artists.
The current status of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival is something that could hardly have been anticipated when the concept of a festival for street performers originated in 1985 by Sheldon Wilner and Dick Finkel. One of Canada’s most northern cities, Edmonton doesn’t have the advantages of San Francisco in the US, Covent Garden in the UK, or Surfer’s Paradise in Australia, where street entertainment flourishes naturally because of mild weather and established tourism. Edmonton is better known for it’s long extreme winters, competitive sports teams, active theatre community and indoor malls.
Edmonton is on the map for street performance because of a unique vision of “festival” shared by the original event organizers, Sheldon Wilner and Dick Finkel.
From 1981 – 1985, Sheldon Wilner was in charge an innovative City of Edmonton project called Summerfest. An umbrella organization for cultural celebrations, Summerfest developed a series of performances and events; the direct fore-runners of the internationally known festivals which today dominate the summer event calendar of Edmonton, well known as “Canada’s Festival City.”
Dick Finkel, a US immigrant and original Woodstock Music Festival participant, was a long-time arts festivals aficionado living in Winnipeg, a city in the heart of Canada’s prairies. Like Wilner, Finkel was active in programming civic cultural celebrations. He initiated and programmed Encore, a summer long series of free entertainment, and served on the Board of Directors of the Winnipeg Folk Music Festival. Finkel and Wilner had professional contacts through their shared interests, and when Wilner had the opportunity to create a new stream of programming through Summerfest; he called in Dick Finkel to co-produce it. As it turned out, they shared a sense of what a “street performers festival” could, and should be.
But in 1985, the entire concept of street performance was somewhat unusual to Canadian audiences. While other Summerfest programs initiated music, theatre and visual art projects, Wilner and Finkel boldly proposed filling the streets of downtown Edmonton with an oddball assortment of outlandish street entertainers, whose sole purpose was making people smile and laugh. “We just loved the idea of presenting all these wacky people we had seen perform in San Francisco and other places, and creating an entire festival of free downtown entertainment,” recalls Finkel. The 1985 Street Performers Festival was the first of it’s kind in Canada. It featured 20 performers, and was run by Finkel and Wilner with the help of a loose organization of friends, volunteers and board members.
One of the most memorable acts of the debut year was French rope-walker Phillipe Petite. The daring wirewalker had gained world-wild notoriety for surreptitiously, and illegally, walking a wire he suspended between the World Trade Centre Towers in New York City. In Edmonton, he created a spectacular stunt when he walked an inclined rope suspended across Churchill Square between the 5th floor of one building and the 11th floor of another.
As it turned out, Wilner and Finkel’s instincts about the appeal of street entertainers proved right. Although attendance was relatively low the first couple of years, the enthusiastic response was enough to encourage the festival organizers.
Wilner left Summerfest in 1986 to pursue other interests, but Finkel was hooked, and stayed on as the festival’s producer. Finkel made scouting trips to US cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston and Key West, which were known for their active street scenes, and invited the most exciting and experienced street performers he could find to Edmonton. The festival also moved from an awkward conjunction of streets to a beautifully maintained park-like square in the heart of downtown next to City Hall.
“The real turning point for our festival came in 1987, when the festival was relocated to Sir Winston Churchill Square,” says Finkel. “Suddenly we had a perfect environment, and we had an all star line-up of talent.
Our attendance and media coverage shot up enormously, and the festival became established in the minds of Edmontonians.” Colorful, unusual, entertaining and sometimes just plain silly, the street performers Finkel brought to town swept people up in the excitement of outdoor entertainment and quickly won the hearts of Edmonton’s new festival audiences.
But attracting top street performers takes more than enthusiasm and more than the modest budget of the festival’s early days. Again, Wilner and Finkel’s background as aficionados of the “festival spirit” generated in the 60’s and 70’s inspired them to create a model of community festival they hoped would attract top artists. “From the very beginning we realized budget constraints precluded paying artists high fees, and to compensate for that deficiency, and because it was part of the original vision of what the festival should be, we determined to make the artists as comfortable as possible,” says Finkel.
In addition to more than 1000 outdoor shows presented each year, the Street Performers Festival presents between 4 – 7 indoor shows in one the city’s finest venues, the Mclab Stage of the Citadel Theatre. A heady combination of theatre, vaudeville and cabaret style performances, these indoor shows challenge the street performers to create new work and forge new creative partnerships. Now a Festival tradition, the “group” shows were originated by the artists themselves.
“In 1988, about mid-way through the festival, the artists thought that since they had an evening free, it would be a great idea to produce some kind of group show,” recall Finkel. “I suggested that rather than just doing a compilation of their best material, they should think of doing new material, or work with artists they’d never worked with before. This was met with a very enthusiastic response. Our first show was outdoors in the park, and the performers donated the income to the festival. The next year, we moved indoors, and we’ve continued “Late Night Madness” ever since.”
“I think the opportunity to work in such a great theatre in a creative way, is a big part of our appeal for the artists.” In addition to the performance series called Late Night Madness, the festival presents Women in Comedy, a showcase for female entertainers, a gala fundraiser called Feast of Fools, and a series of individual comedy performances.
Another distinctive aspect of the Edmonton Street Performers Festival is the interactive festival atmosphere created by the talents of “roving” entertainers, the comedians, actors, clowns, musicians and masked characters who roam the festival site. These performers do not do focused shows – their mission is to animate the festival and interact with audiences on a one-to-one basis. Finkel credits much of the festival’s success to these performers, who create intimate moments of surprise and delight for festival patrons.
Some of these performers are well established in other careers, like award-winning composer and playwright Darrin Hagen, visual artist Mariann Sinkovics, or comedian O. J. Anderson. They simply relish the festival’s atmosphere, and the opportunity to explore new aspects of performance. Other rovers may be newcomers to the street, testing their wings in the safe environment of the Edmonton festival. Michael Hancock, a talented clown who recently signed up with Cirque du Soleil, made his first appearance as a clown at the Edmonton Street Performers Festival. Well established comedians like Kate the Great, Zandra Bell, and clown Michele Kelly are just a few of the many others who made their debut at the Street Performers Festival, something of which Finkel is very proud.
Yet the heart of the Edmonton Street Performers Festival remains in the age old traditions of busking, The performers do everything in their power to enchant and entertain, with shows full of quick witted comedy, slapstick humour and physical daring, then they “pass the hat” for payment for their show. It’s all cleverly orchestrated, yet street performers take great pride in the freedom of choice agreement they offer audiences, who pay for the show entirely at their own discretion.
Over the years, Edmonton audiences have become accustomed to the protocol of street performance, and are generous in showing their support for the festival. “Appreciative audiences have been critical to our festival’s growth and development,” says Finkel. “It allows us to program in innovative ways, and bring in many special guest performers who could only survive on the street in a community this hospitable.”
“We not only support established street performers, we nurture new talents. It’s very gratifying to see performers who started here go on to further success,” he says.
“The strengths of this festival are clearly linked to the strengths of Edmonton’s community. We simply couldn’t do what we do without an energetic and very caring group of volunteers. “Edmonton is, in fact, a uniquely responsive community with a long history of community involvement in festivals. Stimulated by progressive civic funding from the early 80’s, and supported by a skilled arts volunteer network, Edmonton has developed more than a dozen international class cultural festivals featuring jazz, folk and symphony music, theatre, street performance and visual art, ethnic culture, film and children’s entertainment. The success of these festivals has earned the Edmonton the title of “Canada’s Festival City”. Many, like the Street Performers Festival, The Works Visual Arts Festival, and the Fringe Theatre Festival, are recognized as models for many other festivals across North America and around the world.
“Because of our reputation, we get many requests to consult with other festival organizers, both to initiate street performer festivals as well as to bring street performers to already existing festival as a segmentof their programming,” says Finkel.
Finkel has advised festival organizers across Canada, in New York, Key West, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Boston in the US, and international events in the UK, Australia, and Holland. His advice is always the same. “Respect the performers, and you’ll have a good event,” he says. “And get the right people involved. Give them real responsibility and allow them to contribute.”
Finkel is also committed to keeping the Edmonton Street Performers Festival fresh by keeping in touch with other interesting festivals and events. He works with a wide network of festival organizers across Canada and around the world, and whenever he can, travels to participate in arts festivals in other cultures. “We were very proud to be able to host a delegation from Shizuoka at our festival in July, and are honoured that they have extended an invitation to attend their world renowned event this fall,” he says. “I’m hoping this visit will cement positive relations between our organization, and look forward to cooperating for mutual benefit.”
This year, the Street Performers Festival will celebrate its 16th Anniversary. But Finkel isn’t interested in resting on his laurels, or becoming complacent about the festival’s success. He says it’s time to think about what the Edmonton Street Performers Festival has been doing, and see what can be done better. He is calling on his festival team and board to “review and re-vision” the festival with a series of brainstorming sessions that will explore everything from special programming to audience development and marketing. “We’ve had a great time developing to this point,” he says. “But I think it’s time to look ahead. It’s a good time to look at the future of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival.”