(This was also published in the Huffington Post)
For decades, Covent Garden Piazza in London has had a pitch for street performers. One of the regulars there is Paolo Ferrari who also plays comedy clubs. I had a chat with him in Covent Garden yesterday afternoon.
“It’s all about guts,” he told me. “A performer had to have the guts to get into the business in the first place, but often they don’t have the guts to leave the business. They don’t know when to call it a day.
“I am not at all thinking of leaving the business myself but I am 35 and, when reach that age, you think OK. I can see myself doing this for another three, four, maybe five years, but what then?
“For me, street theatre has always been a stepping stone for comedy. When I perform in Covent Garden, I have to slightly change my act but, for me, it has always been an outlet to try things out so I can have an edge over my fellow comedians: the fact that I can play street theatre.
“What I was trying to say to you the other day was that I think I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that I will not become a mid-40s, goodish street act who is incredibly bitter because, for one reason or another, he or she hasn’t quite made it to the top.
“Ultimately, for me and lots of performers, street theatre is just an outlet to better yourself at what you do. In my case, it’s comedy. Street theatre is just a start and then you move on. But it’s not something you can do forever.
“With street theatre, when do you call it a day? Or comedy or performing in general. There must be an age when you should just give up and realise you are not going to get any further.
“A friend said to me last week: I’ve been doing it for years, Paolo. It pays the bills. Sure, I am 47, but I’m still fit. What else can I do? I can’t see myself doing anything else.
“This friend is scraping together a fairly good living, given the nature of the business. But what do you do when you have reached a certain stage… a certain age?
“I was at an audition recently. I was the oldest one there and I am 35. All the others were, I guess, between 19 and 23.
“What do you do when you’re 47? You can re-invent yourself provided you have acquired a certain status over the years but, if you’re just a street performer – perhaps even a sublime street performer… Well, maybe some of them don’t want to progress. Some just don’t have any other options. They know they can put food on their table with the money they currently make.
“What sort of money,” I asked, “can you make playing Covent Garden regularly?”
“I could tell you,” said Paolo, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
“It would be a blessed relief,” I said. “But people probably make more money than being a comedian on the London club circuit. I don’t know how much the average run-of-the-mill, top-of-the-bill gets now in a middle-of-the-road club. Maybe £120? And they can only get that two or maybe three days a week and with luck and that’s topping the bill.”
“I have a very good friend,” Paolo told me, “who’s a very talented performer. Been doing it since, maybe 2002 or 2003. He’s my age, predominately playing the Jongleurs circuit. He reckons he can make £400 to £600 a week.”
“I think they pay a bit more than most,” I said. “But it’s less for comedy clubs in the suburbs… and for street theatre?”
“I would say,” said Paolo, “a very hard-working performer willing to play the game… Obviously, you need to sell the right product, especially at places like Covent Garden… I would probably say you could take home, at the end of your year, £20,000? I’m talking about someone working, on average, six days a week for ten or eleven months.”
“And,” I suggested, “to reach that point, they’d probably have been doing it for six or seven years?”
“Yeah,” said Paolo. “My earnings reflect what I do. I don’t ride a tall uni-cycle. It’s just me, my jokes and a couple of silly gimmicks. Whereas, if you are really, really trying to enhance your earnings, then you have to have much more marketable skills like juggling, unicycling, fire-eating and all that malarkey – though you can’t do fire at Covent Garden. But the more daring your act is – or appears to be – the more you can get in theory.
“The problem is lots of people get trapped. They start making decent money. It’s easy, in that you don’t have to do anything if you’re not in the mood. You don’t have a contract. If you’re good and if your product sells, it’s very hard to give up.
“Even if you don’t make £20,000. Let’s say you make £17,000. How many people can survive on £17,000? You can survive on a lot less and, being able to make that amount of money by just performing whenever it takes your fancy, is quite an achievement. It’s a very enticing way of living.
“I think the average annual wage for ‘normal’ people is around £25,000 now?” I said.
“Yeah, in London, maybe around £25,000 to £28,000,” Paolo agreed.
“Well,” I said, “They’d be better off working behind the counter in a building society.”
“I think a lot of people just get trapped,” said Paolo. “I recently asked a friend: In five or six years time, what will you be doing? and he couldn’t answer. And I feel the same. I don’t know what I will be doing.
“It’s not like you say to yourself: The 4th of March 2015 or 2017 is going to be my D-Day, my traffic junction, my Spaghetti Junction.
“Some people get bitter, old, twisted, angry, frustrated, but they don’t have the guts to leave the industry. Which is sad, because they had the guts to get into the industry in the first place. And it does take guts.”
“I guess they hope,” I said, “that, tomorrow someone will see their act and change their lives.”
“I think it’s habit,” said Paolo. “Human beings are creatures of habit; they get used to things. A business psychologist friend of mine told me recently that a lot of people have had problems during the current recession when they lost their jobs. Not, as such, because they lost their £50,000-a-year job but because, all of a sudden, they got stripped of their own identities. The job had become their identity. And that’s the hardest thing to cope with. You identify yourself with your job. You pull strings week-in-week-out and, if someone says No more string… That’s a problem. John is the writer. Paulo is the buffoon.”
“That’s the title for your show,” I said.
“Urban Buffoon,” Paolo laughed. “That’s it! We got the show! We’ve got an hour-long show!”
“But surely,” I asked, “the last thing a performer would want to do is leave the industry? Because he/she would be so frustrated for the rest of their lives. You have to keep playing every card. The thing is to be in the right place at the right time, so you need to put yourself in as many places as possible as often as possible.”
“Well,” said Paolo, “if you have fired all the bullets you have at your disposal, there may be a level of peace that you may be able to acquire. If you’ve done everything in your power to achieve your goal… If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
“You can never second-guess what may unexpectedly happen out of nowhere, though,” I said. “It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. And to keep trying because, if you don’t try, on your deathbed you will still be wondering What if?… That’s the ultimate lifelong frustration you would face eating away inside you: What if?… What if?…
“There is no answer,” said Paolo.
“I don’t think there is,” I said. “Do you want to buy a Big Issue?”
“Are you selling one?” Paolo asked.
“Not at the moment,” I replied. “But I think maybe I should research the potential market.”