A funny thing happened on the way to last year's Buskerfest. Rain. And lots of it. While that in itself may not sound terribly amusing, there were aspects to the torrential downpour which provided a story or two to an otherwise disappointing wash out of the event.
"Everything was all set up for the next day, and then the rain just came pouring down," says Frank Howard, director of marketing for Downtown Improvement District. "The porta potties had already been put in place the day before, and when the storm hit, they got carried away down the streets. I came in the office the next day and asked 'What happened to all the porta potties?' and was told that the police found them lying in the middle of the street and called the company to take them away. They were already gone."
And so too was the event, forced to share downtown as part of Taste of the Arts in August. Hopefully, last year's weather complication is a one-time event and this year's Buskerfest, set for Saturday, June 25 from 4 to 10 p.m., will go off without a hitch. Howard and Cody LeMay, DID's events and programming manager, are doing all they can to provide a unique and exciting event and along the way learning themselves and educating the public about the art of busking. First up, changing the vocabulary they use for the event.
"We started noticing that when we were talking to the performers they weren't referring to a 'stage' but rather to a 'pitch,'" says LeMay. "I started to research and realized that 'pitch' was the term used for those roped off quarantined areas. Then there were also the organic 'circle shows' which is when the performers just start performing and a crowd gathers around them. So we'll have some of those as well as designated pitch areas."
"Ultimately what we want to do is encourage the busker culture in this city," says Howard. "It was just a few years ago that it was illegal for you to put out your guitar case or a hat on the ground in front of the Embassy or at the airport. The local ordinance changed in 2010, and since that time we've brought in buskers to have workshops teaching people how to develop their own act, and we've had a lot of success with that."
While there are still acts coming from other areas of the country, Howard is pleased that many locals are now participating and others are invited to drop by and perhaps show their own talents. While DID expands upon the annual Buskerfest, now in its seventh outing, and bring new performers to the fold, they also want it understood that there's a way for the audience to show their own appreciation.
"We're bringing in acts from miles away, and this is how they make a living," says Howard. "While Buskerfest is a free event, and people can come down and enjoy the performances without a ticket, the performers deserve to make a little something for their efforts."
"It's generally understood that if you stop and watch something, you should give them at least a dollar," says LeMay. "We want to ingrain that culture into our city because this is how they make a living. It's not about starving artists."
While the first couple Buskerfests were still a new event to the community and the demand and talent was still emerging, LeMay has discovered that the city has embraced Buskerfest, a fact confirmed by its recent naming as one of the favorite quirky festivals in the region.
"There's now this enormous appetite for this festival," says LeMay. "It's taken on a life of its own."
One of the popular characters from Buskerfest's early day was a Green Army Man statue, and when that performer came to the city for a workshop, teaching all of the intricacies of how to move and breathe and capture the essence of a character, a local woman emerged with her own character, Marie Antoinette, an immediate hit with Buskerfest attendees.
"There really hadn't been anything young lady-centric in the festivals before," says Howard. "And suddenly all the young girls, from three to 15, just a wide age range, were going up and touching her. And in turn she would curtsy and spin them. It was really great to see, and it shows how the festival is just organically developing that 'wow' factor."
If there has been any downside to the growing 'wow' factor and popularity of the event, it's that for people surrounding the performers, especially young ones, it can be difficult to see over the expanding sea of bodies and heads. In anticipation of that, DID is bringing in a Jumbotron screen to facilitate visibility. The acts you'll be seeing will include Dimension of Illusion, Circules, Kobbler Jay, Rob and Miss Jane Show, Seb Whipits and Pyroscope on the Busker Central Pitch and Secret Mezzanine, Chris Rutkowski and Renee Gonzales, elle/the Remnant, G Money Unplugged and Bloody Tambourine and the Musical Mafia on the Loud and Local Music Pitch. Of course, other acts will be moving through the area, centrally located at Wayne and Calhoun.
For those looking for a bite to eat during the festival, there will be five food trucks in addition to the plentiful supply of restaurants open for business that evening. It's all part of the larger plan to make people feel at home in downtown, with comfortable sights, scenes, entertainment, food and beverage, a plan that Howard says makes the area part of every residents' sense of home.
"We call downtown everybody's neighborhood, and that's what we're trying to cultivate. A lot of people now don't even know their own neighbors anymore, but when they come downtown they run into friends and people they know. It makes downtown feel like it belongs to everyone."
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July 11 • Foellinger Theatre