Theatre and Street Performing in the United Kingdom and the United States
At the University of Oxford, I took a course on Modern British drama, which focused on plays written from the 1960s to the 2010s. I learned how straight theatre (which contains no singing or dancing) in the United Kingdom is often thematically darker than in the United States. The 1990s in Britain also witnessed the birth of “in-yer-face” theatre, an intentionally disturbing experimental genre which introduced themes designed to shock the audience. Sarah Kane’s 1995 premiere of Blasted in London caused one of the largest scandals in the history of British theatre due to its brutal depiction of sexual violence, although British theatre commonly has more on stage nudity than in North American shows. While British theatre arguably features more creative show selections than theatre in the United States, actors normally earn higher wages in Broadway shows than in the West End. The minimum Broadway salary is $1,605 per week while the West End minimum salary is only £518 (about $777) per week (while living costs in New Y0rk and London have historically remained similar).
I enjoyed seeing a production of The Woman in Black, which is the second-longest running show in the history of the West End (the London “equivalent” to the New York-based Broadway). West End tickets are slightly less expensive than Broadway, as tickets usually start around £25 (or $37.50) and most Broadway shows start around $50 while the average Broadway musical ticket is over $100. Broadway also generates enormous revenues ($1.362 billion in 2014) while the West End’s corresponding annual revenue was £623 million ($935 million).
However, opera is frequently more expensive in London than in New York, as the only current show at the Metropolitan Opera, Anna Bolena, sells tickets starting at $32 (although these are “standing room” tickets, in which patrons must stand for the entire performance). At the Royal Opera House, tickets for the sole current show, Cavalleria rusticana, begin at £58 (about $80).
Within the world of street performing, the subway system in New York does not require any permit, although it gives special treatment to musicians within the Music Under New York program (for which musicians must apply for through pre-screenings and a live audition). This preferential treatment allocates the most-frequented places to these musicians as well as providing free MUNY posters. In New York City, (above-ground) street performers also do not need any permit (unless they perform in parks), except when they use an amplifier and then must apply for a Sound Device Permit (which costs $45 per day). Shortly after midnight on Christmas Eve, I saw two talented women in their early twenties singing popular songs in a packed Times Square subway station.
While London contains a wide variety of street performers, an arguably more vibrant street performing culture exists in New York City, including the perpetually tourist-filled Times Square, which legendary performers like the Naked Cowboy call home. The Naked Cowboy, a musician who wears a strategically placed guitar and only boxers, cowboy boots and hat, has been performing in Times Square since the early 2000s. The Naked Cowboy is known for singing as well as performing weddings as an ordained priest. Another popular tourist attraction is the “desnudas,” who are topless, mostly Latina women who wear body paint and pose for photos. Throughout the warmer months, at least a dozen of “desnudas” roam around Times Square and commonly earn about $300 a day. Although public female toplessness has been legal in New York City for over two decades, the desnudas have faced great controversy, including from New York City mayor De Blasio, who attempted to tax all New York street performers in October 2015, saying, “If it’s a business, it’s a business, and it should be treated like any other business.” When I passed through Times Square around 11p.m. on a December weeknight, dozens of street performers dressed as the Statue of Liberty and cartoon characters were posing for photos with tourists.
Public dance shows are also famous in New York, and in 2014, subway street dancers usually earned up to $150 per day in New York City. By contrast, in recent history, the London metro has not experienced a well-established tradition of dancing performers. The street performers in London’s Trafalgar Square normally earn about £20 ($30) per day, and in the months preceding the new Star Wars film, about thirty performers dress daily as the film character Yoda.
In Covent Gardens, one of the most famous markets in London, street performers are required to audition for performance spots (in one of four auditions offered annually). Covent Gardens also enforces strict rules for street performers, as it prohibits acoustic guitarists and “singer songwriters” as well a lengthy list of instruments including wind instruments, brass instruments, electric guitars, drums, accordions, bagpipes or didgeridoos. Additionally, the city administration designates a certain area of Covent Gardens (the Courtyard Pitch) for classical musicians. In the London Metro, all performers must pass an annual audition held in June, and only British citizens of at least sixteen years of age are eligible. These extensive rules demonstrate a highly regulated street performing culture that largely does not exist in the United States.
In my next two terms in the United Kingdom, I hope to attend more performances by street musicians and dancers, and attend more theatre productions in London and in Oxford, as art unequivocally represents a dynamic part of British culture.