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About This Festival

You know all those freakishly talented people you’ve encountered in a comedy club, burlesque show, or on the sidewalk, subway station, or as part of a circus act? Since 1993, a number of them have been coming together and demonstrate their own unusual and entertaining skills at this festival in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Held during New Zealand’s summer, in January, the festival hosts upwards of 60 performers of all types: comedians, street performers, acrobats, hoola-hoopers, circus, vaudeville and burlesque acts, trapeze artists, musicians, visual artists, dancers and all around fringe festival performers—those whose ideas, acts, and art are a little bit off the wall and happily, cheekily, more than left of center. Case in point: how about the Sam Will, who performs as Boy with the Tape on His Face and who’s described as “mime with noise, stand-up with no talking, drama with no acting.” Or a tall, large Nigerian-born Londoner in elaborate dresses who goes by the name Le Gateau Chocolat (as in chocolate cake, naturally) and stuns crowds with his outrageous behavior and cabaret baritone. You will likely see street theater staples such as a performer juggling while riding a unicycle, and or another one escaping a straitjacket while riding a pogo stick.

World Buskers fest is the brainchild of Jodi Wright, its founder and current artistic director who runs it in conjunction with Christchurch City Council. Over the course of 11 days, it typically attracts about 300,000 people who come to see nearly 500 unpredictable performances. Many countries celebrate the very particular and universally recognizable performance fixture—the busker. But Scirt World Buskers Festival is different because it’s larger, goes on for longer, has at least 65 acts from 8 countries and intentionally tries to mix it up with a balance of fringe theater elements and stop-you-in-your-tracks street shows. Like any festival, it has seen some changes through the years; most notably, the earthquakes in the Canterbury in 2010-2011 wrecked the festival’s traditional street pitches and venues. So these days, the story of this festival is a tale of urban renaissance. It provides residents and visitors with laughter and some mayhem, but it also celebrates the city, its people, and its public spaces by incorporating elements of the festival into high-traffic areas or existing venues. These range from the Christchurch Casino to the Gap Filler’s Summer Pallet Pavilion to the pitches at Re:START City Mall and New Brighton Basketball Court.

How to Start? Where to Go?

There’s so much to see and do, and a lot of it happens simultaneously throughout the park and in a few offsite locales. Where to begin? You can’t run a festival this irreverent and be all straightforward about it, so programming this year was characterized into five “genres:” Ha ha ha (stuff that will make you laugh); Ouch (stuff with elements of contortion ands body manipulation); Wow (dangerous, daredevil, sublimely beautiful stuff); Lala La (stuff with music); and, Ta Da (stuff with an element of magic). Arrive in the morning, and from 11am through midnight you can wander around, munch on food from any of 20 vendors, shop at the Busker Market, and enjoy entertainment at its seven outdoor stages and venues. But be warned. With roving performers who will engage you—whether that means getting called up on stage or something less potentially humiliating, like getting a water gun squirted at you—there’s always the distinct possibility that you may end up as part of the act. For as goofy and lighthearted as all of this may seem, it’s serious business, too. Performers compete for the Iron Chickens Awards, granted by the critics every year for best international act and best Kiwi act. The $2,500 cash award also includes an automatic return invitation to the festival and an Iron Chicken sculpture by artist Hannah Kidd.

Something for Everyone

It’s not all a bunch of edgy performances, however. “Songs to Make You Smile,” an old-fashioned cabaret act of tunes from old-school songwriters (Cole Porter, Irving Berlin), appeals to a slightly older demographic from Lili La Scala. And then there’s the whole Tip Top Buskers Kid Pitch—kids have no boundaries when it comes to comedy, as any parent can likely attest. That’s held next to a playground near the Botanic Gardens and includes acts including things such as hoola hoopers, jugglers, and comedic acrobats. This year’s Nothing but Stand Up was a successful experiment, organized with a “Battle of the Sexes,” motif. Just about every night one female comedian and one male comedian did their set simultaneously (on separate stages, mind you). It’s not all push-the-envelope extremism—although that’s there, too.

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