THE REAL McCOY

Faneuil Hall performer entertains because he loves it

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  • Street performer Brent McCoy gives audience member Thijs Tague some pointers

    Street performer Brent McCoy gives audience member Thijs Tague some pointers

  • Wendy Davis Johnson

    Wendy Davis Johnson

  • Brent McCoy's big finish for his Comedy That Works performance

    Brent McCoy's big finish for his Comedy That Works performance


BOSTON, Massachusetts - On this hot June afternoon, beads of perspiration gather on his forehead. One drop hovers perilously close to the tip of his nose. As he leans down to talk to the pint-sized boy he's beckoned from the crowd circling the front of Wagamama at Quincy Market, street performer Brent McCoy deftly but discreetly wipes his face with a handerkerchief tucked in his back hip pocket.

In his tangerine-coloured hard hat, sleeveless black T-shirt and cut-off blue jeans (“Legs are funny!”), McCoy shows his young sidekick how to help him juggle a collection of props straight out of Home Depot. A foam wrench, a rubber plunger and a traffic cone will feature prominently in the big finish of McCoy's Comedy That Works act, one he performs atop a square of plastic balanced on a large orange ball.

McCoy hasn't chosen to entertain passersby because it's lucrative. He's a street performer because he loves it. As he says after an hour packed with jokes, juggling and assorted antics, “Street performing is not about making the money. It's about making the show. The laughter and the energy are what make this joyous. That's why I do it.”

Comedy That Works is one of just 13 acts approved to perform in the open air spaces at Faneuil Hall. McCoy says competition for a spot on what is now a prestigious international roster is fierce.

“You have to audition every April in front of Faneuil Hall's marketing department,” he says. “You need to submit your résumé with three recommendations. Performers come from around the world to try and get a space here.”

McCoy and his older brother, Finn, grew up on a dairy farm near Hardwick, Vermont. His parents, Harold and Andrea, still run the farm and McCoy talks knowledgeably and comfortably about all things bovine when asked about the particulars of his dad's business. But this 31 year-old Bates College graduate, who celebrated his birthday the day before with “one of my best shows ever”, decided in high school that the 24/7 nature of farming wouldn't satisfy his wanderlust.

While his parents are supportive of his career now, they were sceptical at first.

“ 'You mean you're going to stand on a street corner and make enough money to live?' ” recounts McCoy of his father's reaction. “I said 'I hope so, Dad.' ”

McCoy is doing just that. He and his wife, Maya, a teacher and fellow performer, log 25,000 expensable miles a year driving around the States and Canada to appear at street festivals as well as more traditional venues. McCoy will perform in Scotland later this summer.

McCoy started juggling because he was bored in gym class. As he and three of his buddies waited for their team's turn to play lacrosse, they began to fool around with “pseudo-bouncy, somewhat heavy balls.”

“Turns out it was the best thing for me, because I hated lacrosse but liked the juggling free time!”

McCoy attended a two-week camp at the Governor's Institute of the Arts in Castleton, Vermont, whetting his appetite for four summers as a counsellor at Circus Smirkus, the state's venerable travelling youth circus.

After college, McCoy taught in elementary schools as a Circus Smirkus artist in residence. Courses at the Celebration Barn, an international school for physical theatre in Maine, got him started in comedy. Six years ago, he began his career as a street performer in earnest.

McCoy says every crowd and every show is different. Weather, time of day and other events have an impact on how an audience will react. The show on his birthday was so good because it had rained, cooling the air, and many of his audience had just come from a Red Sox game. They were in the right mood for Comedy That Works.

“You have to learn to adapt to your audience. The only way to do that is to perform over and over and over again. It takes a thousand shows to feel you can handle anything that might happen. I'm just starting to feel that way now.”

The delight McCoy gets from street performing and his comfort with his audience are clear. His effervescent personality and adroit physical comedy prompt easy laughter and steady applause. Afterwards, the crowd showers tips and donations into the traffic cone, now upturned on the cobblestones.

“If you gave me a choice between doing two of these shows and a regular paycheck, I wouldn't think twice. It's all about the joy.”

Wendy Davis Johnson is interning with The Royal Gazette as a part of the requirements of a master's degree in journalism programme she's pursuing at Harvard Extension School. She can be reached at wendydavisjohnson@fas.harvard.edu and can be followed on Twitter at @WendyDJ

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Published Jul 11, 2012 at 9:00 am (Updated Jul 11, 2012 at 9:25 am)

THE REAL McCOY

Faneuil Hall performer entertains because he loves it

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