Shrink Wrapping Street Performers in Key West

Will Soto

Will Soto is a legendary tight rope performer and comedian who has been playing Mallory Dock since 1976.  Recently, he announced that  “the city of Key West, known as an island of the Arts, has just signed a lease with the CULTURAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY (how ironic) to charge the Sunset Street Performers a fee of $20 per night for the privilege of accepting tips.”

Crazy.  Installed performers will now be required to pay $6000 a year, each, to play.  That becomes an income stream for the city of $66,000 a year given that there are 11 performers listed on the “Sunset Celebration” website .  With that fact, the public space contracts even more than usual under the pressure of a newly evolved absurdist form of über – capitalism that seems bent on shrink wrapping street performers and placing them on a metaphorical shelf of discounted over stock items.

Artist or Vendor

As a street performer I spent much of the early part of my career negotiating with city councils who felt compelled to reclassify cultural activities into commercial ones. The argument has always boiled down to whether or not the performer is an “artist” providing much needed social dynamics in public spaces, thereby increasing the quality of community life, or a “vendor” who is dispensing goods and services and profiting from exposure in public areas. The primary difference being that the former receives a fee from the city to provide a cultural service, the later pays the city to conduct trade.

Over time, the word “culture” has been quantified by placing the word “consumer” in front of it thereby justifying the change in the direction of the interpretation of culture, from one focusing on arts and social engagement, to one focusing on consumption and social isolation, which are ideal to the long term success of a consumer based system.

The shrinkage of arts culture is, unfortunately, the result of the Chicago School Economics, which became the de-facto financial system of the USA under Reagan and was enthusiastically embraced by Americans in their pursuit of the profit motive. Public money is not to be spent on social programming in America because it is too closely associated with the word “social” and brings the society (another word that finds its roots in the word social) closer to “socialism”, which is continuously being discredited in America because of its proximity, in the past, to communism. And it creates an unfair barrier to trade…

Socially responsible government policies and behaviour takes power out of the hands of corporations and puts it in the hands of the people, which does not serve the profit motive. While it has taken over 30 years, the situation in Key West is representational of the final closing of traditionally recognized social constructs in favour of commercial ones. I personally think that commercial constructs defy nature and anything that defies nature is destined to fail.

Through out history people have always assembled on the street to debate the issues. That trend has been suppressed in the 21st century, mostly through the privatization of public space and the use of police forces and private security firms who have been empowered to protect corporate interests by what ever means necessary.

The defunding and devaluing of the arts has been central to American economic policy. To maintain the status quo, the removal and/or restriction of the arts is synonymous with the suppression of the only real voice of public opposition towards unpopular government economic policy.

American Street Theatre History

America has always been a trend setter. In the 1970’s, America reached a zenith of socially active theatre companies, many funded by the state, who performed outdoors in search of social change often questioning governmental policy and stimulating debate. Their shows were often huge spectacles involving all sorts of tricks and music, as we see today, but there was also the subject or theme of the show. Street shows had stories and sought to enliven debate about social issues. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was one of the greatest trend setters in this regard, but there were many others as detailed in “The Radical Theatre Notebook” by Arthur Sainer.

In a society where everybody is told that they must pay for everything, it was only a matter of time before this sort of thing happened. With the implementation of user fees for street performers at Key West, it may very well be that the thirty year process of extinguishing the urban social campfire in America is complete.

Perhaps the only way to find out if there is a public that will help to reverse the tide, is to use social media channels to generate a street show crowd that is willing to stand up publicly, in real time, until the desired change is manifested.