An interview with Richard Filby on busking every day, why public speaking abilities help him develop his circus skills and the most meaningful thing about performing on the street.
A fantastic show should inspire a street performer to do another show. A terrible show should motivate a street performer to do another show. Enough people have loved my show, and enough people have hated it for me to know it’s not up to me how they feel. It’s my job. I just have to do it and let them react however they choose to.Richard Filby
Hi Richard, how are you doing today?
Today I’m doing great. I’ve been working hard on a series of new things, and I’m pleased with the result.
What are your background and your path to becoming a performer?
I started out by juggling just for fun and became really passionate about it when I was young. After leaving school, I didn’t really know what to do. Luckily, I scored a job working for a small Australian circus company. I was mostly doing school performances and teaching kids to juggle. After a while, I felt like I had developed the skills to go solo and build my own career.
What brought you to London and what makes you stay?
For a few years, I was travelling as a street performer. I spent summer in Australia until it got too cold and would leave for Europe to have a second Summer. One year I went back to Australia and found that I didn’t feel at home anymore. When I went back to London, I just never got on the plane home.
Recently you participated in the marathon for the first time – congrats! How important part does sport play in your life?
Thank you. Keeping active is one of the most important parts of my day. I’ll usually wake up to go for a run, do some yoga or bodyweight exercises, or play games with friends. I didn’t take as much care of myself when I was younger. My body wasn’t keeping up. I was always sore and thought it was normal. When I started taking my self-care seriously, I realised that I needed to put the effort in off-stage to maintain my lifestyle and work.
You are a juggler, and you balance on rola bola, among many other things. What are the skills that you feel the most confident about, enjoy doing and tricks you would like to learn?
The only reason I have made it this far as a juggler is because of my public speaking skills. I can do things well beyond my abilities as a juggler because any mistakes I make I can usually cover up quickly with a joke or good humour.
As far as juggling goes, I would love to learn more exciting and dangerous forms of juggling – like a chainsaw.
What are your creative and training process and your goals when working on your show? Do you explore new ideas often?
Every show I do on the street has some element in it that I’m working on. I rarely do a flawless street show because there is always something I can’t do yet. In fact, my current show consists primarily of things I put in my street show before they were ready. So, my show is constantly changing and evolving.
At the moment, I’m trying to learn how to juggle five fire torches at night. I practice without the fire during the day then each night, I get a chance to do better than the night before. It’s not there yet, but it will be soon.
Indoors and outdoors – where do you prefer to perform? What jokes and tricks work in both places and what don’t translate?
I love working outdoors. I can get a little claustrophobic inside a theatre, which I deal with every show. I do love the stage, though, with an audience close and focused. Still, the freedom to perform in the open air and deal with the elements and distractions makes me feel a lot more alive during my show.
Much of the looser, off-the-wall stuff that works really well outside doesn’t translate well to a stage. I feel like people who have purchased a ticket, taken a seat, bought a drink and prepared for the night have a certain level of expectation. So I always try to keep my stage shows loose, and it works very well. Still, there needs to be a level of professionalism that really isn’t necessary on the street.
Offering a street show to someone who really needs it
If I had to choose one thing that distinguishes you from other street performers or their shows, I would go with “politeness”. You don’t make jokes about your assistants, you keep thanking your audience and making them feel appreciated.
I admire the performers who can be tough on their audience. I’ve tried to be a bit edgier, but it always comes out sounding a lot meaner than I intend. Sometimes I turn the tables and throw out the polite nature of my show, but that style works very well for me. I think it comes from performing for children for such a long time.
Apart from being a circus performer, you are also a stand-up comedian. Making people laugh by just talking has always seemed to me like one of the most challenging things in the world. Were you one of these class clowns, or did you discover that people find you funny even without any props when you were already a performer?
Stand up comedy is tough. I’ve never really excelled at it. I have had a lot of good nights and some great moments doing it, but I don’t see myself doing a Netflix special any time soon. I was the class clown, and I always made people laugh growing up. Translating my sarcastic comments into proper jokes and stand up comedy is a whole other game.
What is your busking experience?
I live in Covent Garden, about a two-minute walk from the pitch there. My experience is the routine of daily shows there. Hot, cold, wet, snow, busy… Every day I’m down there doing my show. I love festivals and events because it takes me out of that routine, but I have a comfortable (and easy) life here in London.
What have been your most meaningful, happy or terrible moments in the street?
The most meaningful thing about performing on the street is offering live entertainment to people who would not access it. For many reasons, many people don’t get to enjoy that kind of thing. I love the idea that each day, without even knowing it, I might be offering a show to someone who really needs it.
Happy times often happen out there. It’s a good show, a lovely festival, beers after a hard day’s work – it’s a pretty nice life. The terrible times are less frequent, but they stick out a lot more. I think being stuck in France with no money and minimal French-speaking skills were pretty terrible. Trying to make enough from my juggling to pay rent was one of the more difficult times in my life and one of the most rewarding.
It’s better to work smart than hard
Do you remember your busking debut? How has your perception of busking and an idea of a good street show changed since then?
I did walk by busking for far too long. Walk-by is when you perform for people passing by with a hat or case out to collect donations. Back then, I didn’t know anything about doing street shows or anything, so I would just set up my Rola Bola and juggle with a hat down, and I would do it for hours, sometimes 8 hours in a row. It was much harder work than the work I do now, and the pay was very unpredictable.
The first time I saw someone doing a street show, I was so impressed that I thought it would be impossible for me to do one. Since learning how to do it myself, I have realised now that it’s better to work smart than hard. There’s nothing harder than pouring hours of sweat and labour into work, hoping for a coin every few minutes.
You have been performing for a while. Do you analyse your audience reactions often? Does it still affect your confidence if your show goes well or terrible, or did you learn to forget about it and move on?
Forget about it. Every time. Good or bad.
A fantastic show should inspire a street performer to do another show. A terrible show should motivate a street performer to do another show. Enough people have loved my show, and enough people have hated it for me to know it’s not up to me how they feel. It’s my job. I just have to do it and let them react however they choose to.
What does a typical day look like?
Morning routine: Wake – exercise – shower – yoga – meditation – housework – journal. Everyday!
I’ll do a couple of shows in the afternoon and spend a bit of time training or working on my computer between them. Then I cook a meal at night. So that’s how most days look unless I get distracted.
You are a regular at Covent Garden, which is a legendary pitch. What do you like about this place and what is it like to busk there?
I consider it the best busking spot in the world. Some people love it, some people hate it. One day it’s super fun and easy, and you make tonnes of money, the next it can make you wonder why you ever came to London at all. It’s always interesting, though, and the solid community provides good company.
What are your tasks and goals as the Covent Garden Street Performers Association representative?
Not my responsibility anymore – I quit that, haha! A lot was going on in my life at the time. I couldn’t focus on it anymore, so I had to pass it on to the next guys, who are now doing a fantastic job.
At the moment a lot of their energy is going towards fighting a ridiculous licence scheme. The council snuck it in during the lockdowns and didn’t consult us about it. The ‘reps’ job is mainly to speak on behalf of the organisation. Many companies, businesses, and residents have a lot to say about street performance in the area. The representatives are usually there to remind people that we’ve been in Covent Garden longer than they have.
Some performers believe that busking regulations and licenses kill the spirit of busking, some that it’s impossible for performers to organise themselves in the most popular cities. What are your thoughts and suggestions for city councils, residents, and buskers? Is there a way to make everyone happy?
For the buskers (depending on where they are), ignore licenses until the police are involved and threaten you with a real punishment.
Residents can often talk to a busker that is causing them any stress, and usually, an agreement can be reached.
For city councils, I’d say that whatever problems they think will be solved by a license won’t be. A licence doesn’t reduce noise, stop the sidewalk from being blocked, and improve the quality of the acts in the area. A license doesn’t really do anything. It’s just a way of taking control for the sake of it.
Do you often perform at busking festivals? What a perfect festival would look like?
I do them sporadically throughout the year. I would like to do more, but I’m usually busy enough with cabarets, gigs, and other events that pop up.
The perfect festival for me would be in multiple locations like BuskerBus. One with tremendous funding. One that has been going for decades, with each year being better than the last. Oceans of people laughing at every joke and thousands of dollars in the hat at every show. That would be perfect.
Do you like watching other performers? What kind of shows make you stop and stay on the street?
I love watching shows I’ve never seen before. That was one of the best things about BuskerBus. I was introduced to acts from all over the world, each with a different style.
I’m much more likely to watch a musician on the street than a juggler or clown. Something about a guy or girl standing there explaining to their audience what’s about to happen is really unappealing to me. I love it once I’m involved in a show, but getting me to stop is a real challenge.
What are the best street shows you have ever seen?
JP Koala (AUS) for his in-depth understanding of street entertainment.
Hiroshi (JAP) Consistently pulls in large crowds and makes them laugh from start to finish.
Dynamike (CAN) One of the strongest personalities on the street.
Paul Dabek (UK) An incredible magician with unrivalled comedic timing.
Will Street (FRA) The definition of confidence.
What makes a good busker?
4-5 years of constant, never-ending improvement.
What tips do you have for new street performers?
Nobody owes you shit. Go out there and earn it.
As you don’t perform 24/7, what is your favourite book? Have you read any Polish authors?
I love 1984 by George Orwell. I like all of his books and essays, but he hit the nail on the head with that one.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from a Polish author. However, I do read a lot – any recommendations?
I will send you some.
And, finally, what are your plans and dreams, and what can I wish you for?
I have a lot of hopes and dreams for the future, but I find that life is so often out of my hands that I live my life more on a day-to-day basis. If I have a big project, I will plan it out and plan in the long term. Otherwise, I just spend each day trying to grow, learn and develop my skills in the hopes that when opportunity calls, I have what it takes to make the most of it.
About Richard Filby
Originally from Australia, now London-based, Richard Filby is a circus performer and comedian. In his shows, he combines high-level juggling with knives and balls, balancing on rola bola, and fire tricks.