Buskers invade Victoria

Weather won’t dampen spirits at talent festival

B.C.-based juggler and comedian Alex Elixir is performing at the Victoria International Buskers Festival

Sharon Mahoney admits that convincing some of the world’s top buskers to hit Victoria last year was a big risk, professionally and personally.

Victoria, a known tourist town, wasn’t a significant draw for the international street performer circuit. But local artist John Vickers was aiming to re-energize the downtown with a high-calibre busker festival, and Mahoney was key.

The Victoria-based performer has toured the world in her quirky red tracksuit as the passive-aggressive “Sharon from Canada” and her alter ego, the outright aggressive Miss Tallulah. Mahoney had the connections, but convincing performers to attend an untested festival required a leap of faith.

“Some top street performers really took a risk; I begged friends of mine to take a risk,” said Mahoney, the artistic director for the Victoria International Buskers Festival, now approaching its second year. “The pressure was there. You don’t want it to be a catastrophe, and summer is such a big time (for performers).”

Even with days of lousy weather – “July-uary,” Vickers quipped – the festival drew tens of thousands of people to outdoor downtown venues, and was considered wildly successful, especially for a first run. The festival estimates some 75,000 people crowded the venues over 10 days.

“Everyone was so impressed, it was so successful. The weather wasn’t perfect but we still had a great crowd,” Mahoney said. “So many performers commented on the cool vibe of the event.”

This year Vickers, executive director of Busker Fest, hopes to double the crowds. Tourism Victoria is marketing the festival beyond the Island and in Washington State – the event even had airtime on King 5 TV. Victoria hotels have stepped up and have donated 240 hotel room nights for performers.

“Ten days of shows is a long footprint. Noon to 10 (p.m.) everyday, 600-plus shows every hour on the hour with new performers,” Vickers said. “It will be non-stop.”

Three street acts are back by popular demand – Guinness World Record juggler Victor Rubilar from Argentina, U.K. clown Fraser Hooper, and Mahoney, a.k.a Sharon the Canadian. More than a dozen other stage acts were culled from 600 submissions, selected for their humour, creativity and family-friendliness.

“The first thing I look for is family – from three years old to 93, this should be for everybody,” Vickers said. “We want those who bring an edge, a touch of excitement to wow the crowd.”

Marking the Victoria francophone community’s 150th anniversary, two Quebec groups will perform – acrobat comics Les Vitamines and a three-woman fire act, Les Walkyries. Both groups are veterans of Cirque du Soleil. Added this year is an adults-only evening comedy cabaret, and music acts in Bastion Square during the day.

Mahoney calls street theatre a tough but exciting job where you are your own boss, and a perfectly egalitarian way to spread live performance art.

“With street theatre, you can be performing in front of a homeless guy and a millionaire. They both experience the same thing and pay what they think is appropriate,” she said.

“A family that is low income can come down, give what they can afford and have an awesome day of theatre. The idea is to have theatre for all walks of life.”

Main busker venues are in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel, on the Inner Harbour causeway, and right in the middle of Government Street between Yates and View streets.

Vickers said he hopes shutting down Government Street in the evening will demonstrate to residents and merchants its popularity as a pedestrian area.

“After nine nights we’ll get the sense of a pedestrian mentality,” Vickers said “I hope to concentrate 30,000 or 40,000 people in that block of Government (Street).”

The Victoria International Buskers Festival runs July 20 to 29 in eight downtown venues. See victoriabuskers.com for performance locations and times.