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All The Square's A Stage

Cambridge a bustling hub for street performers

By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

When Marissa Acosta walks through the Square, she treads a path that brings her first to the character she calls “Peter the Russian guitarist.” She moves on toward “Lawrence the Loud Kid,” and finally in the direction of “Loony Balloony” and “Juggler’s Corner.”

Notebook and badge in hand, the official performer monitor covers a designated route three to four times a week during the May to October performance season.

In a city that gives out nearly 450 street performer permits per calendar year, monitoring is crucial to keeping the peace. Acosta spent her summer patrolling the streets in five-hour shifts with a decibel meter and book of tickets.

“Harvard Square is pretty unique in that the city actually cultivates an atmosphere and a system for performers,” Acosta says.

One juggler told Acosta he expected to bring in $1,000 nightly. She estimates most solo performers bring in about $10 per hour.

The Square’s street entertainment is regulated by an unseen bureaucracy of City Council ordinances that include an enforced curfew and a required $40 permit.

The Square’s street performers—many of whom prefer the term “busker,” originally a British term for street entertainers—say the scene is a culture and community in itself, with a subtle hierarchy and staggering breadth of performance.

It also provides a venue for Cambridge’s most unusual talent to be seen by the thousands who pass through the Square each day.

“The thing I love most about street performing is that I’m making some kind of a living by entertaining people,” says Karin Webb, who posed as a “living statue” this summer. “I want to reach out to people in the real world who’d never show up at a theater.”

Living Landmarks

Clad in a floor-length white bridal gown and sweeping tulle veil and posed in front of Au Bon Pain, Amanda Palmer is one of the most visible performers. She stands frozen, one hand outstretched for donations, which she exchanges for paper flowers.

Nowadays, Palmer says she spends more and more time at Faneuil Hall in Boston. The migration of chain stores to the Square has cut down on her business, she says.

She performed regularly in the Square in 1997 and 1998, but Palmer says her Square performance time has tapered off steadily since. She estimates that she performed in the Square about 10 times this past summer, as opposed to around 100 times when she began.

“It’s still one of my favorite places to perform,” says Palmer. “But in the international street performer community, there is this sentiment that the Square is drying up.”

But she enjoys the Harvard Square crowd for what she calls its “emotional intelligence.”

“I know I would make more money in downtown Boston, but in the Square, there will be that one person who stops and understands what I’m doing,” she says.

Palmer began performing in the Square after spending time in Germany, where she developed her first living statue persona, “Princess Roulette.”

She would stand on a large roulette wheel dressed as a ballerina. Depending on where the wheel landed, Palmer would give out trinkets to members of the audience.

When she moved back to Boston in the summer of 1997, Palmer says she hoped to set up the princess character in the Pit area, but there was too much equipment.

She found the bridal gown at the Garment District—and Harvard Square’s first living statue was born.

Completely unrecognizable in her street clothes—baggy olive-green pants and long faux fur coat—Palmer says the consensus among street performers is that Harvard Square business peaked around the 1980s.

She performed in the Square after the Sept. 11 attacks and says she was disappointed that the audience was completely unresponsive.

“There was the combination of the weather, the terrorist attacks, the predictable but devastating return of students [her worst audience] was like I was invisible,” Palmer says.

According to Jason Weeks, who issues performer permits as the executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council (CAC), other long-time performers have also recently turned away from the Square.

“Suddenly, they’re seeing stores being taken away and places like Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacific Sunwear coming in,” Weeks says. “This has a psychological impact.”

He mentions the loss of “Jim the Juggler,” who spent about eight years performing a popular show in Brattle Square.

“He was a splendid juggler—one of the best out there,” Weeks says. “What he said to me was that there’s just a different crowd. The feedback just wasn’t as welcoming as it once was.”

But for newer, part-time performers, the Square has not lost its cachet.

This past summer Webb covered her body in silver paint each weekend and performed on a street corner outside Pacific Sunwear, posing as a silver bunny.

In costume, Webb wears a tarnished silver dress, ripped stockings on her arms and legs and large rabbit ears. Combining the symbol of the Playboy bunny with ripped and ragged clothing, she says the costume is meant to be a political statement about the contradictory aspects of femininity.

“I heard it was kind of scary,” she laughs.

Webb says that occasionally, when she first moved she would elicit gasps or shrieks from the passersby watching her.

“People would assume that I’m just a really strange statue. It was one of my all-time favorite things—scaring people. And adults are my very favorite people to scare,” she says.

Webb describes the mysterious appeal of the living statue.

“It’s a mind game. It’s just bizarre,” she says. “The first time you see it is an amazing experience.”

Stage Managing

From behind a desk, CAC director Weeks pulls the strings that control the Cambridge street performer network.

Prospective buskers trek to the 51 Inman St. office to fill out an application and pay $40 for a permit, valid for one calendar year.

Before they leave the CAC, the performers are also given a copy of the City’s street performer ordinance, which offers a definition of performance and regulates against noise levels.

One section discusses the proper way for a performer to collect money during a performance: “contributions may be received in any receptacle, such as an open musical instrument case, box or hat.”

Much of the money from the permit fee goes to pay street performer monitors—three individuals employed by the city from May through October to regulate the sound level and mediate potential disputes between performers. The monitors can also issue citations: a verbal warning for the first time the performer violates a code, then a $25 citation. The performer’s permit will be revoked after three citations.

Acosta describes the position as one that strikes a difficult balance between meter maid and friend to the performers.

“If you’re a monitor, you try to avoid giving tickets—you always talk to the performers first. You get to know them all by names,” Acosta says. “One hard thing was to tell musicians to turn down their music. As a musician myself, it was just hard to go against my values of loud music.”

Acosta says noise complaints about large bands by solo folk singers are the source of most conflict between the performers.

The ordinance requires that drums must be inaudible at a distance of 150 feet and that no performer or group of performers may perform less than 50 feet from another group—rules Palmer says are well-publicized but generally ignored.

“There are no rules,” she says. “Every performer makes their own rules.”

Performers also compete for prime positions. Although some spots are more lucrative than others, the permits given out by the CAC do not specify place—leaving the entertainers to regulate themselves.

“There is no actual hierarchy of who can perform where. It’s more like an unspoken, constantly morphing negotiation,” Palmer says. “The politics of it are totally different depending on who you are.”

In Key West, where Palmer also performed, the system was much more formalized. Performers entertaining on a single pier divided themselves into a hierarchy of five classes, based on history and type of performance. Every night, they drew straws to determine who performed where.

Palmer says performance in the Square is completely decided on a first-come, first-serve basis. But she says most buskers will work to find a spot where their act will not disturb any established performers.

Webb took all these considerations into account when she looked for a spot to perform her silver bunny act at the beginning of the summer.

Before choosing to stand in front of Abercrombie & Fitch, she says she considered the sun, traffic and other performers.

“I didn’t want to be in the most high traffic area,” she says. “Especially because it was my first year, it would have been disrespectful.”

Entertainment Troupe

Despite the potential for conflict, performers say there is a real sense of busker community in the Square.

When long-time and well-known Square puppeteer Igor Fokin died at age 36 of heart failure five years ago, Weeks says, fellow entertainers were devastated. They held a vigil for Fokin and began to raise money for a memorial project along with the CAC.

“There were a lot of fond feelings for Igor,” Weeks says. “He represented the best of what street performers can be.”

The group successfully raised enough money to send Fokin’s family back to Russia in 1997 and unveiled the Igor Fokin Memorial Sculpture Project—a bronze statue of Fokin’s anteater puppet “Doo Doo”—just this past September. The small, whimsical stature sits on one of the granite pedestals in Brattle Square, where Fokin worked most often and performed his final show.

Three bronze bricks sitting at the base of the pedestal pay homage to Fokin and street entertainment in general. The inscription reads, “In memory of beloved puppeteer Igor Fokin, 1960-1996, and in celebration of all street performers.”

Following the dedication of the statue, 10 local street artists performed an hour-long vaudeville show in the middle of Brattle Square.

“Community’s very important,” Webb, says. “It’s all of us, doing what we do, that makes the Square a good place for performers.”

—Staff writer Daniel J. Lamas can be reached at

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