Changing Taste for Street Performers

by Dave Brankin

The thirtieth annual Taste of Chicago is an enormous production. Vast crowds, mighty portions and soaring heat indexes are some of the mainstay characteristics of the world’s largest ten-day food festival. A great venue to satisfy that hard to quench craving for fried alligator, the Taste is also a destination for those looking to find some of the more unusual talents in the city.

Street performers have become one of the Taste’s understated and beloved attractions in past years. Along the outskirts of Grant Park passersby are likely to glimpse a diverse lineup of one to two men shows featuring everything from puppeteers to the Tin Man. Each year performers young and old don their flashiest attire in hopes of winning the attention of an audience constantly on the move.

But for Taste of Chicago and street performance veterans like Emmett Miller, the Taste is changing. At the corner of Michigan and Van Buren, Miller’s artfully constructed balloon figures sway above the hundreds of heads filing into the park to see Thursday’s musical headliner, Trey Songz. In past years Miller’s balloons and accompanying magic tricks roused and puzzled Taste goers from inside the park. This year, however, street performers are being relegated back to their most frequented stage, the street.

For Emmett Miller, the decision of Taste organizers to keep the majority of performers outside of the festival is understandable, but disappointing. “We pay the $100 permit fee like every year, but the sites are being moving further and further away from where the people are,” says Miller, referencing a map of the festival grounds.

A few performance sites still remain within the park, but they are in what Miller describes as “wastelands,” void of much foot traffic and reprieve from the sunshine. It’s very important to pay attention to your venue, says Miller, whose partner and first time Taste performer went ill from the heat earlier in this week.

The difficulties for street performers like Miller don’t end with the weather or the relocation. As crowds break into the millions and temperatures climb, public safety is the first concern of Taste organizers and their partners, the Chicago police.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of Miller’s craft, as his audience grows the more likely it becomes that the police or security persons will interrupt the show, he says. Large concentrations of people have been areas of tensions in the past, and if Police believe him to be a potential source of the tension they step in, Miller says. But he insists that police aren’t the enemy of the street performer, applauding their efficiency and oft willingness to work with rather than against the performers.

While Miller would rather perform his magic and make balloon art within the park, he ultimately understands this year’s changes to be for the sake of safety. As long as everyone’s safe, we’ll continue to perform no matter where we are, he says. “And so I always tell the cops, ‘I hope you have a very uneventful day.’”

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