Mark Abbati came to a halt on the Grand Wayne Convention Center’s floor as 4-year-old Samson Owens, dressed as a knee-high He-Man superhero, walked by with his family.
Abbati, dressed as a life-size G.I. Joe figurine at Appleseed Comic Con in May, was unmovable – his arm holding his minesweeper was taut while the little boy stood cautiously a few steps away.
As Samson curiously lifted his sword toward him, Abbati began to emulate a huge blow as he fell back – a break in the illusion of his living statue character.
“For children, you have to go back to normal sometimes so they feel at ease,” Abbati said later that day in his living statue workshop. “I try to keep the freak-outs down. I might scare you at first, but then I go back to normal.”
Abbati’s line of work may be considered far from normal – and that’s what makes him a BuskerFest favorite. The Downtown Improvement District’s fourth annual BuskerFest on Saturday will feature Abbati for the third time as it continues its quirky legacy. The festival is an open invitation for street performers, known as buskers, to come downtown and perform for audiences.
“It’s one of the few festivals that you don’t know what to expect,” says Tena Woenker, DID Festival coordinator. “We had some buskers who have let us know that they will come, and other people will just show up.”
For this year’s festival, DID presented two living-statue workshops with Abbati.
“He’s nationally known for his talent,” Woenker says. “He brings a level of professionalism to the art. I’ve seen a lot of people perform as living statues, and he really is a great talent.”
Abbati began miming at 13, inspired by the work of French actor and mime Marcel Marceau. He says living statue and mime beginners should start practicing where he began – the bathroom. He would try to re-enact Marceau’s performances in the mirror.
“One day, my mom happened to walk into the bathroom, and she said ‘You’re pretty good,’ ” Abbati says. “For me it was just fun.”
Working as a mime and living statue for 37 years, Abbati travels nationally, performing as an array of 77 characters that include G.I. Joe and a Trojan soldier. He makes all of his props by hand, using affordable, store-bought items to build an old-time camera, bazooka or minesweeper. His G.I. Joe costume comes with an actual inactive grenade he found in an Army surplus store.
He also creates most of his costumes. To make sure his costume is one uniform color, he spreads acrylic paint by hand all over clothing he finds in thrift stores. When the paint hardens, the fabric will take on a stiff quality. He uses varnish if he wants a more plastic or bronze-like finish.
Wearing a full bodysuit underneath all of his costumes, Abbati says he has to physically train to be able to manage a six- to eight-hour performance; standing in his longest pose for 48 minutes.
He says a common mistake for beginners is tensing up when trying to stand still; he learned that the body is completely motionless when the muscles are relaxed.
“I have desensitized my face. I can go a whole day without touching it,” Abbati says.
Abbati says working with the public is trial and error. He says there is a chance of possible heckling from people who want to break the illusion. There are some venues where he will bring security or someone he knows to watch over areas he is not able to see during his performance.
“You have to remain stoic,” Abbati says. “Statues can’t hear and they don’t have feelings, either.”
Woenker said it can be difficult for buskers and street performers to find an inviting area to perform in because some businesses do not accept buskers performing in front of their locations. BuskerFest gives all street performers a safe and open environment.
Because of the success of the festival, Woenker says the DID has begun to think about mapping out “busker zones,” which will help buskers find designated areas throughout the rest of the year.
“It brings a sense of vitality and creativity, and that’s the sort of thing we want to see downtown,” Woenker says.
Abbati says a living statue has to be able to stand motionless – obviously – and think of creative transitions, but connecting with the audience is what will make a successful busker.
“You just can’t stand there; your purpose is to entertain the crowd,” Abbati says. “They will either boo you or cheer you. The BuskerFest is a perfect place to start, because who cares? You’re learning.”
This year, the festival will feature the vaudevillian acts of local troupe The Beautiful Freakshow and fire performances from Chicago’s Pyrotechniq.
Hope Arthur Orchestra will also collaborate with Fort Wayne fire performers Pyroscope Entertainment on a fire illusion performance. Other acts include the local Dumpster Drummers, the Jug Huffers and The Circus of Learning.
Woenker says she would like this year’s festival to bring 5,000 people to downtown, an increase of 2,000 from last year. She says the severe storm last year caused widespread damage to the city a day before the festival, which made people think the festival was canceled.
To improve attendance, DID will have a “Magic of Fort Wayne” show downtown at the Allen County Public Library with magician Dick Stoner and a meet and greet with Ronald McDonald at 2 p.m. before BuskerFest. After the magic show, parents and children will be guided to the festival.
“After last year’s storm, we just want people to come downtown and enjoy the atmosphere,” Woenker says. “People can really make a whole day out of it.”