They're not the most common sights on the streets of Fort Wayne — belly dancers, jugglers, Dumpster drummers.
But Saturday, at the Downtown Improvement District's fourth annual BuskerFest, these acts and more will populate part of downtown in a celebration of unexpected street performance.
Tena Woenker, BuskerFest coordinator, said the free event draws about 3,500 spectators, up from 2,500 when the fest first began five years ago. It's an easy, casual atmosphere, Woenker said, where visitors simply walk around, explore and discover.
“You never know what you're going to see,” she said. “It's the kind of fest where you're not just watching, you're a part of it. You get to be involved and learn things.”
The schedule for the evening of entertainment on Wayne and Calhoun streets and in One Summit Square includes acrobatic dancers, fire performers and stilt walkers, just to name a few. Many acts are local, though the fest is attracting out-of-state buskers, including fire performers from Chicago and singer/songwriter Davis Reid from northwest Ohio.
Some acts are simply spontaneous.
“We encourage people to randomly show up and perform, as long as it's age appropriate, and not vulgar or political,” Woenker said. “It's really family-friendly, and surprisingly so.”
Buskers, also known as street performers, trace their origins to ancient times. They display their talents publicly on the streets, and in return, amused spectators offer up a monetary gesture of thanks.
One such performer, Mark Abbati, has made a living out of his art. A classically trained mime who studied under French actor and mime Marcel Marceau, Abbati now mostly performs as a living statue. He brings the still objects to life and augments his characters with various animations and tricks.
“I want them to get lost in an unreal world,” Abbati said. “I want them to stop and forget about their worries.”
During his 20-plus years performing in the living statue style, he's amassed more than 75 mime and living statue characters. He performed as a living water fountain and a green Army man in his first two appearances at BuskerFest. This year, he teased, he likely won't be a living statue or a traditional mime.
Audiences will enjoy the constant stream of entertainment at BuskerFest, Abbati said.
“When they see more living statues or jugglers and magicians or fire eaters or sword swallowers, it's a continuous awe,” he said.
Music, too, plays a large role at the fest. From bluegrass to folk, soul to Americana jazz-rock, BuskerFest offers up no shortage of eclectic musical offerings.
Admission to the event is free, though tipping buskers is encouraged. Food trucks will be on hand, and area restaurants will be open to accommodate hungry spectators. Fort Wayne Trails will sponsor a bike valet for cyclists.
Woenker hopes the event encourages more street performers in the downtown area year-round. She said the art is slowly becoming more popular, noting buskers' presence during Lunch on the Square on Thursdays and at the Fort Wayne Farmers Market.
“It's catching on after four or five years of pushing it,” she said.
Abbati said he's personally looking forward to the amazed faces of youth.
“It's like there're in a totally different world,” he said. “It's like, 'Where did these characters come from?' 'Where were these people hiding?' It gives them the idea of 'Wow, people actually do this kind of stuff.'”