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Growing Up Backstage

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Issue: 45 Section: Arts Geography: USA Topics: education, performance art

April 26, 2007

Growing Up Backstage

An unconventional upbringing

by Kirsten Anderberg

I recently interviewed my 22-year-old son, Gibraltar, about what it was like for him to grow up with -- in essence -- the circus. My son was raised in the magical world of summer fairs; complete with fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, stilt-walkers, clowns, magicians, campfires with Klezmer music and forest paths lined with booths lit by candle and lantern light. He witnessed little worlds in the woods that would come to life and then disappear each summer. He knew the back paths to the secret doors that led backstage. He grew up, in sum, amid the rituals of a performer family and I would like to think that this lifestyle, in which thousands of us travelled and performed together for decades, provided an interesting backdrop for the life of a child. When my son was growing up, my main performances were on the street at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, on the Mall in Santa Cruz, California, and at open-air festivals and markets.

Back in 1986, I was interviewed as a local performer for Seattle’s renowned alternative weekly newspaper The Rocket. Gibraltar, then two, was on my back during the interview and the story included a line about him getting “one heck of an upbringing.” When I began street performing at age 18 in 1978, the double-standards in society about childcare played out on the street. A mother and child were not to be seen or heard on public streets, but locked up at home. Men with children immediately found girlfriends to take care of them while they performed; I had live-in boyfriends, yet was still forced to watch my child on street corners and at festivals like all the other single-mother performers I knew.

When I asked Gibraltar how growing up in our performer family had affected him, he compared his upbringing to that of a friend who was raised in the middle-class suburbs of Eugene, Oregon, and who had access only to mainstream art and media. As he grew up, Gibraltar became aware of the fact that he was different from other kids. He began to understand that the amusements he was used to had an avant-garde and political tone lacking in the mass-media entertainment environments his friends grew up in. He finds that he does not appreciate sloppy, poorly written vaudeville after seeing how intelligent and clever that genre can be in the works of performers like Reverend Chumleigh and the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

One of the things that stuck with Gibraltar about growing up backstage was being able to see the performers right next to him, rather than above him onstage. Our family campfires were peopled with these entertainers and seeing these exceptionally talented artists perform right in front of him at ground level, at his level, left an indelible impression on him. Growing up backstage also allowed him to see the performers getting ready, which gave him a more holistic picture of what performing actually entails. Gibraltar does not see art and artists separate from him. He explained that many people look at artists as "other people over there," but that in our family everyone is an artist of some kind, so he lives within a culture of art and music. His friends who grew up in the middle-class suburbs saw artists primarily on TV, whereas the kids in our family witnessed the process of creating art, not just the product.

He furthermore feels that performer families like ours “groom” their children for future artistic endeavours and that growing up in the environment he did gave him an apprentice-like exposure to the performing arts. Now 22, my son is very comical and threatens to become a professional comedy writer. Most recently, he's been saying he's going to ‘strike a pose’ when Mount Rainier blows, covering Seattle in lava like Pompeii… When the lava hits, he is going to strike the pose of ‘The Thinking Man,’ for the entertainment value for future generations. Currently, he is a manager at a national drugstore chain and enjoys playing music with me and others in our family. He calls his straight job in the straight world a ‘wild glimpse into the exotic lifestyles of the middle class.’ Growing up in the underground made the straight world absolutely fascinating to him; the same way alternative lifestyles could appeal to someone growing up in a straight suburban world.

Growing up around such accomplished performers gave him a reality check that very talented performers we know have straight jobs just to survive. Part of why he has a straight job is that he is sick and tired of poverty. He is not interested in the mistreatment and the constant free-speech issues that go along with a busking career. He does not want to end up like I am at age 46, begging for survival at the hands of my art and politics. He is also considering going to law school, since he attended law school with me as a nine-year-old child and is familiar with that environment. We are both considering returning to law school, actually. But for now, he just wants a job he can count on.

Gibraltar was with me almost 24/7 throughout his whole childhood and he accompanied me to all my gigs and shows. He lived backstage with me and hung out with other performers' kids. Although at times it was difficult, when he and I look back, we both remember sharing great times -- in the woods, with talented performers, for decades -- and I am thankful to have shared that with my son.

This article is a result of a mixture of an article of the same name, whose original can be found here and interviews with the author. Kirsten Anderberg currently makes her living as a street performer and journalist.

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