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Returning to the Streets: Street Theatre in Modern Society

It is an old saying in the theatre profession that “street theatre is the best school.” This is because when the public has paid for a ticket to see your show, they are sure to stay throughout the performance—even if what they see does not involve them or excite them. But with street theatre, the actor has to be sure not to let the audience’s attention drop. They must conquer the audience minute by minute, otherwise they will simply leave. In addition to the freedom of the public, there is a freedom of the artist to experiment with their performance, improving their skills until they find the perfect rhythm and connection with passersby.

When I finally went to theatre school at the Philippe Gaulier Academy in London, I had already been performing in the street for almost ten years. My artistic journey began in 1980 as a puppeteer in a Scandinavian company and in parallel as a street performer. For more than fifteen years, I performed as a clown, mime, and circus artist in most European cities. It was my main profession from which I earned my living by following the seasons—performing in the south of Europe in the winter and in the north of Europe in the summer. During the winter, I used to stay in cities in south Europe where I could keep studying, training, and improving my performing skills. I can say that my theatre education was mainly self-taught and street performance was one of my most important learning experiences.

In the realm of street theatre, my artistic name is Nello Zanzara (acronym NZ). I consider myself to be a polyhedric artist, as my work, interests, and research touches various disciplines. My nearly forty years of experience in theatre includes puppet theatre, street performance, horse-drawn circus/theatre, commedia dell’arte, prose theatre, activist theatre, anthropological theatre, sensorial theatre, and social theatre. After all these years, I still regard street performing as an important and pleasant performance medium to which I willingly return. It also represents a highly effective educational experience for beginning artists.

A marching band of adults and children in the street.

Photo by Dario Li Gioi.

Street performance—the act of performing in public places—is practiced in every major culture in the world and dates back to antiquity. Street theatre has very remote origins. It is said that the first jugglers appeared in ancient Egypt and were hired in the markets to draw the attention of passersby to the pottery stalls by performing juggling and swirls of plates and cups.

The street theatre is a profane theatre; it was born in front of the temple, in front of the church square, and—in the early Middle Ages—it was the only true deuteragonist of the religious rituals. Historically, the time in which performances took place in real theatrical buildings is relatively limited compared to the phases where the stage space was an open space: a market, a fair, a square, a street, or a churchyard. Because of this, in many ways, street performance is foundational to how theatres function in modern society.

Street performance was common in the Romani culture, as fundamental to the nomadic culture. The Roma performed in streets, squares, and markets as musicians, dancers, fortune-tellers, bears, and goat tamers. They were present all over Europe by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic Ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe. Romantic mentions of Romani are found in all forms of song, poetry, prose, lore, paintings, and pictures.

Up until now, Roma people performed in the streets mainly as musicians. During the first half decade of the nineties, I used to perform in the main squares of Rome’s city center. I would spend the weekends in my clown costume. There I made acquaintances with a group of Roma children selling roses on the terraces of the square’s cafés or simply begging, looking poor and miserable. Every time I would start my performance, they would rush to gather the circle and watch my show again and again.

Ten years after, when I started working with social theatre, it happened that my pupils were the very same Roma children that had grown older and were very eager to learn clown skills to perform in the street instead of begging and looking miserable. This constituted the foundation of my future work as an arts educator for Roma youth and still is. I don’t believe that everyone has to become a street performer, but I’ve seen how there is a possibility to transform one’s own condition, adding dignity and potential to everyone’s lives.

Historically, the time in which performances took place in real theatrical buildings is relatively limited compared to the phases where the stage space was an open space: a market, a fair, a square, a street, or a churchyard.

Street theatre and performing has become even more effective during the two years of the pandemic and we have witnessed an important increase of performances and large flash mobs, especially regarding political protests from the masses to launch messages to their governments. In the twentieth century, the "theatre" leaves the "theatre" (intended as its temple) and returns in the streets, regaining possession of those scenic spaces that had been that of the commedia dell'arte and jesters. But it does so with the aim to transform the theatrical performance into openly political action.

Many companies are politically motivated and use street theatre to combine performance with protest including the Living Theatre, which contributed to the off-Broadway protest theatre movement; the carnivalesque parades of Bread and Puppet Theatre, a politically radical puppet theatre; the work of Ashesh Malla and the Sarwanam Theatre Group, a pioneer street theatre in Nepal; the anthropological theatre of the Odin Theatre Company; and the experimental theatre of Jerzy Grotowsky in Europe.

Today, in the cities full of events, the popular spectacle returns to take on an increasingly important significance, aided by the policies of reappropriation of historic centers. Not only the street but also urban spaces lend themselves to become scenic spaces. The sociological studies of Susie J. Tanenbaum showed that in urban areas where buskers regularly perform, crime rates tended to go down, and that those with higher education attainment tended to have a more positive view of buskers than did those of lesser educational attainment.

The establishment of ecological days and the creation of pedestrian areas with sophisticated urban furnishings now allows the popular and street spectacle to qualitatively fill these spaces that already belonged to it in the past. New artistic forms are born that combine theatre with plastic arts, circus arts, and mime. Popular theatre today, therefore, goes back to the people, rediscovering an ancient decentralization. All this determines the encounter even with people who do not possess theatrical culture and who perhaps would have no other way to assimilate to this type of experience live.

Today performers who, a hundred years ago, would have made their living working in variety theatres, music halls, and in vaudeville, now often perform professionally in the many well-known street performance areas throughout the world. Globally, street theatre and performing is now a common and appreciated form of expression that is taking on a new value through modern technology and social media. Flash mobs including hundreds of people around artistic or political actions have become a new form of expression. Musicians scattered all over the continents playing together through internet technology. In the 2000s, some performers began “cyber busking”—a practice where artists post work or performances on the internet for people to download or “stream” and if people like it, they donate using electronic payment forms.

A man performing outside for children.

Photo by APS Rampa Prenestina.

Street theatre invites people who may have never been to a traditional theatre into the arts. The audience is made up of anyone and everyone who wants to watch, and for most performances, it is free entertainment. Performance artists with an interest in social activism may choose to stage their work on the street as a means of directly confronting or engaging the public. Other artists consider a paying, theatre-going public to be unrepresentative of the public to whom they are trying to communicate. For them, performing to “the person on the street” may be considered a more democratic form of dissemination. Some contemporary street theatre practitioners have extensively studied pre-existing street and popular theatre traditions and wish to present them in a situation close to their original context. Whatever the reason for choosing the street, the street is a place with a different set of possibilities than the conventional theatre space.

The street artist is accompanied by typical elements of the wanderer, the migrant, the urban nomad—thus sharing the risk and adventure that comes with it. A street artist constantly travels through metropolises and urban centers presenting creative and entertaining activities. The street performer has the gift of communication, and their act can be compared to a liturgy, a sacred ritual of which they are the minister. The street performer is responsible and aware of any symbol, word, and message intends to deliver to the audience, as actions can provoke the strongest and most diverse reaction that will remain in the consciousness of the participants. With their performances, the street artist combines local phenomena with the global universe.

If we want, the essence of popular and street theatre is all here: the actor interacts with the audience to the point of physically involving them in the shows, as if it were a game. And this becomes an integral and irreplaceable part of fun. The marked interactivity between actors and spectators must form a whole and find its maximum celebration in this form of cultural expression. There is no real theatre if there is no fusion between those who act and those who participate in the dramatic experience. And all of us are united by the street, an element that unites and differentiates, giving rise to a mixture of figures and genres.

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