Busking out

21:03, Jan 07 2014
jodi wright

World Buskers Festival founder Jodi Wright talks about 20 years of bringing brilliant busking to the streets of Christchurch.

As the World Buskers Festival is poised to roll into Christchurch again, its founder and artistic director Jodi Wright is bemused to be celebrating the 20th birthday of her "weird nonsense festival".

The irrepressible brunette, who is also behind the New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival, shakes her head and shrugs in an animated fashion.

"Twenty years I've been at this. Who'd have thought this bloody American woman could have kept it going for so long?

"Technically, the first festival was in 1994, but I started working on it in 1993 so I'm claiming it."

She was organising a polo event in the United States when she literally met "Mr Right". She married Peter Wright, from Dunedin, had two daughters and in 1989 moved to New Zealand.

Initially she found it tough to find a job in Christchurch.

"I did work for three days in the perfume department at Ballantynes but my American accent was apparently too loud. I was told I needed to quiet down, so I quit.

"I went to work for the IHC. I was in charge of three residential homes. My clients were having sex with each other all the time, the parents were mad at me - like I could keep them apart . . . anyways, that wasn't working out."

On a whim, Wright called newly elected mayor Vicki Buck.

"I wasn't really expecting her to answer. She answered the phone in her office. I told her that I had an events background. I said 'I will volunteer, I don't need to get paid, I just can't do this other stuff any more'.

"She said she'd had an idea for a festival of romance. I asked her what it was and she said 'I don't really know what it is, I just want to have one'."

Wright applied for the job of director of the Festival of Romance and got it.

"It was a bit of a scandal, " Wright giggles. "It was splashed over the front page of The Press. People were outraged that the job had gone to an American when a Kiwi could have had it. It was all over talkback radio, the whole bit."

The first Festival of Romance in 1991 was developed by Wright to be a celebration of all things romantic. It included a performance from Julio Iglesias, a Mills & Boon writing workshop and a Valentine's Day dance.

Street performers gate-crashed the romance fest sparking the idea for the World Buskers Festival.

"Right from the start I was ambitious with the title, " Wright muses. "I wanted it to be a name it could grow into."

After eight years she ended her love affair with the Festival of Romance, to devote more time and energy to the World Buskers Festival.

The girl from Tacoma, a military town in the Pacific Northwest, says she has always had a flair for organising and a "love of nonsense". These are the skills she credits for the busking festival's enduring popularity.

When the World Buskers Festival began in 1994 it was on a "shoestring budget", the majority of performers from New Zealand.

Wright, director of her company Toad Ltd, now travels to major overseas festivals, seeking the brightest new acts and sorting through pleas from international buskers who want to perform in Christchurch. Yes, her day job is watching guys playing with puppets and negotiating business deals with people bedazzled in sequins.

"That's a big thing for me, that the festival is viewed so well by overseas performers. Christchurch is seen as the place where they can try out new ideas and new shows. Christchurch audiences are surprisingly hard to shock."

Wright has honed her selection criterium to a fine art.

"Put it this way, I turn down more acts than I select. I'm careful about not having too many dangerous stunts - who needs that headache? And over the years I think I've picked up what audiences respond to and what they will enjoy."

The executive director of the World Buskers Festival, Jo Blair, resigned in September 2012, three years after her involvement with the festival began, after the Christchurch City Council bought the event at a rumoured price tag of around $450,000 (which included Wright's involvement for an indefinite period).

Wright is pleased to be working with the council's events team.

"It has allowed me to concentrate on growing the festival and making sure the acts we get here are the best we can. The events team know what they're doing and we all work in together well, I think."

Leyton Tremain has recently been appointed as the new manager and the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) is the principal sponsor of the 2013 World Buskers Festival. Naming rights come with a hefty price tag, but enquiries as to exact figures were not available at the time of publication.

Wright says the biggest problem she has faced organising this year's festival, post-quake, is a lack of venues, which is also a problem for April's International Jazz and Blues Festival. 
"Thankfully, the council has agreed to leave the GeoDome up until after the jazz festival. If they didn't, I'd just have the Aurora Centre and school halls to work with. This year's jazz festival lineup includes internationals Bonnie Rait, Kitty Daisy and Lewis, and I don't have a lot of venues. I thought the cardboard cathedral might be available, but is it going to be up in time?

"For the buskers festival I did have the Hot Dub Time Machine, from Sydney, originally booked into the park, but I was able to move it into the student union at CPIT. There's three nights of that dance party. In the office that's the one they all want to go to."

Thirty street acts from nine countries join the programme of indoor and outdoor theatre-style shows this year.

Events will be held both inside and outside Busker Park, in North Hagley Park, which includes bars, a bank, catering, stages and indoor venues, as well as at the Music Pitch and Street Pitch in Re:Start, City Mall, Busker Kid Pitch in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and Buskers at Brighton.

Wright says the team has attempted to strike a balance between traditional street performances and shows in Hagley Park. The Re:Start mall will have a music stage where Kiwi acts, including The Eastern, Nadia Reid, Dr Sanchez and the Asphalt Brothers will perform, and a traditional busker pitch near Ballantynes.

The pallet pavilion, a Gap Filler project on the corner of Durham and Kilmore streets, will host Keith Preene's Golden Goose Bingo, a night of comedy bingo that previously graced The Loons in Lyttelton.

People tend to associate busking with being strapped for cash - so what is the etiquette when paying a busker?

"I think that's the beauty of the festival - if a show's funny, people give money. If an act dies on stage and I've seen that from time to time over the years, then, well, they don't. The ones who are good at getting money are the ones who do it subtly, they work it into their act. I've watched them do it, it's very clever. "

The 2012 World Buskers Festival attracted about 300,000 visitors, Wright says, and advance seats for this year's festival have filled up fast.

Fifty per cent of the seats were available via the festival's website and the remainder are sold, on the dates of the show, from a booking booth in North Hagley Park.

"With street busking, the public choose how much to give to the entertainer and it's the same for securing the seats. People choose how much they wish to offer, " Wright says.

To mark the festival's 20th year, organisers have secured several well- known international acts including The Blackstreet Boys, El Gleno Grande and Gamarjobat as well as The Flying Dutchman, who performed in the early days of the festival.

"In the 20 years it has been going . . . it's hard to single any particular one out. It's more a series of great moments. To me, I find the most pleasure in watching people watching the buskers; people from all different walks of life together, laughing.

"Sam Wills' success, I'm proud of him for that. A busker from Canterbury gets on stage with international buskers and sees that he can do it and then goes on to make waves throughout the world with his show, The Boy with Tape on his Face."

Wills used his $5000 prize from The Press People's Choice Award at the 2008 World Buskers Festival in Christchurch to fund his show, which caught the eye of many at a subsequent Edinburgh Fringe Festival and saw him receive rave reviews.

Canterbury may have a reputation for being staid and dull, but Wright doesn't believe this. "International performers like coming here because audiences are the opposite. They'll give the performer with the weird idea a chance, probably more so than many other places.

"Cantabrians have a reputation amongst the performers as being generous with applause and money. It works in reverse, too, the festival does a lot of good for the city and not just in a financial sense."

With this in mind, Wright is thrilled to be introducing "boylesque" to audiences this year.

"Hello Christchurch, let me introduce you to boylesque, " Wright says, punctuating the end of her sentence with a raucous cackle. "There's a guy everyone should see, Jett Adore, he's part of the Stagedoor Johnnies of Las Vegas - beautiful performers. He'll be in the Buskers Burlesque with Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkeys, from New York City.

Is she prepared to go another 20 rounds with the festival?

"I would say it is arguably the largest outdoor festival in New Zealand, but it's also one of the biggest and most successful street performance festivals in the world, so I think it has a positive future, " she says.

Asked to recall any unusual moments over the years, Wright starts reminiscing about a load of performers' washing before deftly changing the subject.

"I can't possibly remember anything incriminating, " she says, grinning. "It's just show business."

SCIRT World Buskers Festival, January 17-27, Hagley Park and other sites. For details go to worldbuskersfestival.com.


The Press