Richard Renner had already been working full time as a street performer for almost two decades when he decided his adopted hometown of Lawrence would be the perfect place for a festival featuring others who make their living playing music, juggling, clowning, playing with fire and the like.
“One day, I was walking through downtown and just noticed that the performers that were there were pretty low talent—close to panhandling,” he says. “People with harmonicas and maracas and that type of thing. And I thought to myself, ‘We can do better than this.’”
Street performing—Renner’s act is slapstick comedy and circus arts—isn’t panhandling, despite some confusion. How can people easily tell the difference?
“I always say it’s up to the legitimate street performer to be so damned good that people totally know the difference,” Renner says.
You should be able to easily tell the difference at the Lawrence Busker Festival. The four-day event in downtown Lawrence features twenty acts from Australia, England, Canada and across the U.S.
“These people are top-notch,” Renner says. “They travel all over the world doing this, and they make their living solely off this.”
The Lawrence Busker Festival started in 2008 and has been held every year save 2020. The event is free, of course, though attendees are encouraged to swing by the ATM and stock up on fives and tens. The level of performance is high by any standard, with acrobatic feats and NY-based breakdancing twins Tic and Tac, who have been written up in the Washington Post and the Miami Herald. They’re acts that stop people in their tracks even outside the context of a festival.
“I’ve seen people start with nobody around and you think, ‘Oh man, why even bother,” Renner says. “But they start working and little by little stopping one person, stopping two people, three, four, and before I knew it they had a hundred people around. That is a legitimate skill.”
There are three well-known shortcuts—height, fire and noise.
“Get up high and set something on fire, and you’re going to get people’s attention,” Renner says. “Then make a loud noise. You want to bang on a pot or something.”
The festival takes place on Eighth Street, which is closed off. Attendees are allowed to drink beers from sponsor Free State while they watch. The most prized seats are at Sand Bar’s patio overlooking the festival. Renner books the festival so that each performer works a few different sets during the four days—but crashers are both tolerated and encouraged.
“We have control over five different sites, so I don’t control the whole downtown area,” he says. “So if somebody wants to show up and find a place and perform, I can’t stop them—they’re adding to the event.”
GO: The Lawrence Busker Festival is May 27–30 on Eighth Street and Massachusetts in downtown Lawrence. Free. See the schedule at lawrencebuskerfest.com.
THE TIP: The audience that gathers. “I did a show before a tip of a hundred people.”
THE PITCH: The spot on the street where a performer stages their act. “I can do a show in front of ten people, and I can do the same show in front of two hundred people,” Renner says. “I want to do the show for two hundred people. I’ll make a lot more money. So I’m looking for the right pitch.”
THE HAT: How much the performer made. “Hey, how much was your hat at that show?”