Blake Brasher
Blake Brasher

Let me Entertain You

Harvard Square has an uncanny ability to attract entertainers of different backgrounds. Unlike Boston’s Faneuil Hall, which admits performers on an audition-only basis and makes them schedule their performance times far in advance, Harvard Square does not discriminate: Performers who have never been in front of an audience before and those who have spent their entire careers in entertainment have equal access to its streets.
By Ginny C. Fahs and Keyon Vafa

To become a street performer in Harvard Square, you must:

1. Obtain a permit pass from the Cambridge Arts Council.

2. Keep sound to under 80 decibels.

3. Maintain 150 feet of distance from other performers.

4. Not perform beyond early morning and late night curfew hours.

Of course there are informal rules as well, like how the performers each lay claim to their own performance spot and get frustrated if their spot gets usurped. Some performers stake out their territory in the daytime, like the spray-painter who arrives at 11 a.m. to sit by the T-side Starbucks, or the hurdy-gurdy player just a few yards down on Mass Ave. Others pop in for short evening sets. At 7 p.m. a singer pulls out his instruments in the small Brattle Square green space; a three-person rock band plays amidst the staggering acoustics of the Palmer Street alley beside the Coop.

It is unclear exactly when street performing became a staple of Harvard Square, but when performers recall the history of the space, many mention big name players like Tracy Chapman. They mark the time that has passed using the city’s changing legislation and licensing rules.

Harvard Square has an uncanny ability to attract entertainers of different backgrounds.

Unlike Boston’s Faneuil Hall, which admits performers on an audition-only basis and makes them schedule their performance times far in advance, Harvard Square does not discriminate: Performers who have never been in front of an audience before and those who have spent their entire careers in entertainment have equal access to its streets.

Independent of a performer’s motivation or background, the lenient legal process for obtaining a permit and the rich history of performing in Harvard Square combine to allow for a uniquely vibrant performing culture.

It is one that persists, somewhat weakened from years past, even as the demographics and technologies of the area change.

Worldly and Otherworldly

"When I’m making these paintings [...] what’s in my mind? Usually I’m in the past," Antonio Maycott, 51, says matter-of-factly. He grins from beneath his baseball cap, then looks back down at his canvas.

Maycott used to be a long distance runner in Beijing; he worked in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo for a while after that. He is Mexican by birth and lived in the country until he won a scholarship to go abroad at age 24. He can speak Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and now English.

These days, Maycott spends his time setting up his mobile painting studio outside the main entrance to the Harvard T stop, playing upbeat music by The Beatles and other groups on his stereo and painting landscapes that are distinctly otherworldly: great space scenes of moons with craters, stars, exotic plants, and salty seas laid out before spiky, snow-capped mountains.

Maycott started painting in the street 17 years ago, after meeting a spray painter at a festival in his hometown and asking to learn about the craft. "He taught me the more basic designs, like how to make space, the planets, the moon," Maycott remembers, pulling out a water bottle cap that he uses as one of his moon stencils.

"I’ve been painting for 12 years [in Harvard Square], and I remember the newborn babies, or kids who were 12 when I came, and now they’re 24. They’ll ask if I remember them." Maycott smiles, looking up from his work. "I remember," he says, "I know all of the people."

He dashes purple, yellow, and white across the blueish paper, alternating the directions of his strokes and blotting the excess paint with a ripped magazine page. At this point, the piece still looks like an abstract blur of color. He fans it with cardboard, then scratches the pen knife across the surface to make mountains.

"There were a lot of kids who would come and dance. Everyone would come and look at the cute paintings and the little cute kids who were dancing." Maycott motions to his music, explaining that the sounds from his stereo attract children to his booth, and that the spray of color and fantastical pictures help them stay. His best customers are children, he says, though there are fewer of them now than there used to be.

A Changing Audience

Although many see Harvard Square’s current performing culture as robust, performers say the Square used to be far more crowded, which gave them a more dependable source of income. Passersby swarmed the popular performing spots at "The Pit" outside the T station and the "Juggler’s Arena" in the large sidewalks by Crema Café and Hidden Sweets—some even planned their days around attending the shows, both during the week and on weekends.

Performers believe this began to change in the mid 1990s, when the city of Cambridge voted to alter its rent regulations.

Prior to the ’90s, certain residential properties in Cambridge were rent-stabilized, which meant there were strict caps on rent-price increases for more than one third of the city’s residential units. When the city did away with rent control, rent prices spiked, making living in the Square inconceivable for many of the area’s former residents.

According to Thomas "Blue" Newell, 63, a puppeteer and a fixture in the Square for almost 30 years, getting rid of rent control "was the end of the Square." After the controls were eliminated, foot traffic through the Square diminished and audiences dwindled, Newell says.

Newell also asserts that the former lack of home air conditioning units in Cambridge helped lure people to the streets. "If I’m living in a rent-controlled apartment and can’t afford air conditioning, and I’m hot and I have six kids, what am I going to do? I’m going to go to Harvard Square and be entertained. And they did!" he says.

The elimination of rent control also corresponded with the rise of mobile phones, which, according to some, changed the dynamics of the social space. "I noticed [that] after rent control went away there were more people walking around with cell phones and iPods ignoring the [live] music, and Harvard Square changed," says Sharrhan Williamson, 64, who has performed on and off in the Square for the past 35 years. "It’s not quite as fun as it used to be."

"There are always new challenges," says Stephen Baird, a street performer who founded an organization called the Street Arts & Buskers Advocates, which seeks to raise awareness about local performing artists.

"There’s what I call the privatization of public space," Baird says. "Street performers are now competing with five iPads and iPods and everything else. A lot of people are wired, so you have to get them to shut off their earplugs so they can listen to you."

The Winged Man

Walking around a familiar place, it’s easy to be immune to architecture. Thoughts zoom in to entertain and occupy, seduce and entangle the mind: Will I get to my meeting on time? Do I have anything in my teeth? This backpack is heavy. Oh, I think I felt a text come in...

In many instances, the street performers blend into the background. They, like the architecture, become expected and even taken for granted.

"A lot of people don’t notice too much," says Blake Brasher, 34. Brasher’s voice is even and slow, his gaze direct as sunlight spills down through the umbrellas on Café Pamplona’s deck to frame his face. "Especially when somebody’s in a new environment and there are tons of other people around, there’s a real fear that makes you not want to stop when you’re walking down the street."

Brasher moved to Cambridge for college—he studied architecture at MIT—and was struck by the living statues he saw when he first visited Harvard Square. "It seemed very surreal to be surrounded by all these people moving around, yet to have something so quiet and serene going on," Brasher says of the statues.

Curious about the statues, Brasher befriended the woman who worked as "The Eight Foot Bride" outside Au Bon Pain, and, intrigued by her testimony, opted to give statuing a try. He decided he would become a winged angel—not for religious reasons, but because he thought the symbol was powerful. "I liked the idea of frozen flight," he explains, adding that almost every culture has a winged man in its mythology.

Even while juggling a full undergraduate course load, Brasher started working as an angel most days outside the storefront that was formerly Bertucci’s, beside the newest Brattle Street entrance to the T. He says that sometimes when he was representing a statue, he felt that his presence could change people’s general inattention. "My favorite thing would be if I could actually pull somebody out of a busy day, get them to stop, get them to look for a little while."

The angel became Brasher’s alternate identity for 10 years, from around 2000 to 2010, and his act came to be well known by students and locals in the area.

During the peak of his career Brasher worked five times per week, with each shift lasting three to six hours. After three hours he allowed himself a 13-minute break, at which point his audience sometimes approached him.

"Is there a trick to it?" they would ask. "What is the makeup? How much money do you make?" (That question was particularly popular among the 15 to 20-year-olds.) They would also ask, "What does it all mean?"

Brasher doesn’t work as a statue anymore—he’s discovered a new passion in painting and operates his own painting studio, working 20 hours a week as a robotics engineer to supplement his income. But, he says, if he could get to the point where he could support his painting career off of his earnings from statuing, he would.

Blake Brasher’s rules of being a good statue:

1. Don’t speak.

2. Don’t react to your environment.

3. Only react to an act of generosity.

Giving, not Getting

Erickson Gammad now performs a few feet down from the spot where Brasher used to stand as an angel. It’s a Thursday night, uncharacteristically warm for mid-September, and Gammad is setting up his instruments and amplifier on the little brick ledge outside Crema Cafe. Going by the stage name "Rik Baby," he wears his hair in a ponytail that curls around his neck and extends beyond his chest.

"I think performing out here is more or less like community service," says Gammad. His voice is gentle, peppered with a tiny twang of an accent. "If you can give [people] a little entertainment, I think that will put a smile on their faces, and they go back more relaxed."

Gammad plays the guitar, the keyboard, the harmonica, and he sings. He does covers of popular songs but also writes his own soft rock and love songs—music that he believes could land him a deal someday. But for Gammad, it’s never been about money or fame.

"I feel like music is very sacred," Gammad says. "It should not be used to enrich yourself or to become famous." Rather, he believes, music should be a vehicle in helping children and the underprivileged.

Gammad has a laid-back, Bob Marley-like demeanor. Maybe it’s his hair, maybe his energy that forces the parallel with his Jamaican double. It’s hard to gauge Gammad’s age—he could be anywhere between 35 and 75—and he declined to disclose the actual figure. He ends many of his sentences saying "time will tell," suggesting a fundamental uncertainty in spite of his peaceful countenance.

Gammad was raised in the Philippines without much money. He passed the time by learning to play musical instruments, performing solo or with friends at festivals and on the street. Then Gammad moved to the States and he now works in an auto shop by day so that he can come to Harvard Square only to entertain, not to put food on the table. He performs to give, not get.

"Back then, there were always lots of crowds," Gammad says, referring to the 1990’s and early 2000’s. "But now, Thursday, it’s the beginning of the weekend, and there’s nobody. I don’t see any performers. In fact—" he swings his head left and right, noting the empty plaza, "I’m probably just alone here today."

Gammad mentions empty nights like these have been happening more frequently than they did when he first started performing—something students who pass in and out of Cambridge in a short four years may not be attuned to.

As he’s contemplating packing up and going home, two 20-something girls make their way to an adjacent ledge. Spotting a new potential audience, Gammad smiles and stops putting his instruments away. He has changed his mind.

"Maybe I will stay and play tonight."

The Show Must Go On

Though the crowds in Harvard Square are dwindling and the performances are not as profitable as in years past, entertainers keep coming. Many of these artists have other creative or professional endeavors they could fall back on to earn money, yet the thrills and joys unique to performing outside cause them to keep returning to the streets of Harvard Square.

"If you want to get feedback on a painting, you have to fight pretty hard to get it in front of people," says Brasher, who now spends most of his creative time painting and trying to get gallery showings. Alternatively, he says, street performing spurs a near-immediate audience response. Performers can see the reactions of passersby, and spectators frequently take time to share their thoughts on the act with performers.

Wearing the angel costume atop his box on Brattle St., Brasher witnessed lots of audience reactions, many unexpected, during his performances. "People would sometimes come up to me and recite poems or say something really nice or give me a flower," says Brasher. He also describes how people would sit beside him and write little notes or drawings, fold those up, and leave them in his collection jar.

This generosity is not singular to Brasher’s act. One longtime musician’s eyes turned soft behind purple-rimmed glasses as she described how a homeless man listened to her music for an hour then slipped a dollar into her hat, mouthing "thank you" before walking away.

Another performer pulls a tattered napkin from his guitar case to show a note he received from a passerby earlier this week. "My best friend—another musician—died six months ago today," the note said. "Your music made today okay for me. Thank you. Fucking rock on."

This generosity on the street inspired one artist, Amanda Palmer, as she looked to launch a performing career beyond Harvard Square. After working on Mass. Ave. as "The Eight Foot Bride" statue from 1997 - 2002, Palmer went on to become the lead singer for "The Dresden Dolls" and "Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra."

"My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the internet as I was able to on the box," Palmer says in her TED talk "The Art of Asking," which went viral earlier this year. Palmer’s faith in human generosity led her to design a career around crowdsourcing—she relied on the gracious donations and responsiveness of the public through online platforms like Kickstarter and Twitter, raising almost $1.2 million to fund her music and tweeting out to fans to find accommodations and rehearsal spaces while on tours.

Palmer is currently on tour in South America, but she corresponded with The Crimson via email, writing, "I learned a great deal of patience, standing up on that box." She continues, "People are busy. Some take time for connection. Some fear surprise. Many fear eye contact. Many crave it."

But perhaps her most important learning came from reacting to the constantly changing environment of the Square. "The stage of the street is the best place to learn how to deal with the unexpected," Palmer writes.

Entertainers benefit from the unexpected course of events on the street, learning to mobilize quickly to escape inclimate weather or practicing resilience and maturity when doubters walk by glaring. Just as the performers arrive ready to be surprised, so have audiences come to expect the unexpected of Harvard Square.

Audiences never know who will be performing, which intrepid young person will pick up an instrument and give public music a try or which veteran will strum along to sweet music on a summer afternoon. They keep strolling by, eager to take in the serendipity of the Square.

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