Photo: Courtesy of Egemen Ustun.
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Student-performer funds tuition through fiery street performance all August

It’s usually not a good idea to play with fire, but for one Ottawa performer, playing with flames is helping to pay his tuition.

Egemen Ustun is a third-year kinesiology student at McGill with a unique summer job—entertaining the crowds in Ottawa’s Byward Market with his street show that combines unicycling, juggling, and fire breathing.

“I do a 40–45-minute fire and comedy show, so it’s a lot of comedy, a lot of breakdancing, a lot of fire stuff, I have a huge three-wheeled unicycle that I climb on top (of), and then I do my signature move, which is fire-breathing,” Ustun said.

Longer street shows like Ustun’s tend to follow a strict pattern—a couple of warm-up tricks, some bigger tricks and plenty of jokes or audience participation in the middle, and a grand finale. For Ustun, shooting a 16-foot flame out of his mouth is his big finale.

Fire-breathing might seem like a hard thing to get into, but for Ustun, it was a natural part of his five-year progression. His earliest shows were small and had routines that involved unicycling and juggling. However, after a fellow Byward busker helped him design a show, he started picking up new moves. Eventually, Ustun started juggling flaming items, and after his confidence was built up, moved onto fire-breathing—the trick that’s now his grand finale. Although, he didn’t expect it to take off so quickly.

“I was doing a couple tricks, and I wanted to add fire—I juggled, and I had a diabolo and I wanted to light those on fire,” Ustun explained. “Then I just saw fire-breathing one time and I thought that was cool thing, so I slowly tried to do it, I made a little ball—I really just wanted to add a new trick to my show.”

Ustun works out every day to stay in shape for his performances. If he didn’t train daily, he says, he wouldn’t have the stamina to do multiple shows in a day. He also practices his fire tricks outside and says people like getting a free show from his practice time. But the real practice comes during his shows, which Ustun always looks at as a learning opportunity.

“This is personal branding, and it’s also a business, a start-up … people always expect things to happen right away, and they don’t want to fail, but the biggest thing for me was looking forward to the failures, because if I’m failing I’m learning,” Ustun said. “If something goes wrong, I’m happy because I get to learn.”

While Ustun is loving the Byward Market performances now, he has bigger goals with his fire show. In fact, to say that the growth of his performances takes priority over his kinesiology degree doesn’t seem far-fetched to Ustun.  

“Ideally, I’d want to have my own show on a big stage … or maybe performing at music festivals alongside DJs, or doing festivals all over the world,” Ustun said. “University was more for the experience, and I definitely have that thing to fall back on, but this is my number one, this is what I’m going to go for.”

Indeed, Ustun’s base has already grown past the streets of Ottawa. Over the past year, he has performed at the Dundas Buskerfest and was on the streets performing for all 16 days of Montreal’s Just for Laughs.

As he looks forward, Ustun hopes to get into more festivals in the coming summers, and maybe someday take his show from the streets to the stage. For now though, he plans on performing every weekend in August before heading back to McGill in September.

So, if you’d like to help fuel Ustun’s craft, or you just want to check out a new and hot show in the next few weeks, you can catch his production in front of Tucker’s Marketplace, a space reserved for shows like Ustun’s. You can be sure that the performance is going to be lit.


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