Richard Renner received an e-mail the other day. It was from a street performer in Germany who wanted to come to this year’s Lawrence Busker Festival.
Renner, a performer himself and festival organizer, didn’t have money to cover his travel expenses. But he says it’s a sign of how much attention the event received in its first year in 2008.
“I got all sorts of feedback from people and patrons,” Renner says. “It seemed like everybody from their e-mails and remarks said, ‘Please do this again.’ I’m a people-pleaser.”
This year’s event will be bigger and better, Renner says, with around 30 acts performing throughout downtown today, Saturday and Sunday.
With sponsorships and grant money covering stipends and travel expenses for many of the performers, Renner says he hasn’t had trouble attracting acts to Lawrence.
“We tried to mix it up, with different people with different skills,” he says.
The weekend will bring zydeco music, storytellers, puppets, aerial acrobats, jugglers, fire-breathers, a strong-woman and other talents to downtown Lawrence.
Here are the stories of several of those performers.
The strong busker
Hand Linsey Lindberg a phone book, and she’ll promptly rip it in half.
“It baffles people. They just can’t wrap their heads around it,” says Lindberg, aka Mama Lou Strong Woman.
“It used to take me up to 12 minutes to rip a phone book in half. Now I can rip one in under 10 seconds. Sometimes I have to make it take longer for the show.”
Her show capitalizes on other feats of strength befitting her name. She crushes apples with her biceps, bends metal rods into the shape of a heart and performs a human tug of war with men from the audience.
“It isn’t so much about what I can do, it’s more of a fun and encouraging way to help kids and everybody to just say, ‘Look at what you could be capable of accomplishing.’”
A Kansas City, Kan., native now based in North Carolina, Lindberg became enamored with theater and circus art forms in college, and eventually “ended up moving to New York City with a bunch of clowns in a U-Haul.”
While living in Canada she began creating a strong-woman persona that she turned into a fully developed busker act.
“Some performers prefer working on the street rather than always trying to audition for some next thing. It’s a really beautiful and noble art form,” she says.
The 29-year-old confesses males who attend her shows have funny ways of responding to her exploits. They’ll often loudly challenge her to arm wrestle after the show. Is that because men are intimidated by strong women?
“In general, yes,” she says. “And I like it that way.”
The musician buskers
Three years ago, Andy Bean and Fuller Condon started playing banjo, bass, kazoo and a variety of other instruments in New York’s Central Park.
“The first half-dozen times out, we made $100 in five hours, and we were so excited we would spend $150 at a bar,” Bean says. “We got a little more frugal with it. We did it enough we didn’t have to have a full-time job.”
Fast-forward three years, and Bean and Condon — performing as the Two Man Gentlemen Band — opened this summer for the tour featuring Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson.
They mix an old-timey look (think suspenders and caps) with old-timey music, singing original, humorous songs about subjects such as William Howard Taft and “fancy beer.”
They’ve come a long way from those early days in the park.
“It gets pretty competitive in New York,” Bean says. “There was this guy with a Chinese instrument, the erhu, and we would battle with him for years. We had to get there at 8 in the morning to get our spot.”
Now, the Two Man Gentlemen Band plays 200 gigs a year, mostly concerts by now. They’re even sponsored by a kazoo company, Kazoobie Kazoos.
“The advantage to being on the road over busking,” Bean says, “is when you’re busking, you have to deal with a lot of rejection. They ignore you and look the other way. This is a little less visible. They reject you by just not showing up.”
The juggling busker
Earlier this summer, Richard Holmgren cut his arm wide open with a machete he was juggling.
“The machetes I juggle are not like the typical juggling machetes,” he says. “They’re real.”
There was no time for stitches. He had two more shows in Clyde (an hour and a half north of his hometown of Salina) that day.
“I feel confident,” he says. “But you don’t want to get overconfident.”
Holmgren, who has been juggling, breathing fire, catching a bowling ball on his face and doing other stunts professionally for nearly 15 years, felt confident enough in his abilities a year ago that he quit his day job with a firm that makes heavy machinery and jumped into full-time performing.
Now, he performs two or three times a week across the country, doing plenty of corporate parties and picnics. Though most of his gigs come in Kansas, he’s hoping to expand nationally.
Holmgren still burns himself several times a year with his fire-eating, and that gig in Clyde was the second time he had a pretty serious cut with his machete.
But once he gets on stage, he doesn’t worry about those risks.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Holmgren says. “I have other skills and things I can do for a living, but this is what I love to do for a living.”
The bongo busker
For years, “Bongo” Barry Bernstein never actually played the bongos during his appearances.
“I chose the name for its alliterative properties,” Bernstein says. “I mostly played djembe. But at one school assembly a kid asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing the bongos?’”
Since then, whether he’s providing music education for grade schoolers or corporate team-building for adults, Bernstein blithely breaks out the bongos.
“It’s definitely a stereotyped instrument,” he says. “What’s the first thing you think of when you say bongo? For me it’s ‘Babaloo’ and Ricky Ricardo. ... But when studied in depth, it’s a beautiful, complex instrument.”
A 1984 Kansas University graduate in music therapy, Bernstein has utilized rhythm as a healing tool for decades.
In 1991, he co-founded Rhythm For Life with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and served as its program director for five years. Together, they researched the therapeutic benefits of music on elderly Americans, specifically those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
These days, Bernstein can typically be found bringing hundreds of percussion instruments to school assemblies, where he invites students to join in “group rhythm experiences.” (He says he waits to pass around the items because “if I handed them out at the beginning of the show, I’d never be able to get their attention.”)
Though some may march to the beat of their own drummer, Bernstein believes “the way we get along in the world is by playing music together.”
In the world of fire performers in Kansas City, Rae Silvey says she has a reputation: the “safety Nazi.”
“The danger is always a factor,” she says. “It really depends on how well you’ve trained yourself.”
Silvey is part of Ra Element Fire Tribe, a group that includes a revolving cast of performers who mix traditional fire-juggling, fire-eating and other pyro-arts with dancing and other visual arts.
She first was introduced to fire work in Columbia, Mo. She soon moved to St. Louis to join a fire tribe there.
“St. Louis is a very fire-friendly city, but it seems like Kansas City has not been as fire-friendly,” Silvey says. “That’s why I moved here, to try to help the local troupes.”
She’s done that by co-founding the Parisole Arts Foundation, a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping a variety of artists in the Kansas City area.
Setting up the nonprofit is the first time she’s treated her performing and art as a full-time job.
“I’ve never really approached it as a money-making thing,” Silvey says. “Basically, it’s art and expression.”