Fire-throwers, unicyclists and contortionists will be entertaining their way through downtown Toronto this weekend for the 10th annual street performance festival, Buskerfest.

The festival, which has grown immensely since it began with roughly 20 performers in 2000, is now juggling 100 entertainers from around the world and anticipates a crowd of more than a million.

“It started out on the tarmac in front of city hall where the sun would beat down and you were guaranteed a sunburn after 40 minutes. It wasn’t ideal but it was the beginning routes,” recalls veteran performer Peter Jarvis who has been in the festival since it began.

Jarvis, known for his act as a mechanical Elvis in a silver holographic suit performing outside the Queen Street entrance of the Eaton’s Centre, says the festival’s producers have now “got it right.”

“They know how to work with the street performers who have very specific needs. Some need certain amplification, some need certain size of area, they need to be fed properly, they need proper accommodation… So if a fest knows how to treat performers deservedly — like anyone else’s job — they get so much more out of the performers.

“Once you’ve got that down, it’s a win,” he says from his downtown home wearing a Silver Elvis hat and Port Credit Buskerfest t-shirt while newspaper clippings and images of his act are sprawled on the patio table.

The festival, which includes performers from Australia, Canada, Japan, Portugal, Russia and the U.S. begins today (Thursday) and runs until Sunday at the St. Lawrence market. Highlights include Jarvis’s kitschy Elvis simulation; Australia’s Al Millar as The Human Knot (voted People’s Choice for the past three years); and Kalin Davidson’s new three-person act PyRomeo and Fueliette, a fiery twist on Shakespeare’s classic love story.

Davidson, 27, who was in the festival as a solo act last year, says large-scale street performance festivals help vitalize and legitimize the profession. With increased exposure to the art, it’s easier to become a variety entertainer as more institutions are teaching the skills.

“Busking is one of the last honest professions because you’re paid what you’re worth. And if you do a terrible, show…”

Nevertheless, making mistakes is all part of the show.

And according to Silver Elvis and PyRomeo, one measure of busking success is the ability to use those mistakes and make people laugh.

Although there’s a chance of showers over the weekend, festival organizers say shows will go on, “rain or shine.”

On the web
For more information on Buskerfest, visit www.toronto-buskerfest.com