Recently, a friend and student asked me what the difference was between doing an act and doing a gig. This breaks down to "What is an ambiant act?" and "What is a flash act?"
A "flash act" is what we call a comprehensive routine, primarily filled with the performer's best and hardest tricks, that is choreographed to music. Usually, a professional act is between five and eight minutes, depending on the act. When you go see a circus show, you are watching a series of flash acts.
Here are a few images from full acts that I have done recently, both solo and group:
An "ambient act" is also referred to as what a performer does at a "gig." This is generally done for longer periods of time (sets can be between 10-60 minutes, and multiple sets are done per event), and is either a "roving" act or an "installation."
Roving acts do exactly that, they rove. They move around the room or outdoor event, entertaining guests for short periods of time (just a trick or two), and then moving on. For me, this is usually stilt walking, but on one or two occasions I have done plate spinning. I have also been a wandering fairy. There was another time, quite recently, I was able to do a gig for Hendrick's Gin, where I performed basic acrobatics and took photos of and with guests on a vintage motorcycle decorated like a cucumber.
An installation is an act that is in a fixed location, but the audience is moving around. The performer generally keeps the acts simple and visual, making sure to be something interesting to look at, but not expecting to be watched by the same people for the entire time they are performing. An example of this would be aerial in nightclubs or parties. Most of my installation work has been for night clubs, but I have also done private parties and events. Ambient work is the most fun to costume and make up, I think, because it is generally just a one-off event for a few hours. For larger shows, when I have multiple shows a day, every day of the week, I don't glue gems on my face or go too overboard. I want it to look wonderful, but functional as well!
Gigs are a great way to make a few extra dollars between long-term contracts, but they can also be a lucrative way of life if you live in the right city. Many of my New York friends gig for a living. There are many events going on at any given moment, and if you land a nice one with a big company, it can lead to an excellent paycheck. It also allows some folks to perform regularly, but not have to travel. This is ideal, for example, if a performer is married to a non-performer, and they want to have a home and settled family.
While we are on the subject of performance styles, it goes to say that there is a third style of performance outside of "flash acts" and "ambient acts." This is called Busking, which is street performing, specifically for money. Street performances are different than both flash acts and ambient acts in that the performer generally talks through the tricks. The street is relentless-- people have their own agendas and opinions, and did not necessarily ask to walk into a show-- and the performer needs to grab audience attention quickly and hold it long enough to finish the show. Thus, they generally will talk up and through their skills, cracking jokes and performing interesting and often dangerous feats of circus wonder. I have so much respect for street performers. They are some of the most talented and entertaining performers around, because they know how to work a crowd!
For more details on this style, there is an excellent documentary called "Buskers: For Love or Money" by Mad Chad Taylor (also a street performer, known for chainsaw juggling). It is available for download on iTunes and I highly recommend it! (I don't get paid to say this. I just really like this documentary.)
For me, my heart is definitely on the road, performing flash acts with all the glitz and glamour I can gather. I absolutely adore being a travelling gypsy woman! But I also enjoy and nice gig here and there, to mix things up. At the end of the day, I am so grateful to make a living with a job I love so much it never feels like a job, and so I never complain for any opportunity to perform!