Eric Sloss remembers when he first really tuned into busking – the art of street performance. It was about 20 years ago, in Barcelona, and he saw a man standing next to something that “looked like a dead horse carcass.”
The man was an American who wintered in Barcelona, where he earned tips performing in a centaur costume.
“What compels you to do this crazy thing?” Sloss thought. “There’s something beautiful going in this guy’s brain that would make him do that.”
Since then, Sloss says, he has promoted busking in Pittsburgh, and has traveled the U.S. and as far afield as London and Sao Paolo, Brazil, to guide busking strategies there. Sloss, who also works under the name Asa Ana, studied busking in cities like New York and Seattle. And he thinks Pittsburgh can do better.
Starting Friday, Pittsburgh will see the latest fruits of the Busker Street Union, a project Sloss has helped lead. The Street Stages initiative involves stenciling six small stages on sidewalks in each of four communities: Downtown, the Strip District, Lawrenceville and Millvale. The designated spaces in the three neighborhoods will be programmed for a few hours one day each week; the Millvale stages are always “open.”
The approach is built on models like Pike Place, in Seattle, and London’s Underground. The idea was tested here in 2015, with a single stage at Forbes and Murray avenues, in Squirrel Hill. The point isn’t to corral buskers, but rather to create hot spots for street performance and help the artists highlight their talents.
“I love it,” says Mike Nelson, a musician and busker who attended a May 11 meeting about Street Stages. “This is what Pittsburgh needs. It’s been a long time overdue.”
The meeting, held Downtown, featured presentations by performers from the Pittsburgh-based Circus Art Collaborative, including a juggler, an acrobat, and a fire-eater named Joker. Representatives from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust including Sarah Aziz -- who directs First Night Pittsburgh and the Three Rivers Arts Festival -- also attended and voiced their support.
Pittsburgh already has buskers, of course, from musicians who perform in the Strip on weekends to Reggie Howze, the saxophonist who sets up on the Clemente Bridge before every Pirates game. Street Stages is another way to boost the scene, says Sloss.
“It’s going to be more clustered, so you’ll be able to see this happening block by block,” he says. “I think what’s happening now, it’s really scattered. You come across it, you happen upon it, but this is an opportunity to kind of see it in more of a kind of structured style.”
Performers of any kind – not just musicians (and centaurs), but also dancers, magicians and circus performers – can book their time slots on Pittsburgh Stages’ Facebook page on a first-come, first-served basis.
Pittsburgh Stages is only the latest effort to promote busking here. Initiatives dating to the late 2000s, including one called Busk Pittsburgh, drew attention but tailed off, Sloss acknowledges. But Pittsburgh stages builds on those earlier projects, not least in Sloss’ courting of then-city councilor Bill Peduto.
In a recent interview, the mayor enthused about the vitality street performers bring to neighborhoods. Asked about Pittsburgh Stages, he said, “We’re looking forward to working with the buskers, working with the people who are organizing it, and to hopefully as soon as this summer see a much more vibrant Pittsburgh.”
Some municipalities regulate street performances, but most take a more laissez-faire approach, tacitly permitting it under the First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly. Other possible challenges include noise ordinances and objections from merchants. (Most busking happens in business districts.) But Sloss said he’s also had business-owners in Pittsburgh request the painted stages, which he calls “stamps,” in front of their places.
While busking is a centuries-old practice, there are new wrinkles, participants in the May 11 meeting said. Traditionally, buskers pass a hat for tips, but increasingly, that “hat” is digital, as performers use apps like Venmo to accept gratuities. And some use web site busk.co to offer their services to event planners or other talent-bookers.
Buskers inhabit a spectrum not only of disciplines, but also of professional commitment. Some are full-time performers, even full-time buskers; others do it occasionally, and mostly for fun. And the name “Busker Street Union” is ironic, Sloss acknowledges, buskers lacking actual employers and all. But he does say the loosely affiliated group – which has about 300 followers on Facebook – could help in ways beyond Pittsburgh Stages, such as by acting as a clearinghouse for tips on drawing and keeping a crowd, and other professional development.
But Sloss says there are additionnal benefits, including enhanced safety – more “eyes on the street” – and increased foot traffic for local merchants.
Among the veteran street performers who attended the May 11 meeting was Bill Shannon, a Pittsburgh-based multidisciplinary artist who has done dance, clowning and more on streets around the world. While some street performers might be used to setting up wherever they like, Shannon says the Street Stages approach sounds promising.
“In a city like Pittsburgh, where there’s not a long history of established locations for street performances, having something designated is really going to help people be like, 'Oh, look there’s someone at this spot,'” he said. “So that’s also like an instrument to kind of kickstart a bigger impact.”
“A lot of cities really do shut down buskers,” he added. “And when you go to cities with street performers, it’s like the streets are alive.”