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Street Performers Exploit the Crowd Mentality

“Improvision,” was scrawled on a large slab of cardboard that was taped to the door of a bar. The place was packed, I could see the actors doing their show through the window. A good scene, or so it seemed at the time. I walked in and grabbed a beer. It soon became apparent that [...]

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“Improvision,” was scrawled on a large slab of cardboard that was taped to the door of a bar. The place was packed, I could see the actors doing their show through the window. A good scene, or so it seemed at the time. I walked in and grabbed a beer. It soon became apparent that “improve comedy” really just meant a few individuals standing in front of a room of people screaming loudly. For some reason, high vocal volume is oft associated with humor in much of the world, though I feel as if this should be in error. The actors were not terrible, but were in no way above the level of street performers. The entertainment sufficed for a single beer.

But as I finished up my bottle, the actors finished up on stage. Bravo. Passing the hat would have been standard practice here, but these actors did no such thing. Rather, they declared that they wanted 50 pesos from everyone in the bar.

What the . . .?

For scale, a full multi-course meal complete with a drink can be had in this city for 40 pesos, it only costs 30 pesos to go to the circus, and this mediocre acting troupe very astutely declared that they wanted 50 pesos per person for their barroom entertainment. The buying power equivalent of 50 pesos here is roughly $10 in the USA. I looked over the crowd, they sat rather nervously, balking at digging into their purses and wallets.

I found myself offended, perhaps for the first time in years. What a bunch of shits. I slammed my beer down and made for the door, crossing directly in front of the actors. A dick move, yes, but this was by design. One of the costumed screamers tried to call me out. F’ck it, I’m out of here.

Of all the traveling artisans and artists, actors are the only ones that I occassionally find myself at odds with. I admire their old time use of the power of the clown, I admire how they can get a crowd of people behind them for the point of making fun of individuals, but I want nothing to do with it. It is a high school bully tactic — you get a group of people to support you out of fear that you will turn on them and exploit their insecurity in the name of humor. I’ve watched street actors perform all over the world doing just this move:

They get a crowd around them watching — usually by juggling or doing something simple to spark their curiosity. Then they tell a few jokes, getting the crowd breathing, laughing on the same beat. Then they begin picking out individuals — people who would be regarded as tough or threatening on a one to one basis are often their prime targets — and they begin poking fun at them, making everyone else laugh at their expense. Eventually, the crowd ceases to laugh out of humor but out of fear that they will be the next called out on the comedy chopping block. The crowd, in this instance, becomes a single biological mass — laughing, jeering in unison, going zebra — praying silently that all aspect of their individuality is concealed and they will not be the next to receive the attention of the performer. The fear of standing out in a group is thus enacted, nobody talks or acts out of turn, nobody leaves — they stand still and follow their prompts until the performer takes his final bow — and then they fill his hat and applaud.

I admire the street performer because they can often transform a crowd of living, breathing individuals together into a lump entity. This is perhaps the same power enacted by totalitarian governments, as they stomp out individual thought, opinion, and control a mass of people too afraid to stand out in a crowd.

There is a reason why people often take action in groups that they would never take if acting alone — the group/ pack/ tribal mentality is still strong in the modern human. It it is, perhaps, among the most dangerous elements of our species. Street performers can often key into this tendency and use it to control a crowd — exploiting it magnificently for pocket change.


Filed under: Art and Music, Mexico

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

4 comments… add one

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  • Pat Sheffield November 29, 2011, 3:21 am

    I was trained as an “actor” in the US, but your story here turns my stomach. What these guys were doing is not acting at all, even though is is what even we call “improv”. Please realize that there are all kinds of “acting” and I would have reacted just as you did to these people!

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    • admin November 29, 2011, 3:29 am

      Very true, there are lots of different types of acting, and most of it I enjoy. But it is just amazing to me how some street performers can work a crowd.

      I guess the actors that I mention above were not that bad — this is sort of a compilation entry between the ones in Mexico and other performances I’ve observed elsewhere — but it was just the fact that they asked for a rather significant amount of money without posting any sort of indication in advance that really got me. I thought they were just doing some barroom entertainment.

      Make sure someone videos that play you’re going to be in soon — I would love to watch it!

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  • Bob L December 10, 2011, 6:50 pm

    I saw the demanding a specific amount of money after an act only one time. This was after watching a show in Mexico where the guys hang upside down from ropes and spin down for a pole. The amount was small, and in fact was significantly less than I had planned on giving them. I chose to give them what they asked for, rather than what I had planned on. I almost refused, but decided the small amount was not enough for me to get upset about at that time. Thought it was kinda weird and it rather detracted from my enjoyment of the show.

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    • Wade Shepard December 16, 2011, 5:08 pm

      Definitely, the “charging” of a certain price after the performance, rather than just passing the hat or having the price they want to be paid posted up front (maybe even sell tickets), really makes the audience cringe. If these guys just passed the hat I would have tossed in 10 pesos or so, but they instead tried to ask for 2X the amount of the beer that I drank while watching them. It is my impression that if performers are working in a bar that it’s the bar’s responsibility to pay them (as they bring in customers). Passing the hat is cool, but trying to charge a somewhat significant amount of money without prior notice makes me run for the door.

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