Dr. Thomas Michel ’77 considers himself the leading accordionist among the deans of Harvard Medical School. During the summer, the Dean of Education at HMS, specialist in cardiovascular medicine, MCB 234 professor, and multi-instrumentalist (piano, violin and accordion) takes his talent to the streets of Harvard Square. One might have spotted Michel last summer playing Klezmer music with Ted Sharpe ’76, a computational biologist at The Broad Institute at MIT and an amateur fiddle player.
Michel and Sharpe are not the only street performers who boast an impressive resume of academic credentials and musical training. Street performers around Cambridge and Boston defy the stereotypical perception of performers as glorified panhandlers. Many of them are at least college-educated and have a range of other careers available to them—from teaching to designing software. They choose the street because it affords them the opportunity to share their art and provides them with instantaneous contact with audiences.
There were 275 licensed street performers in Cambridge last year, according to Julie Madden, Director of Community Arts at the Cambridge Arts Council (CAC). The CAC gained jurisdiction over the street performing scene in the mid-1990s, making Cambridge one of few cities to have a formal street performer program; even though the city of Boston now permits street performing, there is no established organization that oversees the newly legal practice. For the price of $40 and the time it takes to complete a short application, almost anyone in Cambridge can turn the city streets into his or her own stage. “We don’t do an audition,” Weeks says. “We want to make [the program] as broad as possible. Anybody that professes to be a performer is entitled to be in public space doing their thing.”
Even some Harvard undergraduates are taking advantage of the Square’s welcoming atmosphere.
“I’m actually surprised that there aren’t more students that street perform. I think it’s a great opportunity we have,” says Matthew H. Coogan ’11, a classically trained cellist who was introduced to the Harvard street performing scene as a child. “I feel satisfied feeling that I’m contributing something to the Cambridge community.”
Coogan and his performing partner, violinist Nora K. Ali ’11, are only two of a group of students that street perform. Ari J. Kriegel ’11 has juggled for the Cambridge community, while Felice S. Ford ’11 plays the ukulele on Church Street. Anna M. Resnick ’09 also holds a street performing license from the Cambridge Arts Council, and Robert S. Yi ’10 just purchased one this week.
A CLASS ACT
Coogan decided to join this vibrant forum for public art the summer after his freshman year. Then, last summer, he invited Ali to join him, and the two took their Bach and Mozart duets to Brattle Square.
“I had always wanted to try it kind of as a joke,” says Ali, who also performs for the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, the Pops, and the Mather House Chamber Music Society. “I would say ‘Oh, I want to try to perform in the street and see how much money I could make’ and when Matt asked me if I wanted to play with him I got excited because no one ever seriously asked me to play in the street before.”
Ali and Coogan found success in Brattle Square, earning as much as $50 for one evening of performing, but they were also confronted with unexpected challenges. After their first performance, the two had learned that scoping out a favorable spot in the Square was a competitive sport, bringing extra sheet music comes in handy when a crowd gathers, and especially for Coogan, performing on the street renders one much more vulnerable than when performing in a concert setting. But Coogan grew to enjoy the challenge of attracting an audience and plans to play more often. This spring he hopes to expand his street performing repertoire by adding folk music.
“I had people walking by and [I was] not knowing what they thought,” Coogan says. “It really took getting used to. When people did stop, it was really gratifying. In recitals people pay attention because it’s customary.”
Not only did Ali and Coogan win over the crowd, they also gained the support of the management of Bertucci’s, the restaurant in front of which they performed. The manager was so pleased with the clean cut duo and their classical repertoire that he often gave them free dinners and offered them the opportunity to come play every evening in the prime Brattle Square location.
But performers with less high-brow acts have received less amicable treatment and certainly no free meals. David Johnston, a Brattle Square regular who plays acoustic guitar, complains that he has been experiencing ongoing clashes with both Bertucci’s and Hidden Sweets. While the management of Bertucci’s declined to comment, owner of Hidden Sweets Mike Braverman described his relationship to street performers as cordial.
Still, Johnston feels that the store managers disregard his artistic contributions. “They [Bertucci’s manager and Hidden Sweets’ owner] were ganging up on me saying nobody wants to hear us and that we’re being too loud,” says Johnston.
“A lot of people assume that if you’re playing on the street you’re not any good.... I have a band, I’ve made recordings, I’ve played in clubs, and I have had a CD reviewed by the Boston Globe.”
BROTHER BLUE IN CRIMSON LAND
In addition to the common misconception that street performers are not talented artists, it is also easy to assume that they are uneducated. Looking at Dr. Hugh M. Hill ’48, who sports glasses with blue-tinted lenses, a blue coat and a blue beret both accessorized with large, metallic blue butterflies, one would never guess that the sash across his chest that reads “Brother Blue: Storyteller” could also list a number of his academic accomplishments.
Brother Blue began his street performing career as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1940s, telling stories in the Square. He has the credentials of a University professor, including an M.F.A. from the Yale Drama School and a Ph.D. from the Union Institute. Brother Blue also served as the storyteller in residence at the Harvard Divinity school from 1974-1976. Now a member of the Cabot House Senior Common Room, Blue takes time to lead several workshops, including a weekly storytelling class at the Episcopal Divinity School on Tuesday nights.
“I’ve studied with some of the greatest minds in the world,” Blue says, “but they didn’t satisfy me.”
Blue felt his desire to have a vast outreach was better served on the streets than in a university setting. Instead of pursuing academia he followed what he identifies as a calling to reach out to those in need through storytelling. “I was anointed before I was born, to come here and change the world,” Brother Blue says.
Blue took his message of love and kindness into prisons during the 50s as part of his doctoral work with the Union Institute and continued to spread the word to all who would listen while he stood barefoot on sidewalks in the Square.
Brother Blue will tell you the story of how the universe was created in the Blue Period, a time before the possibility of time, and is willing to give a rendition of King Lear in under five minutes. In fact Brother Blue sees the ability to capture the crowd quickly as essential to street performing.
“Just to hold a crowd for five minutes is a miracle. You’ve got to be great,” says Blue, who has performed in storytelling festivals from Russia to South Africa. “Overseas they say I’m the greatest story teller and poet they ever saw.”
NOT JUST BUSKING FOR A BUCK
Much like Brother Blue, David Neiman built a career out of street performing after graduating from Brown University in 1981 with a joint degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics. Nieman, who was classically trained in guitar, also minored in Music. Considering Neiman’s resume, he is far from a beggar looking for a quick buck.
When asked why he started performing, Neiman responds, “I saw someone playing the dulcimer on the Boston Commons while I was in school. It was really the instrument that I fell in love with.”
In 1985, the Cambridge resident began his own street performing career playing the same instrument in the same location and soon became a regular among the street performers at Faneuil Hall. He then branched out internationally, playing in Tokyo in 1986 for audiences as prestigious as a Japanese princess.
“Your job is to get an audience. Not like on a stage when you pretty much know people are coming to the venue. You have to create the venue pretty much out of thin air,” Nieman says. “There were times it wasn’t working. At times it can be brutal being out there performing....Some people [think] ‘Why is this guy doing this?’ Some people look at street performers as beggars. There is that element. Be that as it may, I performed anyway.”
Neiman was able to make a comfortable living from performing music and giving dulcimer lessons for 15 years. Now that he has started a family, his education has proved valuable and earned him a job at a software company.
While some buskers perform full-time and others part-time, Michel and Sharpe donate all of their earnings as street performers to Partners In Health.
“All I can say is that we’re very glad we have day jobs,” Michel says when talking about the amount of money they have earned street performing. “It’s quite a different thing for those of us with day jobs and the folks who are trying to make a living doing this, for whom I have the greatest respect.”
Garnering such respect for street performers in the Boston area has taken many decades of advocacy work. Stephen Baird, one of the most prominent national busker advocates and director of the Community Arts Advocates, has been attempting to increase the prestige of street performing for more than 25 years.
After being threatened with arrest while performing in Boston Commons in 1972, Baird recognized the need for legislation to protect the rights of performers. He worked to put together the street performing ordinance now used by the Cambridge Arts Council.
“I wrote the ordinance to take the licenses from the police to the Arts Council so that the artists were not treated like criminals,” Baird says.
Although Neiman and Brother Blue among others were able to establish sustainable careers as street artists, until the 1990s performing for money in Cambridge was legal in only certain locations and at designated times. And despite Baird’s best efforts, there is still a stigma attached to street performing.
“You do your show and at the end people come up to you and come to give you money. Five minutes later and you’re a bum again,” says David J. Holzman, a clown with a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Lesley University. “The new people coming just assume you’re a bum and you have to start all over again.”
—Staff writer Bora Fezga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Staff writer Melanie E. Long can be reached at email@example.com.