He’s standing on a piece of wood, balancing on a thick piece of PVC pipe, perched on top of a metal stool, juggling three knives. The crowd claps and Justin “The Great” Santini flips the knives high, the mid-afternoon sun glinting off the steel blades. He catches them, pauses, still balancing and then asks, “How do you get down?”
The crowd, about 40 people standing on the asphalt in front of the 4-H building during the Spokane County Interstate Fair, shifts nervously. Santini waits and then starts dancing, pointing his left hand up and down, mimicking a disco dance move. He shakes his hips. The crowd laughs.
“Being comical and being that outgoing street performer is harder than any of the tricks I do,” Santini said. “The first couple times I went out I was scared as hell.”
Santini and his girlfriend, Alexandria Truex, stage name “Du Truex” are two of the three buskers at the fair this year.
The two met performing in Portland, and now travel throughout the Northwest performing. Santini’s routine involves juggling, balancing, some body contortion and jokes.
Truex is a hula-hooper – she spins her handmade hoops on her arms, legs, nose and at times even her hair bun. In fact, Truex holds the world record for the longest time balancing a hula-hoop on her nose while sitting.
The work is physically demanding, and the rewards fickle. Half the trick is being able to attract a crowd, not an easy task at 4 p.m. on the fair’s opening day.
“A street show is way harder than a stage show,” Santini said. “When I set up to do my show nobody is coming to see my show.”
At one point, Truex starts her five-minute routine. She wants to capture the attention of a passing family. If they stick around and watch, others may join. However, about a minute later she stops. The family has moved along.
“I probably should have waited to start,” Truex said as she collected her hula hoops. “I had people over there at first but then I lost them.”
During her five-minute routine Truex said she burns between 500 and 1,000 calories. When Santini finishes his act, he’s drenched in sweat and parched from talking. The two sit together in the shade of a food truck drinking water. But they don’t rest for long.
“The pig races are bleeding,” Truex said suddenly. Santini stands and starts to set up his act.
In street performance parlance when a large group of people exit another show, restaurant or other event it’s known as bleeding. This is a perfect time to try and capture people’s attention, Truex said.
The only other busker at the Spokane fair this year is a good friend of Truex and Santini from Portland. Wells Oviatt performs as a living statue. Covering his body in silver makeup and standing totally still in the sun. At the fair he said he performs for nine hours a day.
“It takes a lot of energy to stand that still,” he said.
Oviatt has been performing for 17 years and said, “everything you can imagine has been done to me.”
Once, someone pepper-sprayed him in the eye to see if he would move, he said. Another time, a woman thought he was really a statue and kicked him, but he didn’t break character.
Street performing isn’t easy, but for Santini it’s a passion. Shortly after he started seven years ago, he packed his bags and moved to New Orleans to learn from the best. At the time he was determined to learn street performing or starve.
In New Orleans, older performers mentored him. He’s quick to emphasize the practice it takes to do the job.
“We are not bums. This is our profession,” Santini said. “I studied a long time to do this and we are not panhandlers.”
Ultimately, Santini performs because it makes people happy. He likes seeing people loosen up, and he likes not taking things too seriously. After one performance Friday, a young blond boy timidly approached him. He shook Santini’s hand and said, “You were really amazing.”
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