Q&A: The Magic Ball Man

Street performer and stalwart of York’s busking scene Steve Bullen talks about being the Magic Ball Man

Magic Ball Man

Image: Steve Bullen

How did you become the Magic Ball Man?

I’ve done just about every job under the sun, from bar work to welding, but decided to do performance as a living about seven or eight years ago. I was on holiday in Barcelona and saw someone else perform using balls. On Las Ramblas they have a lot of living statues and performers. I saw that, liked it, and decided to start doing it.

How does one start? There must be a pretty significant gap between seeing something like that and being in a position to do it yourself.

I’m quite good at doing physical things anyway. I used to do a lot of karate, and I had already done some basic circus skills like juggling and unicycling. All of that was really just messing about, though. I bought one of these acrylic balls, and I had no idea how to start. So I just began moving it around on my hands. To tell you the truth, when I started doing it on the street I was rubbish! It was only two or three years into it that I started getting to any sort of standard, really. It definitely takes a lot of practice.

What do you think is necessary to become a good street performer?

Well, there’s all sorts of street performers, so that’s a difficult question. My sort of work is very different from those performing in King’s Square, who really need the gift of the gab, and need to act like a bit of a salesman. I don’t really have conversations in my shows, it’s much more about the skill and performance. So for people like me, patience is probably best.

Was it a conscious choice to avoid conversation in your work?

I like contact juggling as an art form. It’s one road to go down to try to start a conversation with an audience before you start doing anything, and building interest, but I’m not really much of a spokesperson. I didn’t even give a speech at my own wedding! I don’t really like talking in public. My first speaking part was at a gig at The Basement in a show based on Labyrinth. That was absolutely nerve-wracking. Performing in front of people and doing the balls, I can do that with my eyes closed now. But speaking in front of people…Well, that’s not really for me. I prefer just to do it, and people get attracted when they see the skill in it. I think the majority of people think I’m cheating. I hear them talking about magnets or wires, but I just take that as a compliment.

What’s the best thing about street performing?

It gives you the freedom to get outside and do it, and advertise yourself. It’s not an easy job, though, by any stretch. A lot of people seem to think it’s quite easy, but I get up very early to get my pitch. But it does give you freedom, and the reality is that’s the only way to get into that sort of work. Working in the city out in the open means that you really feel part of the city and the street scene.

What’s the worst thing about it?

The cold! I can get up early to get to my pitch and I can just be starting to get warmed up, it can be a busy Saturday on half term, and I’ll be really ready to make some money, and it will start raining. I can come home and I’ll be cold and wet and will have made nothing. I can be out there for hours hoping it will clear up with no joy. That is, in a very British way, probably the worst part of it all.

What is the scene among street performers in York? Are you friendly or competitive?

We’re both competitive and friendly. We all know each other and cooperate. There’s usually a pitch-sharing scheme where if I get up at a certain time I can guarantee that I’ll stay on that pitch until a certain time. If somebody comes along and asks me if anyone’s due to come on next and no-one is, I’ll tell them that they can go next, and they would do the same for me. We generally manage to work things out between each other. There have been a lot of problems with the Council in recent years, with busking activists trying to change how things worked. There used to be a busking and performing scheme but that got overturned and shown to be illegal. We generally just try to cooperate, taking a pitch for two hours at a time then moving on.

What else do you do, when you’re not working?

It’s sad to say, actually. If I’m not performing I’m practicing new things. At the moment I’m doing a lot of things that don’t involve balls, so it’s a bit annoying that I call myself the Magic Ball Man! I’m starting to spin fire, and use fire balls, as well as poi work and hoops. Then it’s just tidying the house, and general jobs. A Yorkshireman’s always working! I certainly don’t stop moving when I’m on the streets, because if I stop moving I think I might freeze to death!

One comment

  1. If you want to learn contact juggling or other circus skills like unicycling, you can come to University of York Jugglesoc on Thursday or Sunday evenings http://www.juggler.net/yorkuni

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