What It's Really Like To Be A Street Performer

Michael Trautman street performer

Michael Trautman didn't start out wanting to be a street performer, never mind a mime. As with many people who came of age in the 1970s, Trautman, 56, says he wanted to "change the system" from within and planned to become an attorney.

But that plan got sidetracked after he appeared in several student productions while attending William Jewell College in Missouri. In his senior year, he landed the role as the lead actor's comic sidekick, and though it wasn't a speaking part, he brought down the house.

"I mugged and fell down and got lots of laughs," Trautman told AOL Jobs. From there, he was hooked.

Though he was in his final year, Trautman quit college and began studying mime in nearby Kansas City, Mo. Mime was a natural fit, says Trauman, who now lives in Portland, Maine. "It came to me easily ... and I just really enjoyed it."

Soon after, he and seven others founded the Mimework mime troupe and began performing on city streets downtown. "That was the easiest way to start working," he says.

Today, Trautman is living many a young street performer's dream. Beyond mime and clowning, Trautman is also a master storyteller, magician, juggler and improvisator. He works carnivals, fairs and theaters nationwide and has appeared on cable and network TV. He also still performs on the street, most recently at the annual Edmonton International Street Performers Festival in Alberta, which concluded earlier this month.

Though he hasn't become rich, Trautman says that his career has provided a comfortable income. From about $20,000 a year early in his career, the married father of a teenage son has earned as much as $88,000 a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track earnings for comedic performers such as Trautman, but reports that actors earn a median wage of $17.44 a hour, equal to annual income of about $36,275 for a 40-hour workweek.

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As is often the case with many street performers, Trautman relied on contributions from audiences early in his career to make a living. These days, he "passes the hat" much less, but still counts on such income when working street festivals, such as Edmonton's. He says passing the hat typically gets him about $150 to $500 per show -- and he isn't shy about doing it.

"I have to ask for money for every performance, whether it's a street show and I'm passing the hat, or contract negotiations for a theater show that I am paid for," he says. As an artist, Trautman believes that his work has value and he deserves to be paid.

"[T]he entertainment, laughter, joy and sense of community that my performances provide are worth much more than people think," he says.

Trautman considers himself a "fortunate guy" to be earning a livable wage as a performer. Still, he says, "it's not easy. You're self-employed." What many people don't realize is that workaday performers such as Trautman, who aren't famous, have a business to run. Aside from creating, rehearsing and performing, they have to handle all their own marketing, accounting and other aspects of running a small business. "Self-employment means you've got to do the hustle and find the work," he says.

The very nature of the business, however, means his income can fluctuate because jobs vary in length from perhaps a day, to weeks or even a year, such as the gig he had a few years ago doing a stage show for the Big Apple Circus. And sometimes reliable income streams simply dry up. Cuts in state and local budgets in recent years, for example, dramatically reduced the number of shows he does at schools these days.

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As with any job that involves live performance, there is the occasional, embarrassing gaffe, such as the time Trautman misspoke when introducing a fellow performer who was helping him with a show.

In introducing his colleague, Trautman, who at the time was taking pain medication for a back injury, told the family-filled audience that his good friend agreed to perform "because of my bulging d**k, err, disc." The gaffe was met with audible silence. "That's the kind of thing you don't want to do," he says.

At other times, it's more mundane distractions that can make for less-than-stellar show -- such as weather when working outdoors.

One of the more rewarding experiences of Trautman's career are the volunteer performances that he does each year in Maine at Camp Sunshine, a free program offered to families who have a child with cancer. Families comprise the bulk of his audience, Trautman says, so the ability to give back at their time of need is very rewarding.

Trautman's career has been long and successful, but he looks forward to many more years of performing. "I can do this the rest of my life," he says. "I can grow old and adapt and continue to be creative and enjoy it."

Check out video below of Michael Trautman performing his latest creation, King Pong's Ping Pong Rodeo, performed at Seattle's annual Moisture Festival last March.

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