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The Street Performer: Paul Nathan

By | Published on Sunday 29 July 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time, magician Paul Nathan.

We first came across Paul via his ‘I Hate Children Children’s Show’, something we loved so much that we gave it one of our ThreeWeeks Editors’ Awards back in 2011. He is back at the Fringe this year with that very show – plus ‘The New I Hate Children Children’s Show’ – both appearing at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall.

However, while Paul is at the Festival he also takes his magical talents along to the Royal Mile where he joins a brilliant community of street performers and buskers who turn the thoroughfares of Edinburgh’s Old Town into yet another Fringe stage. We spoke to Paul about the ins and outs of being a street performer at the Edinburgh Festival.

CC: Tell us a little about your career as a performer to date
PN: I started back in the 1980s when there were plenty of gigs and free drugs for a young magician doing magic in the Hollywood nightclub scene. I did magic for the right people and ended up in a few films and on some TV shows.

The most fun I ever had was on an episode of ‘Star Trek Voyager’. It really changed my perception of magic, because ‘Star Trek’ creates a whole world out of nothing. We all know what it would feel like to run our hands along the smooth walls in the hallway of the Enterprise or what the control panel would feel like. That world exists for us. That’s magic.

Coincidentally, Robert Picardo, who played the holographic doctor on ‘Voyager’, is also doing a show called ‘A Joke’ at Assembly this year. I have some embarrassing backstage video of us! I’ll post it if I can find it.

CC: When and why did you first decide to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe?
PN: I got tricked into coming the first time! My first Fringe was in 2010. Fred Anderson used to produce a showcase of San Francisco comedians and circus folk. He is a shrewd and cunning con man and I ended up doing a month of indentured servitude as his comedy magic manservant. That showcase is why I came up with ‘The I Hate Children Children’s Show’, which is the best thing to come out of America in the last ten years. Read the news and tell me I’m wrong.

CC: While in Edinburgh for the Fringe, you perform both ticketed shows and on the Royal Mile. Why do both?
PN: Masochism? Joke! I love both styles of performance, but they’re very different to each other. The family show seems like chaos but is actually very structured. Because we have kids doing magic with us throughout the show we have to be really attentive and much more structured than it appears. As much as I joke about hating kids, I don’t really want to put anyone in therapy.

The street shows are the opposite, in that I know where I want to get to and I have a general sense of how we are going to get there, but it’s much more of a collaboration with the audience and every show is wildly different. The street show often feels much more on point, but in fact the journey we take is dictated far more by the audience and the best moments happen spontaneously.

At its best, street performing is an ephemeral almost numinous experience for everyone involved. There are moments when everyone realises that this is special – this show is never going to happen like this again and we created this together. Nothing ticks that box for me the same way as an artist.

CC: There are a number of official street performance spaces at the Edinburgh Fringe which are managed by the Fringe Society. Talk us through the process of getting a performance slot.
PN: The Fringe Society’s street team have actually changed things up this year with a new cloud-based ‘on-boarding system’. You start on the Fringe’s own website where you will find all the instructions and the link to a website called Eventotron, where you can sign up for slots at both the Edinburgh Fringe and several other festivals as well.

The Edinburgh Fringe’s street programme is not juried. Which is great, because it means you get some really weird stuff, as well as some new artists that you can’t see anywhere else, along with some of the top street artists in the world. The programme is divided into a few categories, mainly because different types of performance have different requirements.

Living statues, balloons, caricaturists and portrait artists get longer time slots and are placed in areas that are appropriate for their needs. Buskers and circle shows do 30 or 45 minute performances and pass the hat at the end. Musicians have their own programme which accommodates for time, place and volume.

The only real requirement for taking part is that the Fringe staff and your fellow performers expect you to pull your own weight and be able to hold a crowd. Edinburgh audiences have seen it all. They have a pretty high standard for creativity, skills and artistry. Especially the locals. So when you come you have to bring your A game.

CC: Why do you have to go through this process? Why not just show up and perform?
PN: What a great question! So much so, I reached out to the Fringe Society’s Street Events Manager Andy Meldrum and asked him the same thing. According to Andy, the artists themselves came up with almost all of the rules and for the most part they prefer to have this programme in place. It keeps everyone organised and makes sure things are fair.

And through this programme, the Fringe Society is definitely helping us street performers. Andy works year-round communicating with the Edinburgh City Council, the Fringe Society’s board, the police and fire department and with Virgin Money, who sponsor the programme. Plus participants have access to on-site storage, scheduled slots and a ton of other benefits that most muggles wouldn’t think of.

And this year the Fringe Society has also partnered with iZettle to become the world’s first tap-to-tip festival, with contactless payments for buskers and street artists. So now millennials can swipe right to tip their favourite performers without having to count out any of that dirty old money.

CC: For some people, performing on the Mile is about promoting shows they are staging elsewhere at the Festival. But for others what happens on the street is the show. You sort of sit in both camps. How do the two sides compare?
PN: Yes, different people are doing different things when they perform on the Royal Mile. And Andy reminded me that the street events team provide dedicated stages and time slots for those doing show previews and different areas and times for street performers.

It has to be said, the skills required to street perform are very different than those needed for indoor artistry. Though, of course, a few artists, like myself, do both.

Tape Face sold out one of the Fringe’s biggest venues at the Pleasance last year, but during the day he did the occasional show on the Mile as Sam Wills. Meanwhile Paul Dabek performed on the Mile during the afternoons and in the evenings his show was the hottest ticket at the Liquid Rooms. This year my show, ‘The I Hate Children Children’s Show’, plays daily at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall, but I still busk a few days a week as well.

Those of us doing both venue shows and street shows will often mention the former during the latter, though we really concentrate on the show that is in front of us. Audiences are fickle and easily distracted – and the Mile is one of the most distracting places on earth – so there isn’t a lot of space in a real busking show to pitch a night time venue.

CC: What kinds of performances do you think work best on the Mile?
PN: Street shows are magical, ephemeral experiences. The best shows give the audience an experience that they will never see again and hopefully empowers them to participate.

Being part of the show may mean volunteering. It may mean building the energy with applause and laughter. Or it may be as simple as dropping a bill in the hat at the end of the show. Every bit of that is important, because it’s all part of what makes up this art. Street shows are something the audience gets to do, not something they get to watch. The shows don’t exist without the audience conspiring to make something unique happen right here, right now.

Helping to fund that experience makes us all feel a bit of pride in what we have done and makes us all feel that we are helping to create something unique and special in the most direct and personal way possible. It’s like watering a public garden as you pass by. It just makes you feel like you have done something good and meaningful today. Maybe not something big or earth changing… but something good.

CC: How does performing on the Mile compare to doing street theatre elsewhere?
PN: There is a reason that top artists flock to the Fringe from all over the world, year after year. The audiences are the best on earth. They are generous with their enthusiasm, their time and attention, and with their contributions. When you do a great show on the Mile, the adrenaline is like few other places in the world.

Plus there’s the fact you are not going to find a more beautiful setting or a more inspiring community of artists anywhere else on the planet. And on top of all that, there’s thirty five hundred shows a day to learn from or judge harshly – the city, the festival, the camaraderie – the Fringe is magic.

CC: Is the hardest bit of street theatre gathering an audience to start with? What tips do you have?
PN: Busking at the Fringe is no place for the faint of heart! It’s intimidating for first-timers but I do have a few tricks for the uninitiated.

The great grandfather of San Francisco street theatre, Ray Jason, once told me, “pretend you are standing in front of the fire place in your living room about to tell a joke to a room full of friends – everyone wants it to be a good story, everyone wants you to succeed”. It’s the best advice for performing I have ever received and particularly so for gathering a crowd. Be confident and they will come. Be comfortable! It’s your space, it’s your time, it’s your show.

Don’t be afraid to start small and build. You have time. Write material for the build. The first five or ten minutes of your show can be interaction with the audience that teaches them how to be an audience, puts them where you want them, and creates a space, a stage, a scene that is yours and theirs.

Finally – include them in the process and let them be a part of the show from the beginning. I don’t just mean as volunteers, I mean as participants in the process of creating a show. They want to see a show. They want to have this experience. Allow them the chance to experience something unique and empower them to help you build that experience together.

CC: How do you keep the audience and how do you get them to put money in the hat at the end?
PN: The nice thing about street performing is that the feedback is instant. If a joke doesn’t work then you watch the audience leave. If something does work you watch the audience grow – then just let the Pavlovian response take you where you need to go. Use what works and follow the instinct that got you there. You want money in the hat? Be honest. Be humble. Use a knife if necessary.

CC: Has the social media age changed street theatre, in that people can now follow you beyond that one street performance?
PN: The complicated answer is “yes”. The simple answer is “no”. The complicated yes is that some artists can use social media to amplify the experience beyond the immediate. When done right, that can create a feedback loop which makes audiences want to come and see an artist live.

But the immediate and ephemeral nature of creating an experience right here and now is something that can only happen when an artist and an audience agree to do something special in a time and place that will never happen again.

You can see and hear it online and that experience can be delightful, inspiring, even life altering; but nothing truly captures the moment when art meets audience, like walking down the street and suddenly being part of a laughing, moving, breathing mob of people intent on creating something special.

Paul Nathan performed ‘The I Hate Children Children’s Show’ and ‘The New I Hate Children Children’s Show’ at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

LINKS: ihatechildren.com