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kirstenanderberg What Motivates Women Street Performers? (7) What Motivates Women Street Performers? 11 Aug 05

What Motivates Solo Women Street Performers?
By Kirsten Anderberg (

In 1992 (pre-google days), I spent 3 months in college doing individual study/research on the historical documentation of women street performers. Not only was there nothing on women street performers in library archives, sans a tale or two of women troubadours from long ago, but there was a serious lack of documentation of street performer (or "busker") history altogether. The lifestyles of street performers are romanticized or shamed, but the fact remains: there is a mystique around street performance since so few know who we are, why we became street performers, and why we keep doing it. Solo women street performers are especially mysterious to the mainstream, as we break gender stereotypes. I have started getting firsthand interviews with all the street performers I have known in my 25+ year career as a busker, so that more documentation will exist for students in the future. This article evolved from interviews with two infamous women street performers that I have shared venues with over the decades.

I recently interviewed Tash Wesp, aka Mildred Hodittle, about how she became a solo woman busker. She had been performing since 1981, and joined the Pickle Family Circus in the mid-80's, pursuing her desire to be a clown. When she developed a female European clown act that the circus did not place in its lineup, she felt the street was where she "had to go." She began solo busking in 1988. I asked about her first solo busking experiences. She said she decided to go have a good time clowning on the street in Berkeley, to talk to people, and use volunteers from the audience for her act, which seemed to work. She said other street performers helped her a bit, they would not let her starve, but they were also not giving her any good spots to busk on either. She said it was dog eat dog back then. She said it was always the European buskers that she met on the street that taught her good female lines and good female heckler comeback lines. She said she would talk for hours with European female buskers about what did and did not work for female buskers on streets.

Mildred has been doing things like spinning balls on her breasts and doing handstands while a ball spins on a fingertip, etc., while dressed as a frumpy old aunt in ruffled aqua bloomers, for a long time now. When I asked what has kept her performing for so long, she said "I love what I do, I think I'm good at it, I'm funny, and there just aren't enough female buskers!" When I asked what would make her quit, she answered, "It can take your spirit when you're the only woman on the pitch." (A "pitch" is a busker term for a street performer spot). I asked Tash why there are so few solo women buskers. She answered, "You're making yourself very vulnerable to the public. The first time someone said, "Show me your tits," I was shocked, embarrassed, and didn't know what to say back. When women are heckled on stage and on the street, it is usually in a sexual put down, tearing down her body and making her an object. As women, I feel we are not taught to fight back or comment back, but taught to put our head down and run away. If you want to survive on the street busking, you have to learn to stick up for yourself differently as a woman. Most women don't want to go through the trials of learning how to do this, it's just such hard work."

I asked Tash what the rewards for busking were, and she said, "The true freedom of performing on the street, working for yourself, stopping your show whenever you want to…You, at that moment, are truly your own boss of your show." She said being a professional busker gave her the opportunity to travel Europe. I asked Tash where her favorite busking spots are, and she said: "Amsterdam, Litesaplane, if you can do a show there, you can do a street show anywhere. The Fondle Park, on Sundays, in Amsterdam. Prague in the town square, Gent in Belgium, with its working class people. The Kelavoka in Germany. Copenhagen's Jazz Fest in Denmark. Also a bunch of festivals in Canada are nice to busk at, but then again you are working for someone else and can get into trouble with the organizers if someone complains about your show." (Mildred and I have both gotten in trouble in the past for the "content" of our shows).

I next interviewed Jan Luby. I asked Jan why she became a street performer decades ago. She said, "I felt that street performing was the most natural, honest kind of exchange. I play and if anyone appreciates what I play and has something to give me, they put something in my case. There are no deals made, fair or otherwise. It's not like someone says, "If you play these specific songs, or for this amount of time, or dress in any particular way, I will pay you X amount of money." I also like the feeling of being one tiny piece of everything going on in the streets. There's no American Idol stuff going on here. You are one small piece of the world. There's less ego involved in playing on the streets." I asked if Jan had performed prior to street performing, she said "No." She said her father had busked as a juggler on San Francisco street corners when he was a teen into his 20's, around 1930. She said she had exposure to many NYC street performers growing up.

I asked Jan about her first street performing experiences. She replied, "My first busking experience was on the outdoor mall in Boulder. I had a good time, but was inexperienced. People were nice, but I didn't get the kind of crowds of later experiences." I asked if she thought people needed to see street performers to become one. She said, "There are many towns where you will never see street performers and never have. It's more for urban settings where there's more of an atmosphere of "anything goes," and not these small rural towns where they would just look at you as if you've lost your mind and where there's nowhere that people actually will be walking past you, they're in their cars...But I think it needs to stay alive through people continuing to keep the tradition alive. It's not something we can learn about from books. That would be like watching juggling or sword swallowing on the radio."

I asked Jan if she was proud of her street performer heritage. She replied, "Absolutely. I gave myself to the streets for free. I sang my heart out. In some instances, I was compensated, in others not. But my giving was not dependent on what was returned." I asked if she would want her daughter to become a street performer. She said, "I want my daughter to be whoever and whatever will make her happy. I've never pushed her in any direction. I would be fine with her decision if that's what she chose, but I certainly would not glamorize it for her either. It's hard work, hand to mouth, and not everyone is cut out for it. You have to not take anything on the street personally."

When asked what a bad street act is, Jan replied, "…folksingers who don't connect with the audience or the jugglers who do the same jokes as all the others." I asked Jan where the best places she has busked are. She replied that the Santa Cruz Mall was great to her in the late 70's through early 80's. She said, "I was appreciated by those who had no money, and those who did have money, were generous with it. I knew the merchant whose store I liked to stand in front of, and I always started by going in to say hello to him. It was friendly." She also cited Old Town in Montreal, Anchorage, Alaska, and the outdoor mall in Boulder, Co., as well as Harvard Square "before everyone got amplifiers and badges were instituted." She also liked Koln, Germany's, outdoor mall. She said she played there "for a month in '78 and made more money than I've ever made on the streets, and people were very friendly too. They'd come up to me and speak to me in German because they thought that I was German, but singing "American folk songs."" When asked the worst places she has busked she said Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, and Central Square in Cambridge.

I am also a solo woman busker, performing as Mother Zosima. I wear a nun's habit, because I kept getting arrested for my political comedy. So I put on a costume like police have, and the public is not sure whether to support the cop or the nun now, so the power is balanced. After 8 obscenity tickets in Santa Cruz, Ca., for my street performance on the Mall, I put on the habit, and have not had a cop hassle me for busking since. I have to say what has motivated me to perform on streets is the aspect of free speech, as my work is political, and I do not like to be censored so some bar owner can sell more beer, etc. I like the image of a strong, smart, funny, independent woman out there for girls to see and aspire to. I like not having to dumb down or sex up for male promoters, managers or prepaid audiences. I like writing my own material and not having to play parts men write for me. I like not having to be a part of the mainstream. I am from the streets as a homeless teen, and I want to always keep my roots and help street folks, and busking helps facilitate that also. I am able to give hope and dignity to the poor at times busking, and I am happy to give that to someone who is otherwise being treated poorly at that time by society. Street people saved my life as a homeless teen, I am more than happy to give them quality comedy for free now.

What makes me want to stop street performing is all the hassles I get for my feminist comedy on the street, from the police and city authorities, trying to take my free speech rights constantly, due to my politics. I also am disappointed in how little support solo women buskers get around the sexism we endure, or as Mildred said, how being the only woman on the pitch slowly wears your spirit down. The double standards of obscenity, where I am arrested for saying, "What do you get when you cross a penis with a potato? A dictator" but Artis the Spoonman can scream, "Give Me Back My Foreskin!" as performance art without anyone flinching, bugs me. It is frustrating to know everyone will love me singing "Love Has No Pride," but will hate me if I do a smart comedy song about men's responsibility in birth control. The worst places I have busked are the Venice Boardwalk in Los Angeles, as the ocean sucks all the sound out so you get hoarse quickly. Also Austin, Texas was not kind to me, and the French Quarter in New Orleans was very dog eat dog also. In New Orleans, male buskers thought because I was a woman, they could walk all over me. I repeatedly had to assert myself against male street performers who wanted to steal spots I was rightfully next in line for in the French Quarter. Solo women buskers put up with a lot of hassles to do their acts. But most will tell you they have gotten invaluable things back from street performing too.

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