Tuesday, 28 August 2007
Wednesday 22nd August 2007
I have been invited to perform at the annual Toronto Buskerfest. I hardly do any street performing festivals these days, preferring to work venues with stages, ceilings and a lack of French school parties, but I've never been to Canada and have heard nothing but good things about this festival so I thought I'd give it a go. Besides which a few hats full of cash is always welcome.
Up at an absurd time of day (night?) to catch the early flight out of Heathrow. When street performing I carry a large fold-up table with me (for the tablecloth trick, and yes I partially regret picking a speciality that requires me to carry my own bloody furniture around). I carry it in a ski bag. Sports equipment goes on a plane free, so when the check-in lady asked what was in the bag, I lied. Except I kinda made sure I didn't. Although I clearly heard her say "What's in the bag", I pretended that I thought she said "What's the bag", so I could reply, "It's a ski bag" without actually not telling the truth while at the same time misleading her that the bag is full of skis. We all do this, right?
I'm around halfway through my flight, have enjoyed my breakfast of vegetarian sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, yoghurt and a curious but not entirely unpleasant bowl of prunes, dried apricots and sultanas served with - yes! - maple syrup, all of which I enjoyed while watching the news in French.
Last night I did a phone interview with a nice man from the Toronto Star in which I babbled on about gentleman juggling, street performing, the reputation of Canadian audiences and Kraft cheese dinner. I even managed to crowbar a reference to famous Canadian wrestler Bret Hart, just to confuse things. Which it actually did. We'll see what of that actually makes the finished piece.
My car comes to pick me up at the airport and we drive through the industrial townships that always lay between an airport and it's mother city. Past Wal-Mart, Best-Buy and then the smaller stores: "Marc's work wear house", "All school uniforms" and, honest to god, "Kayak World incorporating The Complete Paddler". How very Canadian.
I get to the hotel and kill the time before I can meet with the organiser by unpacking, hanging all my stuff up, steaming the creases out of my shirts, and filing the drawers and cupboards with the contents of my bags. Like Cayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition", I take a perverse pride in having a hotel room so neat that it looks like it's not being used. Out of my window I can see across the street to a bar called "Scotland Yard", it's tagline embossed in gold letters above its door, "Worth investigating".
Thursday 23rd August
The jetlag makes me sleep in late, which is fine as I have nothing to do until later. I roll out of bed at 11am and walk up to the CN Tower. It's forecast for rain, and the sky looks grey so I figure since this might not be a good day for doing shows, I might as well be a tourist. I buy a ticket and go up the tower, which is the tallest building in the World (Although according to wikipedia, there is some disagreement about this. You'd think it would be an easy thing to decide. Just, y'know, measure the buildings and stuff). In the tower, amongst all the other tourist-bait, there is a man who will, for a small fee, take your picture in front of a green screen on which will be superimposed a picture of the view from the tower. You're actually in the tower, able to take pictures of the great view from (possibly one of) the World's tallest buildings, and there is a man who'll help you fake a picture of a place that you were actually at. This struck me as very strange indeed.
Then later, I wander down to the pitch to check it out. It's become quite a hot day, no rain, and when you stand on the pitch the sun is right in your eyes. Not good. But the organisers are so on the ball that they're giving all the performers free sunblock. Nice.
So I do my first street show for quite a long time. It's not bad. A little scrappy, and I missed a few gags, but it seemed to work. I rented a wireless headset microphone, which worked and will help my non match-fit throat, although I'm not used to headset mics and throughout the show can't shake the weird feeling of there being something holding onto my head.
I hang out and wander around between shows, find a great bookshop, staffed by a cool uber-nerd and full of books about vaudeville and wrestling (say goodbye to the fee right there), and watch a show by the Higbys. They're a husband and wife team who do a cute yo-yo act. I liked them - very American is a sweet, fun way.
My second show is on a pitch that seems, before I start, to be completely empty, and in a dead-end street, so there are no people walking through. Shows what I know - I have a gorgeous one, very talky and improv-y, and with a terrific nice big crowd who aren't backward about laughing, clapping and paying. Lovely.
Back to my hotel for a shower and room service cheese omelette. Yum. Then off to bed as I have an early morning appearance on breakfast TV tomorrow, giggling as I fall asleep watching Letterman.
Friday 24th August
Blimey it's early. I stroll up to the location for the breakfast TV shoot and hang out with the yo-yo guys and the "Russian Bar Team", who, strangely, are from Quebec. After a few minutes and a complimentary danish, from Mackenzie, the impossibly smiley organiser, it's my turn to be interviewed by Toronto City TV's own Jenn Valentyne. She's cool, in a husky-voiced, slightly caffeine enriched way. According to her online bio, she broke into TV by being a singing weather girl. And we're supposed to be the weird ones. She seems popular, chatting easily between takes with passers-by who clearly like her. This sounds like a small thing, but I've seen plenty of "on-air talent" who never get close to the great unwashed public unless they absolutely, totally, contractually have to. So yay Jenn.
Her cameraman is typically laid-back, and giving her countdowns to each live-to-air section, the last one is to feature me. With only a minute or so to go before one of the sections, Jenn realises she has left her notes in the van, and that the van is locked, so for a delicious few seconds she loses it, yanking repeatedly at the van door handle and almost screaming "I have the wrong notes! I can't get into the van! I can't get into the van!", before catching herself, grinning, regaining her previous professionally perky composure, and letting someone open the van for her. I like Jenn, but this is funny.
The interview goes ok, I pull a tablecloth and then put it back, and we talk about where I'm from, how I'm the only person in the World able to put the cloth back on the table, and then she gives the tablecloth pull a go, with predictably noisy results. Jenn also at one point demands that I tap dance, so I do. Everyone is happy and I decide to go and find some breakfast.
I end up at "Paddington's Pump". I'm not sure what the name of this place is all about, although it does at first glance seem possibly pornographic. Anyway, it's my kind of diner, all wood and darkness, plates full of yellow fried food, and tough looking middle-aged waitresses steeped in faded glamour and harassed rudeness. I have a nice long breakfast with enough carbs to take me through the next couple of shows and all is well.
After my first show I have a couple of hours to kill, so decide to take a taxi to visit a restaurant I found on the internet, called "Hello, my name is Leslie Jones". I'm visiting this restaurant because my wife's name is Lesley Jones, so this is funny and weird, and I must therefore take photographs of it. On the journey up, my taxi driver - as soon as I sit down in his car - starts to talk to me about my haircut. Asking me if I knew the shape of my head before I cut it short. He could never have his hair that short, he tells me, as his head has a bump on the top so it would look weird. Ok, I say, assuming this is the end of this conversation. But no. The entire journey is taken up by my driver endeavouring to seek my knowledge about how he should style his hair, and admitted the huge amount of guilt he feels about cutting his own hair recently, and badly. Then, towards the end of the trip, he confesses that his mother was a hairdresser and so he's a little obsessed with it, and always has been. Thankfully, we've reached our destination and I get out, leaving my driver to - I can only assume - grill his next passenger about their haircut.
I find the Leslie Jones restaurant, take a picture, and then wander around some more. Slowly I realise that the neighbourhood is called, wonderfully, "Leslieville". This brings a daffy smile to my face. That's where I live, I think to myself, Lesleyville!
I do a couple of shows, but it's humid and my voice is starting to get a little tired. Liquids. That's what I need. In the green room there's a big orange vat of Gatorade, and I am becoming hopelessly addicted to the super-hydrating luminous goop. Well, you know what they say - when life gives you gators, make gatorade. That's what they say. Definitely.
Holy crap in a box. Five and a half shows today. I sit in my hotel room at nearly 1am watching Saturday Night Live on TV and eating a cheese and Cheeto sandwich. I know. Shut up.
I do a couple of freebie shows in "The Kitchen", a, well, kitchen, where a jolly bearded man gives cookery demonstrations and slide shows about the history of the Market we're in. I was asked by the festival organiser if I'd do some shows for him as a goodwill thing, so no problem. He's friendly and it all goes smoothly, and it turns out I'm a good opening act for a guy making flaming Greek cheese. Then I have three shows on the main drag, and although one of them gets rained off (That's the half), the other two are big fun and I end up happily exhausted slumped in the sofa in the green room talking with everyone about how we'll work the big group benefit show that'll take place tomorrow night. It's a benefit for an epilepsy charity, which, as a past sufferer of epilepsy myself, I feel a connection with.
And here I am, back in room, tired but content. Missing my wife, looking forward to Tuesday when I'll see her and very much not looking forward to Thursday when I leave her again for two months. Ups and downs, this job. Ups and downs.
Last day of the festival and I have three good strong consistent shows. I haven't performed my solo show on the street for a while and was wondering how long it would take me to get back into the swing of things, and here I am, after 3 days, popping out nice big shows without thinking. Nice to know I can still do it.
After the first show a middle-aged woman talks to me. She's asking about my life, where I live, where I go next etc. "What kind of relationship does someone who travels as much as you have?" she asks. "One with a very understanding wife back in London", I reply, "The only bad part of my whole working life". Then she grins, and says "Well - just make sure you use protection and only fuck the pretty ones", and she grabs my ass before walking away. This is weird on so many levels. Obviously the fact that she feels comfortable giving me advice on how best to cheat on my wife is just bizarre, but more than that, I'm a little insulted that she seems to assume that I do. I wonder if this assumption is a refection on her (I guess) romantic idea of street performers as loveable rogues seeking pleasure wherever they can on their travels, or maybe it's more an expression of her negative view of men. I guess it was supposed to be some kind of flirting. Whatever, I didn't like it. I'm not a happy-go-lucky travelling troubador. I'm a man who has to go where the work is because there's precious little of it in my home country.
In the evening all the performers take part in a big end-of-festival benefit show. The crowd is huge, and we all do a little 5 minute bit. I'm on second to last, and it goes well, and then comes the finale. The USA Breakdancers announce that they have been challenged and proceed to do a breakdance battle with the Russian bar team. It's great. Joyful and hilarious. The breakdancers bust some moves and then get topped by the bar team throwing their girl off the beam, 20 feet into the air, where she does double-back somersaults before landing back on the 5 inch wide bar. The bar team are all slightly geeky and it's just perfect when they finish their moves by striking breakdance poses. Such fun. Makes me cry a little bit. I'm such a wuss. We raise $3500 for the epilepsy charity, which the sponsors have agreed to double. Cool.
Later on we all hang out in a basement bar for the closing night party. I used to hate parties with a passion - I always felt completely self-concious and awkward, but now I'm starting to learn to enjoy them a little more. Thank you Mr.Jack Daniels, I guess. We eat nachos and I talk to Cokey, one of the chief staff of the festival, about Kraft dinner, theatre, Gatorade, President's Choice and Bob Loblaw, who is a real person, and has one of the funniest names is the history of names (Say it out loud a few times). Cokey (who, like all of the festival staff, is completely lovely), is also a huge cricket fan and has learnt to score the game, which, as she attempts to explain to me, is very complex and needs a different colour pen for every bowler. I'm not sure if it's worth buying different coloured pens just for cricket, I'm also not sure if I'm spelling Cokey right, but I'm fairly sure it's not her real name, so I won't worry about it.
Then it's time for bed, I say goodbye to everyone, wishing I'd got to know the yoyo people a little better as they seem very cool. Apparently all the people in Toronto assume they must be Canadians as they are quiet, polite and friendly, when they are, in fact, from Boston. They are, and this almost goes without saying, fantastic yoyo-ists, and very charming performers. I like. Then I say my goodbyes to Mackenzie (the organiser) and her second-in-command whose name I have completely forgotten because I'm an idiot. I do, however, remember the name she uses when she competes in roller derby (roller derby!), which is, awesomely, Veronic-air.
I'm sitting in the Bacardi bar and grill in Toronto Pearson airport, where I have just polished off a huge plate of nachos and a key lime pie. Every airport should have a Bacardi bar. Maybe every street should have one, in fact. This morning I went to the bank and changed up my heavy bag of coins from the shows, and then walked up to the CBC headquaters to be a tourist. The CBC is one of the big Canadian TV networks and they air Rick Mercer's show, which I like. So, I thought to myself, I'll kill two cultural birds with one purchase and get myself a Rick Mercer hockey shirt (which I saw someone wearing on TV yesterday). Unfortunately the shop doesn't have any. They do, however, carry quite a range of Coronation Street stuff, which takes me by unpleasant suprise. It's a little strange to see so many shirts, mugs and hats featuring the not always attractive cast of this Northern British soap, which is, apparently, pretty big here.
I do a little more stupid tourist shopping, then pack and get my cool complimentary car to the airport (Thanks again, Mackenzie!)
In an hour or so I'll board the plane, and then, hopefully while asleep, will travel across the big ocean and arrive back in London early tomorrow morning. Then home, do laundry, take wife to lunch, try to savour the moments with her without stressing about having to go away again the day after tomorrow. Good luck with that.