For much of my performing career I have been playing the part of the monkey rather than the organ grinder. This is not a confession that you would hear from many professional entertainers and as usual my tongue is partly in my cheek when I use an analogy that may not sit comfortably with everyone.
In case you have no idea what I am talking about maybe I should explain, it is based on an old saying from the 1800’s, do a google search and it will turn up some great images. The organ grinder was an itinerant street musician who earned a living by playing a hand organ or hurdy-gurdy (as an ex street entertainer myself I love to use illustrations from my roots). The monkey was the attraction. Without the monkey the organ grinder was just a man winding a handle on a machine that made music. In the 21st century his job would be a battery in an iPod, but he was also the man who got the money. This raises the question,
‘which is more important, the man or the monkey?’
And more importantly,
‘which would you rather be?’
When I started my career I was the man. I was working as a street entertainer and no-one told me what to do or when to do it. Some days I would wonder out onto into Covent Garden and do a couple of big circle shows. Other days I would find a spot in Leicester Square and do sidewalk shows, one after another. I would keep going till the crowds ran out or my voice gave up. If I didn’t like a particular audience I could end the show and start again. Life was good as long as the sun was shining and there were tourists a plenty in London town. As my career developed I started working in comedy clubs and I discovered the joy of knowing how much I was going to earn and when I was going to earn it. This security however came with a few conditions. I had to be at a certain place at a certain time to do the show, and if I didn’t like that particular audience I still had to perform. I still had complete freedom to do and say what I wanted but I sensed that I was becoming a bit of the monkey.
Jump forward a few years and I found myself working at trade shows – an obvious step for a street entertainer with the ability to fit in with the suits. As a street entertainer I had mastered the art of drawing a crowd and as a trade show magician that was my job. I quickly discovered that this was a job where I would excel. On the other hand the metrics which were used to measure my success had changed. No longer was it the money in my hat after the show that mattered, for my success I had to turn to ‘the man’ and see if he was smiling or frowning. I had to adjust what I did artistically to fit in with his needs and his demands. Sometimes the man would tell me he didn’t like a particular bit which would add to the frustration as sometimes, unbeknown to the man, that bit was essential to the handling of the trick or the final effect. Now I had to keep the audience happy and the man happy at the same time. But when all is said and done it is the man that feeds the monkey and the food was plentiful. Trade shows are a very good source of income.
The same can be said, to a degree, of corporate shows and cruises. There is a client that has to be appeased, particularly if there is future work at stake. There is artistic freedom but only within the constraints that the man lays down. Then money changes hands and all is forgiven. It is, as they say, a win win situation. But for me there has always been that nagging feeling, that itch that I wasn’t quite scratching, maybe I needed to be the man.
And then something else hit me even the man is someone’s monkey.