Street performers debated in Lenox

Saturday September 1, 2012

LENOX -- Street performers wishing to ply their trade for tips on downtown streets, beware: There's no red carpet.

In a light-hearted but spirited exchange during their recent meeting, Select Board members split sharply on a request from Pittsfield resident Sareda Hagenah, a self-described "living statue" or "robot" street-performance artist seeking permission "to stand on the street, with pure white clothing and white makeup" atop a small platform with a tips jar in front of her.

"Tips make me move," she explained in her emailed letter of inquiry. "When someone puts a tip in my bucket, I move in a form called ‘isolating,' moving my hands and arms like a robot."

Stating that she has "made a lot of money" with her act in Las Vegas, Hagenah assured the town board that "while I do this, my clothes are 100 percent clean (unlike a lot of street performers). I think it's important because I am not just a busker, but an artist performing."

Hagenah proposed several downtown locations for weekend appearances.

After reading a portion of the request, Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler described his initial response as negative -- describing street performance as "all the worst I've ever seen in all the cities I've ever been to" -- and expressed concern that approval would set a precedent.

But he suggested that "there's a place for this" at festivals such as the 33rd annual Lenox Apple Squeeze on the weekend of Sept. 22-23.

"The random sort of mime on any given day, on any given street, is problematic," said Fowler.

Selectman John McNinch called for a general policy discussion. "I don't know that I'm opposed to it, but there needs to be guidelines, locations, things like that," he said.

However, Selectman David Roche declared strong opposition. "I'm against the tips jar," he stated.

"We can't do this," Roche insisted. "You start down the slippery slope of having entertainers on the street for money and I think you'll live to regret it. I've lived in this town for a long time and this is something we've never had."

Roche maintained that app rovals on a case-by-case basis would lead to discrimination. "We'd be picking and choosing, saying we like mimes but we don't like guitar players," he said.

Selectman Channing Gibson, a former Los Angeles resident, argued that "it's good to have life in town on the streets and the sidewalks. It's not necessarily my thing, but I think it livens up the place."

"Where do you draw the line?" countered Roche, noting that local merchants might not be pleased to have street performers in front of their stores.

"Channing says he's attracted to these people, he'll cross the street for them," Roche said, laughing. "I'll cross the street just to get away from them."

Local resident Sharon Hawkes, emphasizing she was not speaking as the town library's executive director but as a former performing artist, said she thinks the issue revolves around the branding of Lenox.

"Are you a place where things serendipitously happen throughout the downtown area, or are you a place where controlled events happen at certain points of the year?" she asked. "Either one is a good answer, it's just, what do you want to be."

She supported guidelines "so that it's non-discriminatory but controlled so you don't have chaos in the streets."

"It's really up to you as a community as to how you want to define yourself," Hawkes said, voicing support for giving people "the idea that Lenox is a cool place to hang out, you don't know what's going to happen."

Fowler suggested that Hagenah -- who could not be reached in time for this report -- approach the Chamber of Commerce about performing during the Apple Squeeze. According to the chamber's executive director, Ralph Petillo, she had not made contact as of Friday.

As a humorous parting shot that aroused hearty laughter, Roche gently urged his colleagues: "Don't try to slide this panhandlers thing through" while he's away for a few days.


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