Flat-soled tennis shoes don’t have the same flexibility as ballet slippers, but “they’re good for cushioning cement” when Salt Lake City’s Municipal Ballet Co. is performing for crowds on downtown sidewalks, says dancer, founder and director Sarah Longoria.
Magician Celeste McCulley’s advice is to give a spiel at the end of the act to encourage audience members to leave a tip before they disperse. It’s called a “hat line,” and McCulley is still working to perfect hers. "It’s always a work in progress.”
McCulley said she makes $300 in tips on a good day. Street performance "definitely adds ambience and entertainment to a city,” she said. “Live art is something not everybody has seen.”
Kim Angeli wants to change that. One way she’s trying: SLC Busker Fest, a celebration of street art scheduled Friday, Aug. 24, on Salt Lake City’s Regent Street. Admission is free, though as always with street performers, tips are greatly appreciated.
Angeli is determined to get more street performers in Salt Lake City, a place that hasn’t always been receptive to the idea.
“There is a feeling among street performers that they aren’t welcome,” Angeli said.
In New York and other cities, subway stations and public transit centers are popular spots for buskers. Not so in Salt Lake City, where Utah Transit Authority ordinances ban any nontransit activity or speech from UTA property, such as TRAX platforms.
Angeli also blames poor communication about the city’s ordinances covering street performers and vendors. The ordinance allows street performers to work downtown, Angeli said, if they get a $30 annual license and stay in designated areas.
The uncertainty has led many Salt Lake City buskers to gravitate to the Downtown Farmers Market, Saturdays in Pioneer Park. It’s become so popular that the market now has rules to limit the number of performers at the already-crowded event.
Angeli hopes SLC Busker Fest will help spread the wealth, and connect performers and audiences.
McCulley has been performing at Renaissance fairs, farmers markets and other open-air venues since 2007, when she started as a fire-eater. She began to learn magic a couple of years later from a then-boyfriend, and on occasion makes balloon animals. Her signature trick is a 100-year-old illusion involving three pieces of rope, which she transforms from different lengths to equal lengths.
Busking, having to keep a mobile crowd engaged, can be intimidating for performers, McCulley said.
“With a stage show, you know they’re going to be sitting there for half an hour,” McCulley said. When a performer is busking, she added, “you have to do something that’s going to really capture them and make them want to stay. It has to be a little bit faster paced, for sure.”
Musician Dallin McAllister’s favorite, and most lucrative, spots for busking are wherever the people are — City Creek Center during the day, farther south at bars and restaurants during the evening.
“You have to follow the crowd,” he said.
McAllister, who performs five days a week downtown, finds that his repertoire of big-band jazz standards can usually connect with any crowd.
“Everybody respects it and likes it, whether you’re 90 or 9,” said McAllister, who claims the 1964 show tune “Feeling Good” — covered by Nina Simone and Michael Bublé — as his signature song.
On a good day, McAllister said, he gets between $150 and $200 in tips. He said lunchtime, “when people are rushing around,” doesn’t produce a lot of tips, but “evening time, date nights, going out to get drinks, trying to relax, they’re more open to tipping.”
During the day, he’s often performing under the skybridge connecting the two halves of City Creek Center. “The foot traffic’s good,” he said. “People are getting on the TRAX or heading home from work."
Around 6 p.m., McAllister said, the action around City Creek dies down, and he will head south a couple of blocks, where the bars and restaurants are. (On Thursday night, he picked a spot near the Gallivan Center, where the Twilight Concert Series was playing.)
Playing to the crowds caused “sort of an uncontrolled atmosphere” at the Saturday farmers market, said Alison Einerson, who runs the Market Musician program. Performers were setting up in vendor spaces or blocking foot traffic, she said.
This season, the Downtown Alliance, which manages the farmers market, instituted new rules to regulate the number of street musicians in the park.
The market has designated eight locations along the park’s perimeter for street performance. (The middle of the park, including the area where the old performance stage was, is fenced off this year for a renovation project.) Those wanting to participate must sign up for a time and location, Einerson said, provide an audio file and a playlist, and pay a refundable $10 deposit. “We want people to be serious about it,” she said.
No matter what, street performers “lend themselves to an urban environment,” Angeli said.
For Longoria and her dancers, the thrill of connecting face-to-face with the crowd makes up for the slightly limited movement that comes with the street-ready sneakers.
Performing on the street means spectators “can see you breathing,” said Longoria, the troupe’s founder and director. “You’re on the same level … rather than the separation of the dark audience and the bright stage.
“It makes it a little more exciting, and less predictable,” Longoria said. “It’s not perfect, which I like. It’s a little bit more human.”
SLC BUSKER FEST
A celebration of street performers, including musicians, dancers, jugglers, aerialists and magicians.
• Where • Regent Street, between 100 South and 200 South, behind the Eccles Theater on Main Street, Salt Lake City.
• When • Friday, Aug. 24, 3 to 10 p.m.
• Admission • Free, though performers will be passing the hat for tips.
• Out-of-state talent • Two national touring artists are on the schedule: Bekah Juggler, from Boulder, Colo., who performs juggling, fire and unicycle tricks; and Brent Fiasco, from Phoenix, who performs juggling and sideshow antics. The rest of the line-up is from Utah.
• How it works • Two large performance areas have been designated along Regent Street, with a third circle for magic acts. Free workshops by Bekah Juggler, Brent Fiasco and magician David de Carolis are scheduled. And musicians will be rotating up and down the street.