In King’s Square, a man dressed in a white tutu is balancing on a large circus ball, juggling fire for a delighted crowd.
Daryll Hackett, a street performer from Bradford, has been entertaining audiences across the world for 21 years. His eccentric act, entitled The Fabulous Kapow Sisters, is full of wonderful tricks, but it is his wit that truly captivates his crowd.
It’s not, he tells me, without intention.
“To me, the essence of street performing isn’t really about the difficulty of the trick; it’s about the relationship you get with the audience. I’ve actually taken down the skill level of tricks that I do as I’ve got older, but my rapport with the audience, and the audience response, has got better and better.”
Despite taking his act as far as Australia, York remains Daryll’s favourite place to perform. King’s Square has always been a top pitch, he tells me, in large part due to the perfect view. “I can see the Minster whilst performing, it’s great.”
The recent development of King’s Square also appears to have had a positive impact on Daryll’s work. “I think it’s great. Its widened the area, which works a lot better, because it’s always packed. Now when you’ve put your rope out you’ve got two dozen people watching you before you’ve even done anything.”
As for the future, Daryll is about to undertake a drastic change in career. “I’m about to go and train to be a vicar – I start training in September.”
Fortunately, The Fabulous Kapow Sisters won’t be leaving us just yet. “This is probably my last full year of street performing full-time, but I’ll still do it in the summer over the next two years.”
As Daryll clears his stage, another performer begins to set up. Andrew Sumpton, 27 from Harrogate, has been performing in York for four years. A large crowd soon develops, and it’s not hard to see why. Andrew’s show involves some terrifying tricks, including swallowing a sword and juggling axes blindfolded on top of a seven-foot unicycle.
He tells his awestruck spectators (some clapping, some wincing) that it has taken him three years to learn how to overcome the three gag reflexes required to successfully swallow the sword.
After the show, Andrew explains that the trick is less dangerous than it seems. “It’s really just the illusion of danger. It’s very well rehearsed.”
Andrew began performing full-time after realising that university was not for him. While working in York one summer, he saw a number of street performances, and, being able to eat fire already, decided to try it out himself. “I like doing it, because I enjoy the freedom it gives you. I like working for myself. I think you could do it forever.”
Although York is his favourite place to work, Andrew is less complimentary about the makeover of King’s Square. “Practically, I think it’s ten times better, but I don’t like the look of it. It’s too generic, its lost its character.”
After King’s Square it’s time to go down Stonegate and visit York’s Purple Man. Sitting on his purple bike with his purple tie and coat-tails flying behind him, he is surrounded by bewildered tourists, all eager to take a photo with him. He is more than happy to oblige. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years, because I like to make people happy.”
Purple Man, who shuns his real name, entertains York’s shoppers ten hours a day, seven days a week. Yet he would not call his act a performance, simply “meditation in public”.
It’s for this reason, he tells me, that he never tires of doing it. “I don’t get bored because I’m in altered state of consciousness. I’m not thinking as you might think. I empty my mind of all thoughts, so I’m not worried about the rain or the cold temperature.”
Though he doesn’t reveal too much about himself, Purple Man does provide me with an exclusive about his background, informing me that purple was not, in fact, a choice. “My mum was blue and my dad was red, but people think it’s make-up.”
He says this year will be his last as a street artist. “I’m going to make a statement soon.”
Leaving Purple Man behind, I am lured into St. Helen’s Square by an acoustic guitar played by busker Lewis Thresh, a 21-year-old from Doncaster who is studying at the University of York.
Lewis has only been playing in York for three days, but already loves busking. He plays for around four hours a day, performing a number of covers. “I tend to cover small acoustic artists that most people haven’t heard of, because I don’t know many songs yet. I do cover one or two Disney songs though, just for the fun of it.
“People really seem to enjoy it though. It’s nice to know that they appreciate solo acoustic stuff.”
Lewis intends to carry on busking throughout the year, but won’t be straying from York any time soon. “I won’t be going anywhere else. People come from other cities to York to perform because it’s such a good place to do it.”
This piece first ran in The Press on August 15.