EDMONTON, ALBERTA--(Marketwire - June 22, 2012) - A lot of events move through Sir Winston Churchill Square. But Edmonton's central plaza feels most natural when it is filled with the surreal: men who levitate, women who squeeze into tiny transparent boxes, contortionists, acrobats in whimsical speedos, eaters of enormous sharp objects, the devil himself. Oh and of course a lot of fake blood and fire.
We'll leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals but it does say something rather meaningful about a city.
In 1985, two Edmontonians named Sheldon Wilner and Dick Finkel - fans of imaginative busking - wondered if there might be a way to see the best of them without having to visit every high street in the western world.
It is an ancient art: develop a skill and test it on an audience, immediately, not in a theatre but on the street. There's no need for brand development, focus testing, or begging on Twitter. You just take your silver unitard, walk to the corner, and see if people think you're any good. If you are, they will give you money - at least the honourable ones will. If you're bad, well, you always have that law degree.
The Edmonton International Street Performers Festival started small. Dick Finkel, the artistic director, was originally from New York by way of Asbury Park, New Jersey - a boardwalk town. A self-described "old hippy," it was the anarchic energy of street performance that drew him to the idea of a festival.
But there was a problem at the heart of the idea. How do you plan spontaneity?
In the beginning, he had trouble reproducing the exhilaration and the edge of street theatre in a programmed public square, even with acts like the Flaming Idiots, Flying Debris, and two "incredibly abusive" jugglers from London, both called Mark.
Even if he were to curate the festival and invite the best street artists in the world, Finkel found one aspect was essential: passing the hat. It's a simple and elegant contract. If the artists were receiving a paycheque and the audience knew it, something would be off.
So, his job was to find the talent, convince them to come to Sir Winston Churchill Square, and get out of the way. Risk was at the heart of the enterprise, for the performers and for Finkel. The thing blew up. Even in its early days, with scant marketing budget and competition from other events all over the city, over 100,000 people would come to the square in early-July.
Streetfest was, like the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, the first of its kind on the continent. Like the Fringe, it has become one of the most studied and emulated festivals on the planet.
Shelley Switzer took over as festival producer in 2000, after eleven years as a volunteer. Without toying with the Finkel invention, she has more than doubled the population of the festival - to more than 200,000. On an average year, there will be 1,500 performances over ten days.
Performers from all over Canada and the U.S. have decided Edmonton is worth a ten-day risk. Finkel and Switzer also invite artists from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Like its surreal sister on the other side of the river, the Fringe, the success of the Streetfest invention has changed the city. Today, Edmonton is a beehive of street performers pushing each other to new and ever more ridiculous feats. It's no longer surprising, while mowing the lawn, to hear from your neighbour that he's heading off to Ireland in the morning to be a human water fountain for two weeks.
The 28th annual edition of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival is July 6-15, 2012. If you can't make it at that time, it's a damn shame. But not tragic. On your next trip to Edmonton, when the airplane's entertainment system dies, just ask the gentleman next to you to shoot fire, or water, out his ears.