Street Art from the Start

Celebrating 30 years of Edmonton's much-loved International Street Performers Festival

Shelley Switzer came to Edmonton’s International Street Performers Festival 26 years ago as a volunteer and hasn’t missed a celebration since. Currently going on her 15th season as the festival’s artistic producer, Switzer labours year round to bring this beloved, 10-day street party to downtown Edmonton.

Edmonton’s Street Performers Festival stemmed from what began in 1981 as Summerfest. As Alberta rejoiced in its 75th birthday, the government fronted 75 million dollars to support worthy endeavors and exciting organizations — Summerfest being one of them. Combining all branches of art, theatre, and music, attacking the standstill of artistic expression during the summer, Summerfest was a culturally rich, umbrella event that reaped incredible success.

As branches of Summerfest grew in popularity, many became their own separate festivals. In 1985, Summer Fest organizer Sheldon Wilner paired up with Dick Finkel, a board director from Winnipeg’s Folk Festival, to unleash street theatre as its own entity, free of cost in Edmonton. The first of its kind in North America, the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival was born.

Over the years, Switzer has seen the festival sprout in attendance, improve in calibre and expand with creative programs. With approximately 250,000 people in attendance each year, the festival boasts wonderfully wacky performances and interactive storytelling, sometimes silently, challenging imaginations, leaving room for personal interpretation.

Artists fly across the world to perform at Edmonton’s renowned street festival. For every artist Switzer approves of, she’s forced to turn away about 10 others, as she can only accept 55 performers each year. Theatre stages, cruise ships and circus shows, these performers make their living through street art. Depending on the magnetism of their act, some make it to the big leagues. “Cirque Du Soleil comes and scouts at our festival,” says Switzer proudly.

Introducing new characters and acts while holding onto the long-time favourites make producing the festival a balancing act on its own. “I’m not doing my job if it’s all mimes all the time.” Switzer calls roving acts “the soul of the festival.” Approaching small groups of people, interacting on a personal level, rovers feed off their audience while focus circle performers draw larger crowds, for lengthier periods of time. “Consumers decide the value of a performance at the end of a show when the hat is passed around,” says Switzer, nodding to the democratic nature of this art form. Stationary entertainers, known as installation acts, include all the face painters, balloon twisters, and installed characters, who bring personality and merriment to the streets.

“I love the fact that a homeless man can literally stand next to a lawyer in a suit, and share the same laugh, for the same value,” says Switzer. With hundreds of volunteers and six other staff members, the International Street Performers Festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, at Sir Winston Churchill Square from July 4-13. Challenge yourself with a juggling and stilt walking workshop, and begin to learn a few street performing skills, while basking in the silly wild wonders that define this fun festival.