I invested nearly 30 years of my life as a professional street performer, traveling the country, mostly working Renaissance festivals as a solo street comedian. I earned a good portion of my yearly income from tips, or what we pros call “passing the hat,” and enjoyed the luxury of only having to work weekends. It was this environment that taught me so much about the nature of business, change, and management.
Renaissance festivals were ushered into existence by the counterculture hippies of the Sixties and are sustained today mostly by the new counterculture of pierced and tattooed heavy-metal misfits. No matter what decade, it has always been home to the fringe, delightful, and a bit strange.
It’s easy to dismiss this type of theater, or any street-performing venue, because it is so unfinished, rough, and seemingly without much control. In truth, the value of these odd performing spaces is because they are rough and bit unrefined. The top performer understands that the unpredictable and the rough are gifts, and recognizes that the best ideas are often discovered when things seem to be a bit of a mess.
When I was performing, I carried no props and didn’t have a script. My performance was built on the notion that everything I might need for a performance would be present in the audience or the environment. The most powerful insight I gained in the years I spent on the street was when I realized that if I enrolled my audience (a performer’s version of “a customer”) in partnering with me, I never lacked inspiration because I no longer was working alone! I saw that the environment itself was often rich with provocation, and that nearly any intrusion or disruption could be used to the benefit of the show. In this way, everything was material, and nearly everyone was my collaborator.
It’s easy to perceive economic disruption as a sign of impending doom and the end of good things. But our anxieties may betray us into believing things that aren’t really true. Perhaps we’ve cultivated an unrealistic belief in stability and symmetry, though we know life doesn’t roll that way forever. Roughness and disruption are just “hecklers,” reminders that life, like the street performance in the park or on the dirt lanes of a festival, leans towards emergence.
As a performer, I have learned to embrace the mess, be comfortable with the roughness and the unfinished, and become inspired to collaborate with others in new and interesting ways. We aren’t alone here, and there are so many resources to draw from, even when it feels like we’re in a bit of a jam. It’s likely that, when we look back on this rough patch in our nation’s economic history, we’ll recall just how many useful ideas were born and how much we improved our businesses. We may also recall, in retrospect, that we had everything we needed, that we had one another, and a big, beautiful rough-and-tumble mess called life.