Street Theatre Actor
What is Street Theatre?
Be an animal thespian. You can act for animal rights in more ways than one. Street theatre actors take their performance literally onto the streets: to street corners, market places, town squares and busy shopping centres. Serious street theatre performers use their acting skills as a political weapon by circulating current ideas and exploring controversial social themes to influence social reform. Street theatre is an opportunity for you to probe the social, moral and political questions arising from animal rights.
This is what one street theatre group was doing in the streets of Belfast. Linda McKee, reported for the Belfast Telegraph: "In the drama by the Mac Factor street theatre group, the red-coated, whipcracking hunter pursued a fox in an age-old chase that usually ends with the animal torn apart by hounds. But yesterday, the tables were turned as the cornered fox fought back, bringing the hunter to the ground at Cornmarket." (1) Performances were watched by crowds across the city centre and were co-ordinated by the League Against Cruel Sports as part of their 2007 campaign to ban fox-hunting in Northern Ireland.
Street theatre is a tradition that people watch around the world where audiences are as diverse and different as cosmopolitan London and remote rural India. It reaches even people who have never been to a regular theatre. Street theatre actors perform for anyone passing by with time to stop and watch them, and there is no entrance free. The genre is not 'outdoor theatre', where an indoor performance is entirely transferred with props, lighting and all to an outdoor arena, such as an amphitheatre, set aside for an audience to pay a fee for admission. Nor do merely acrobats, jugglers and fire-eaters dominate a street theatre.
Your Street Theatre
Your audiences are largely composed of passers-by. They have not come prepared to watch a play and are preoccupied with other things, which imposes a limitation on keeping your plays short. Furthermore, as street theatre actors your performing group is peripatetic, so you use minimal costumes and simple portable stage props. At a performance you could start off by singing or playing a loud instrument to attract people. When a sufficient number of onlookers have gathered around, you can begin. In the bustle and hubbub of a busy street you will have to be loud and larger than life and may employ humour, slapstick, song and lively dance to keep the attention of mixed crowds.
Decide to perform independently or in conjunction with the campaigns of other animal rights groups. Either way deliver your message with more certainty by handing out literature about yourselves, your aims and your plays, and at the end of each play by holding a public discussion questioning its purpose (see The 'Y', below). With many street plays under your belt you may be in a good position to organise workshops to teach the art of street performance to other aspiring street theatre actors.
Where to stage your performances? Not just in the streets. Go on tour to schools, factories and civic centres. Book a place at festivals and fairs. Act outside the headquarters of animal abusing companies, supermarkets, animal laboratories and zoos, especially if they constitute the theme of your act. Find out whether you require a licence from your local authority to stage acts and discussions in the street. If you need a licence and do not have one, be prepared to make a bolt for it if a policeman turns up to watch you!
An example of a street theatre company is the 'Y Touring Theatre Company', which aimed to shake up people's attitudes by creating quality theatre to highlight serious and perplexing contemporary issues. The theatre company was founded in Britain in 1989 as part of the Central Young Man's Christian Association (known as the Y) and has toured throughout Britain and abroad.
One of the Y's interests is ethics in science. To this end the playwright Judith Johnson wrote Every Breath
for the Y. The play raises moral, social and scientific questions inherent in using animals in medical research. It poses fundamental questions like whether you are right to put your kin above the lives of animals. The play is intended for students aged 14 plus as part of their science, drama and religious education curricula. The Y have staged the play for thousands of school children nationally and have performed it for audiences at the annual Edinburgh Festival. Interestingly, Every Breath
has received funding by a number of organisations and backing from all sides of the animal experimentation debate.
The setting of the play is with a family in danger of breaking up because of the animal experimentation dispute. The four characters in the play are a teenage vegetarian campaigning peacefully to stop a university animal laboratory being built (shades of Cambridge University, see Animal Lawyer, Chapter 4); his older sister, a research student experimenting on rats; their mother, a single mum dedicated to her children; and the mum's boyfriend, an odd job man from a rough background contemplating Buddhism, who brings some light-heart humour to the serious nature of the performance.
One of the principle aims of the Y Touring Theatre Company is to create an impartial arena for learning through debate. So following a performance they encourage the audience to discuss the issues raised by their play. Before performances the company distributes 'preparatory lessons' for teachers and students to ready themselves with background information to take most opportunity of the play and subsequent debate. The premiere of the play at a school in London was followed by a "rowdy and combative discussion", according to a review in a national newspaper (2).
What You Need
The necessary minimum that you need to be a street actor is:
- A burning desire to act and the recognition that you can satisfy it in the street.
- The skill of projecting your body movements and voice so that scores of people standing around you can comprehend what you are trying to convey. In short, you must be able to act with many distractions in a noisy crowd.
- Dedication and sufficient time, not just for acting but to devote to the planning, organising and rehearsing that go into each performance.
- Your audience will definitely walk away if they get bored or are busy. So you do not want to be over-sensitive to people's coming and going and when playing to a diminishing crowd.
Although onlookers do not pay an entrance fee some of them might throw you a few coins; so financial remuneration is nil or minor and you will have to support yourself some other way. But you never know if an impresario is in the crowd and about to discover you. Add to that the satisfaction of combining show biz with animal rights.
National Association of Street Artists
. Artists and companies creating street and outdoor arts work.
(1) Linda McKee, The campaigners who turned a fox hunt protest into performance art.
Belfast Telegraph, 17 February 2007.
(2) Guardian. 14 March 2006.
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