OTTAWA — On street corners and other open areas of the ByWard Market, unobtrusive quartets of painted yellow dots form imaginary rectangles inside of which the popular tourist area’s buskers and street performers are permitted to operate. They are assigned schedules, and hourly move from one venue to the next, each hoping that the day’s good weather and generosity hold up.
They are not simply some representative cross-section of humanity — they are street performers, after all — but within that parameter, have backgrounds as wide and talents as varied as you could imagine.
Yves Larocque, a 50-year-old from Gatineau, busked throughout his 20s on his recorder, and returned to it three years ago when physical disabilities prevented him from holding down a full-time job. He can’t busk full time, either, keeping his income to about $4,000 annually, but continues because of how it makes him feel.
“I love playing the flute,” he says following a rendition of Greensleeves. “The pleasure that I derive from playing it is great, but also the pleasure derived from the fans loving it is great, too.”
His hour at the corner of George and ByWard is up, and a mime who motionlessly holds a pair of racquetball rackets has taken over. Slipping out of character, the mime turns our way and spits, “He doesn’t represent all the buskers, just remember.”
An hour later, the spot is taken by 22-year-old Vancouver balloonist Lauren Preston, just over a year in the trade and in Ottawa briefly with her fire-juggling boyfriend.
“It’s fun,” she says. “I get to make people’s days making balloons for them.”
She could do without the bullying bylaw enforcement officers she’s encountered, she says, and the small percentage of the population that feels the need to treat street performers poorly, but that goes part and parcel with the job.
Tasmanian classical guitarist Tom Ward, a semifinalist on Australia’s Got Talent, takes that sort of thing in stride, brushing off incidents where people have stolen money from his guitar case, or when the onlooker who stood up and peed while Ward was performing.
Taking his turn on the same corner, Ward is a rare busker who’s career is split. Apart from busking, he’s also a recording artist who performs numerous shows each year in concert halls, including the Sydney Opera House. On the summer street corners, the 30-year-old enjoys bringing classical guitar to an audience that might not otherwise ever hear it.
Additionally, he says, you never know when your busking might make a difference to someone. A busker friend of his who performs comedy was doing his thing one night near a tall structure in Sydney often used for suicides, and the laughter of his audience induced a woman to climb down from the structure to see what was so funny.
“She watched him every day for a month,” says Ward, “and then went up to him and said, ‘A month ago I was about to jump off this thing, but you made me laugh. And you made me laugh every day since, so now I feel good.’”