Learning to Bark
You probably think the headline above is about my dog Windsor, but you would be wrong. It’s about me. I have learned to bark.
I was in Provincetown, MA on Cape Cod last week for Women’s Week, signing books and doing my Aging Gracelessly reading. And, as I knew, all performers in P-Town follow a somewhat degrading, but ultimately beneficial tradition of barking. The performers walk up and down Commercial Street, handing out postcards advertising their upcoming shows, shamelessly self-promoting to unsuspecting and often disinterested or occasionally hostile pedestrians.
It’s a throwback to the long-held American tradition of circus barking, as in standing in front of the circus tent, encouraging patrons to come inside. The streets of P-Town are filled with barkers—comics Jennie McNulty, Poppy Champlin, and Karen Williams do it; the comedy troupe The Dykes of Hazard did it; Drag Kings and Queens do it; rich and famous entertainers hire other people to do it for them.
According to Wikipedia, “a barker is a person who attempts to attract patrons to entertainment events…by exhorting passing public, describing the show…to incite listeners to attend entertainment.” Barkers are also called touts, described as “any person who solicits business in a persistent and annoying manner.” Oh fun.
And the information you pass along as you bark in an annoying manner is your spiel. Although in my culture we pronounce it schpeel, as in “stop with the schpeel already and hand me a bagel.”
I arrived in town on Tuesday afternoon, and my show was set for Wednesday night, so I needed to get barking and “exhorting passing public” in a hurry. After all, there were at least five comics and many more musicians with shows at the exact same time as mine on Wednesday—the only saving grace was that Kate Clinton, Poppy, Jennie, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Vickie Shaw, and the others had shows every night, and I was only doing mine once—so thankfully, if folks took time to come and see my show, they still had lots of opportunities to check out the real lesbian celebrity comics, or celesbians as I like to call them.
After watching celesbians Jennie and Poppy chat confidently with passersby (they had great spiels) and hand out postcards about their shows, I steeled myself and hit the streets to pimp myself out and give folks my spiel.
Somewhat hesitantly I headed toward a group of women and, postcard in my outstretched hand, tipped said hand, so to speak, and they avoided me like I had cooties.
With the next group of gay girls coming down the street I tried the stealth system—saying, “Hi,“ then springing the postcards on them. They were polite but not particularly enthused.
Next came the apologetic approach. “Hi, I’m a new performer in town, just learning this street-walking thing, won’t you take my postcard?” This seemed to elicit some sympathy and peaked their interest. Several women actually looked at my postcard and asked a question or two about the show. Progress.
Ultimately, I combined the apology tactic with the smiling moron methodology, walking along, grinning, and inserting myself into the conversations of strangers. That one was pretty effective, as a couple of women even promised to come to the show.
After about an hour and a half, including a stop for a lobster roll, I gave up and went to Poppy’s show, followed by Jennie’s performance. They were both awesome, with the audience, me included, screaming with laughter.
Now I was scared. I’m doing a show in P-Town??? What have I gotten myself into??? How can I compete with these Queer Queens of Comedy??? Not to mention my idol Kate Clinton. Oy.
By the next morning I was in a cold sweat, thinking about all the barking I had yet to do and the performance I was scheduled to give. Was I barking up the wrong tree? Why did I agree to do this silly thing???
I joined my friend, author Lynn Ames and my author colleagues from Bywater Books (Marianne K. Martin, Georgia Beers, Carol Rosenfeld and Rachel Spangler among others) for a book signing at the venerable Womencrafts Bookstore. Yes, it’s still there after all these years. My pals got me to relax and chill a little as we met readers and signed some books.
From there, it was back to street walking for me. I girded my loins and launched into the fray, knowing this was my last chance to round up an audience for that night’s show. As demeaning as the barking may have been, an empty house would be mortifyingly worse.
But wait! The first couple I saw said, “Hello, Fay!” as they eagerly accepted my postcard. After a lovely conversation, I walked away, buoyed by the fact that they had recognized me. In fact, the next few groups of women easily accepted my intrusion and thrusting of postcards, again, with one of the gals greeting me by name even before reading the ad in her hand. This was way cool!
My head might have started to swell a little as I eagerly traversed the streets and gave out lots of postcards, chatting easily with folks along the way and being really impressed that so many people already knew me. Hey, this was starting to be fun!
It wasn’t until I stopped at Spiritus for a slice of pizza that I looked down and realized I was still wearing my Hello My Name Is Fay name tag from the book signing. You moron! They were reading your name, you idiot!!! So much for fame and name recognition. I had to laugh. But the truth was, once my confidence was up I really had a fun time barking and touting and promoting my show.
As it turned out, the show was a sell-out. Waaay more people showed up than I had expected and my debut as a P-Town performer went well. Poppy had time before her next show to see my first act and Jennie ran over to see my second act when her show let out. I cannot thank them enough for the support. Their complementary comments meant a lot to me. And for the rest of the week, since my show was over, any time I got a chance, I happily barked about theirs. Oh, and Kate Clinton’s show was absolutely hilarious; Karen Williams cracked us up too. Wish I could have seen them all! Vickie Shaw and Suzanne W. next time!
So I’ve had my street-walking trial by fire. I’m honored to be found soliciting on the same street as my comic idols. Like Windsor, this last comic sitting has learned to bark her head off. Woof.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries, and her newest book Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach.