Friday, May 11, 2007

Are you a sinner? Or are you a winner? Find out with Phil

If you've ever strolled down Oxford Street you'll probably know Phil. For years his sharp Scouse accent took aim at the patrons of TopShop and H&M. To him, they were sinners; he was a winner. He'd embraced Christianity and forgotten vanity. His mission was to turn the heathen shoppers into a troupe of well-drilled worshippers.

Before receiving enlightenment Phil was a wealthy stockbroker. Turning his back on the profession that made him a handsome living, Phil traded in his family and his job for a small hotel room and a Bible.

We used to see him on the streets, all day, every day. As a public we have an uncomfortable relationship with strong believers in any religion. Forcing it on us is seen as very un-British. But there's a person beyond the preacher; he captured what he does away from the mic for us in the latest Spend a Day With.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


To some people they’re artists; to others they’re just deeply annoying. But there’s more to costumed street statues than being decked in odd clothes, sweating silver make up and asking children for money.

Paula and Andres are statues in the bohemian Buenos Aires district of San Telmo. Every Sunday thousands of people pound the cobbled streets of Calle Defensa, where they’re confronted by an army of standing still statues.

Both are in the photos; the words are mainly Paula’s.

"When I was in Barcelona there were loads of statues. I didn’t give them a penny"

Who are your characters?

We’re European immigrants that arrived in Buenos Aires in the thirties. We wanted to do something that was specific to San Telmo and to Argentina. I’m from the Spanish people and Andres is the son of Italians.

Other than standing still, what do you do in your act?

When we’re given money we say a little bit in Italian:
“Hello. We’re fresh off the boat.” Sometimes we improvise.

Do you do the act elsewhere?

We only do the Sunday act here in San Telmo, but sometimes we’re hired to do weddings and restaurant openings. We don’t advertise; people just come up and ask for our phone numbers during our act. We don’t get that many gigs – but just enough.

Is this your first act?

Yes – we’d never done any kind of street performing before what we do now.

Where do you get the costumes?

We make our own. My suitcase and Andres’ hat are my granny’s from Spain.

Why do you do it?

We do it because it gives us enough time to do other stuff. We wanted a job where we still had enough time to do our theatre work.

What do you do when you’re not standing still?

I’m still studying theatre direction – which Andres graduated from last year. We also give acting classes during the week to earn some money, but we come to San Telmo because it’s awash with cash.

Is there a rivalry between the different street performers?

There’s no rivalry between the statues – we’re all buddies. We’re particularly good friends with the windy people, and we’re also friends with Chaplin. The windy people are musicians and are also in a reggae band.

We all met doing this work, and became friends through the art of statuing. Outside work we all go to eat at each other’s houses.

What do you think of the other acts?

The tropical pigeon man gets his birds to pick out cards and give them to you. They’re meant to tell your fortune. The pigeon thing is old school.

If you had $10 to give to the street performers on a Sunday, how would you divide it?

Our favourite act is the windy people. There’s also a Chilean puppeteer with drunk puppets who we like.

Can anybody just turn up on a Sunday and start performing on Defensa?
We have the legal backing backing of the council, so we’re legitimate. We have a license now. We used to be able to simply arrive and just set up, but then we had problems with the police. Depending on who was on the beat we used to get various problems – but now with the license system it’s more secure.

So you don’t get hassled any more?

Yes and no – this is Argentina. There’s a police station round the corner, and another down the road. Depending on who’s working they may give you trouble – or not.
For example, one weekend the police changed and they didn’t let the windies work.

What do the locals think of you?

The local restaurant owners and businessmen like us, so we’re allowed to stay. Not because everyone gets money – it’s because it’s pretty. We’re not in competition with the businesses.

Which act is the most lucrative?

The tango dancers or the musicians generally get the most money. And within the statues the windies have got their game trump tight. Defensa is Defensa in terms of a perfect spot. Anywhere on it is perfect.

What’s the most you’ve earned on a Sunday?

Our record was $280 [Argentine Pesos] and US$12, because there was a cruise boat in town. We normally get about $150 [AP] on a Sunday, but it’s not unheard of to make upwards of $200. We don’t work for that long – other people work for longer which is why they make more.

How long did it take for the novelty to wear off?

We’re sick of it.

How has the act changed?

We were originally three; that’s the only way in which our act has changed. But the third was Chilean and she went off to get married.

What preparations do you have to do and how long do they take?

We used to improvise a bit more, but now we’re so sick of it we keep it to the bare minimum. We used to move a lot more when people gave us money. Now we’re still for longer.

Do you have to do your make up at home and travel in costume?

It takes half an hour to get ready. We get changed in the street.

Does your costume ever scare any kids?

Some really tiny kids get scared.

What tactics do you use to get money out of people?

Every now and then we’ll throw in a “WHOA!”

Do you practice at home?

We used to practice standing still at home. We’d watch each other and give each other tips.

How has the act evolved to where it is now?

We modify the act according to the audience. We realised how long we should stand still for and when we should do the sudden movements.

Do people ever realise who you are when you’re out of character?

We never get recognised.

Why are people are so interested in it?

People like it because they’re on holiday, they’re relaxing. It’s different and fun. That’s what San Telmo is all about.

But I personally don’t like it – when I was in Barcelona, on Las Ramblas there were loads of statues. I didn’t give them a penny.

What other projects do you work on?

We’re putting on a play at the moment – Little Hotel Chernobyl. It’s about four characters, and it’s very Argentine in essence. All the problems of the country are played out through the characters. It’s an allegory – about failure.

How has you’re theatre work been received?

All our stuff has been well received but looking back there’s things we’d change about our early work because we’d not done much then. We’ve won loads of prizes – like best feature, best direction, audience award and festivals. We’ve been all around, we’ve done festivals in Argentina and Brazil. Our first stuff was well received but, in retrospect, we consider it to be terrible.

Where do you want to go with your theatre?

We’re at a place now that we’re really happy with what we’re doing professionally, doing independent theatre. We don’t want to be on at the big venues – we’re not interested in commercial theatre. We’re very happy.

What do the other statues do the rest of the week?

Chaplin is a mime. He gives classes in that. He’s very good. The place where he works is run by one of the country’s foremost mimes, Angel Lisondro.

What do like the most about what you do?

We’re our own bosses. Obviously we work with people, but we organise everything.

What piece of your work are you most fond of?

Llanto de perro is the play that we’re most proud of. When we did it there was a great group vibe – everyone was lovely, all the actors were great and the theatre treated us well. Andres writes everything.

How successful do you think you’d have to be to give up your Sunday work?

We’re planning on quitting the statue business quite son. There’s a possibility that in December we’ll go to Bahia Blanco – where I’m from – to direct something through the summer. When we get back there’s a chance we’ll give up the statues. We’ll do a lot of teaching.

What aspirations did you have when you where younger?

[Andres] I wanted to be a singer.
[Paula] I can’t remember.

Do you ever wish you had a normal, nine to five job?

When we see people going to their nine to fives we’re glad we don’t have to. But in life everyone makes their own choices. Its difficult to do it in a country like Argentina and we’re so happy we have the chance to.

Translation by Mr Will Massa. Many thanks.