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Page last updated at 16:08 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 17:08 UK

Busking it

By Jolyon Jenkins

David Blaine seems confident enough doing it, but how terrifying is it to try and make it as a street magician?

This is a rope trick. Hopefully

"What's your name?" barks the short, pugnacious man, addressing a member of his audience, who mumbles something back.

"You've got to speak up," he retorts, "you're not buying condoms." The man is Gazzo, a legend among street magicians, and at Cardiff's "School of Busking" he's teaching 20 would-be performers the arcane arts of attracting a crowd.

He marshals us, his spectators, moving us around to fill gaps in the crowd, while haranguing and bullying us. "Everyone take two steps backwards! Hands out of pockets: that's another game!"

Most of us here are amateur magicians, and some are captivated by the idea of making a living as a street performer. Gazzo tells us that you can make twice the average income from street magic but most people just love the thought of earning money from their hobby.

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There's Douglas, a softly-spoken teacher, who dreams of chucking it all in to work the crowds at Covent Garden - although hasn't convinced his wife. "She's been really supportive but she doesn't really understand it."

Andy says he's never performed for more than five people. Then there's Neil, a housing officer, whose colleagues rib him about fire-eating. There's even Shel, who has flown here from Texas.

I can do magic and am confident enough in front of a willing audience, but the idea of performing on the street has been filling me with terror for weeks. Getting people to stop and watch, dealing with hecklers, moulding them into a cohesive audience, making them laugh, and then getting them to pay up - that's what I can't do, and that's what we're supposed to learn over three days.

Everyone here knows of Gazzo, and in particular his signature act of the "cups and balls", in which he makes little balls vanish and reappear from underneath three copper cups. He's polished it for nearly 30 years, and you can go to Covent Garden and watch a stream of his imitators reproduce it virtually word for word.

Jolyon Jenkins
I throw myself on their mercy - 'This is my first time. If you like it, give me some money'
Jolyon Jenkins

Most of the men on the course (and they are all men) have come with their cups and balls sets, intent on learning.

The course is run by Mario Morris, a Cardiff native who lives the dream, travelling round Europe much of the year, doing - yes - the cups and balls.

"This is a safe environment," he says frequently, but as I stand up in front of the other pupils to show them my act on the second day, it feels very unsafe. I can't do the cups and balls so I do a trick with ropes instead.

It's a disaster. It goes on far too long, and I forget my lines and gabble nervously. I am not engaging with the crowd, or making them like me. Rather the reverse, I suspect, for these are hard-bitten magicians who know how everything is done.

I finish. "Have you done now?" enquires Gazzo, sarcastically. "Your character wasn't defined, you wouldn't keep a crowd on the streets. I don't want to make you feel bad but I'm just going to tell you the truth, it was not very good."

Mario also thinks I'm rubbish. I feel a bit better when some other acts are butchered too.

We learn about "hat lines" that educate the audience that they are expected to pay up at the end. "I want you to open your wallet, take out a five pound note… and put the wallet in the hat."

Gazzo is selling a book of one-liners for use on the street. "Is that your wife or is it a business trip?" or "Save your breath, you'll need it to blow up your date later". I wonder whether anyone but Gazzo could get away with these without being punched.

David Blaine
David Blaine is one of the kings of close-up street magic

The course is supposed to end with us all doing our act on the streets of Cardiff. Some people decide not to but I know I can't bottle out. With just an hour to go there's a problem - Mario really doesn't want me to do it.

"Not everybody becomes a busker as a result of the school," he says. "Busking is a calling - but long term it's not yours. You haven't even got a crowd build" - a method to attract people in. Teach me a crowd build, I say. He takes me out the back and shows me his technique but then says it's his act and I can't use it. I'm flummoxed.

Luckily another student, Owen, helps me. We ditch half the rope routine and add in a trick in which a marked coin mysteriously travels into a locked box. We head for the streets with the braver students. "You've got 10 minutes," Mario warns darkly. "After that I will cut you off."

I do a lot of shouting as I make a silk handkerchief vanish and reappear, but there's not really time to build a crowd, so I start on the ropes. About 15 people stop to watch, and some even seem to be enjoying it. I skip the menacing hat lines and throw myself on their mercy. "This is my first time," I say, "if you like it, give me some money."

Mario is right. It's not my calling, and I head home without waiting for more of his appraisal. The £4 in my hat seems OK for 10 minutes work, and is feedback enough.

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