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Performers keep urban art alive in downtown Indy

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On an early August Friday night, the sound of banjo drifted over the din of downtown Indianapolis.

Daniel Coles leaned against a brick wall, stationed between diners eating on local restaurant patios. With his hands occupied by the banjo, he blew into a harmonica strapped around his head. On his leg, he fastened a tambourine to provide rhythm.

Crowds of people headed to concerts, movies or area bars stopped to listen, slowing down just long enoughs to catch the tune or toss in a buck or two.

“It’s an awesome experience to come out and play for strangers, where they can listen for free,” Coles said. “They don’t have to pay anything, and you’re not demanding anything from anyone. People can choose to give you attention or not.”

Street performers are part of the fabric of downtown Indianapolis, from guitarists to empty-bucket drummers to human statues. But local arts supporters are working to get more artists to take to the streets. It’s a move they hope will add to the vibrancy of the downtown space.

“We want to foster that surprise factor. You might come around the corner and interact with a juggler or a magician. It all adds to the urban vibrancy of our city,” said Gary Ginstling, CEO of Indianapolis Downtown Inc.

Bargersville resident Allie Burbrink was set up and performing right in time for the Friday dinner rush. Though normally part of the group Whipstitch Sallies, she had taken advantage of a rare open weekend night to play on the street.

Joined by Kevin Guthridge of Midwest Rhythm Exchange, the two musicians played acoustic guitars, breaking out in harmony and classic folk songs.

People waiting for a table at Rock Bottom Brewery formed a semicircle around them, some of them dancing.

“I’ve busked before in Nashville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, which was really fun,” Burbrink said. “When I heard about it happening here in Indy, I wanted to try it. We’re just hanging out, playing tunes and see who passes by.”

Busking consists of any performance done in public spaces for tips or change.

Rules in downtown Indianapolis prevent street performers from impeding the right of way of the public. But anyone else is free to lean against a wall or set up on a curb and perform.

The joy is in the interaction, enticing someone to stop and tap their toes for a second or two.

As a performer, it’s often you on a stage by yourself. But on the street, the audience becomes part of the show.

Coles has been a street performer for nearly 14 years. As soon as he learned to play guitar, he taught himself some songs and went out to perform in public spaces.

Performing classic American and folk songs, he tries to cater to the crowds that are passing by with selections that everyone knows. He also takes requests.

“This is an ancient art — playing music in public spaces. Even in the modern world, you either see people doing it or hear about people do it. You hear romanticized stories of people playing music,” Coles said.

The buskers program is a project of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and IndyFringe, an alternative theater and arts group. It stemmed from the strategic plan that city leaders unveiled last year. One of the points made in the plan was a need to stimulate use and activity in the city’s public places, Ginstling said.

“Our public and downtown businesses and those who live downtown like the energy of activated public places, whether that’s street performers or pop-up retail or art,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to start discussing public art that way.”

A city ordinance to regulate panhandling also helped inspire this program. Officials didn’t want those rules to squelch artistic displays and traditional busking.

“We started having conversation of what makes good street performance, the rules and regulations related to it,” Ginstling said. “In those conversations, we put together a grant to help encourage this authentic urbanism.”

While organizers have recruited existing street performers to ensure the program starts on a positive note, anyone is welcome to go out and take part.

The performers started July 25 and have gone out every Friday and Saturday since. The official program will last through Saturday, finishing in conjunction with the 10-day IndyFringe festival.

The hope is that the momentum will organically keep it popular, Ginstling said.

Taylor Martin was one of the first people that Indianapolis Downtown approached to take part in the campaign. He has been doing magic for more than 50 years, and his Indy Monthly Magic event is popular downtown.

In his persona as Rodney the Younger, he dazzled passers-by on Washington Street with his antique magic show based on tricks and illusions common in 18th century.

“We’re trying to encourage people to come downtown, watch some entertainment and maybe put a little bit in the hat,” Martin said. “We want to educate people that this is how we make our livings.”

While the area around Circle Centre mall is usually a hot spot for buskers and panhandlers, others choose to branch out to other areas of downtown.

Heather Liden and Jeanne Jones took their clutch of hula hoops to Massachusetts Avenue. In the grassy lawn outside Bru Burger, they started hooping.

Their joy is infectious. As Jones and Liden twirled hoops effortlessly on their arms, waists and legs, families waiting for dinner came up to investigate.

Small children used the kid-sized hoops and encouraged their moms and dads to try with them. Couples out on a date, at a level of comfort where they don’t mind being a little foolish, see how long they can keep the hoops up.

“Our thing really is, more than performance, getting people to interact with us. Hooping is so amazing physically and emotionally, it really stirs the creativity,” Liden said.

She and Jones have been hooping together for the past four years under the name the Spirit Sisters. The duo have been street performing since late July, coming out on weekends to engage with the public as part of the buskers campaign.

It’s been a learning experience, Liden said.

“The first weekend was kind of off-putting. People were really just ignoring us. Maybe they weren’t used to seeing that, or if we were just crazy people,” she said. “But after that, it was amazing. All these kids and their families were playing. It was wonderful.”

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