Getting a Head: Touring the World as a Giant Dancing Bear
If you aren’t crazy before you travel across the continent in a van, performing in packed theaters wearing a mascot costume of a famous cartoon character, you sure as hell will be afterwards. Daniel Falk invites you to join his descent into madness, and to meet the friends he made on his way down.
BY DANIEL FALK
It was the middle of December and Toulouse was hot. Not unseasonably hot, but having grown up in the Canadian prairies, I find the absence of snow and freezing winds and the unnatural juxtaposition of Christmas trees and palm trees disturbing. The missus and I spent the day exploring the city and admiring the pink brick buildings that dominate Toulouse’s architecture. I sweated through my shirt and stuffed as much Basque lamb stew into my face as my stomach would tolerate. The missus kept her eyes peeled for a Nespresso store to score some free coffee. It was a pretty average day for us on our European tour of The Turtle Show.
But when we arrived back at the theatre for the show, we discovered that Fox had been hit by a car.
Fox was a contemporary dancer from Montreal, artistically slumming it doing children’s theatre to save up money to fund more fulfilling projects with her own dance company. She was tall and thin and brought a grace to the mascot work I’ve yet to see anyone else live up to. The show was really a waste of her exceptional talent. I just waved my arms and jumped around a lot.
I think it says something about how working in the theatre wrecks your brain that the first thing I thought when I heard the news was not “I hope she’s okay,” but “what are we going to do about the show?” Most big shows have at least one understudy per major role and a few ensemble members who can swing into any other ensemble track in case of sickness. Smaller shows simply cannot afford that luxury, and producers are left to pray that nobody in the cast spontaneously combusts.
I’ve spent most of my career working for the kinds of theatres that need you to go on, no matter how sick you are. I once did a show where one of the actors performed with such a violent stomach flu that the crew were positioned in each wing with buckets and he wore adult diapers under his costume—just in case. We re-blocked as much of his part as we could—get him onstage later, get him offstage sooner, cut anything that required him to run or jump. In the end, we all survived the ordeal. He made liberal use of the buckets throughout the show, but thankfully never needed the diapers.
While working as a singer on a cruise ship, we would only cancel shows in the very worst of storms – the kind of storms that turned all two thousand eight hundred passengers and crew from human beings into green vomit machines. Even at the best of times, the dancers had to do lifts, pirouettes, and jumps on a constantly moving stage as we sailed from Caribbean island to Caribbean island. We had to re-block the show on an almost weekly basis to accommodate whatever fresh injuries to ankles, knees, and backs the dancers had sustained that week.
Sometimes there are medical emergencies that even the most dedicated of actors can’t power through. When one of the actors I’d hired in a show I’d written and self-produced called to tell me he had a blood clot in his leg and could die if he left the hospital, I went on for him with the script attached to a clipboard. The other actors would guide me around the stage, or feed me lines when we got lost.
By the time Fox was hit by a car in Toulouse, I was a little bit too used to troubleshooting cast injuries and illness.
While we didn’t have an understudy for Fox, we did have two different actors playing Turtle. The Turtle costume was so hard on the performer’s neck, and the Turtle role was so exhausting, that the company had decided to have two actresses alternate days—playing Turtle one day, puppeteering the next. The puppeteering track required a minimal amount of physical energy, and almost zero concentration. If they hadn’t split the Turtle track they way they had, whoever would have been just been the puppeteer would have almost certainly developed the Stump Complex.
So it was decided that one of the Turtles would go in for Fox and our hapless road manager was roped into puppeteering. Unfortunately, the Turtle costume was designed for someone five feet tall and Fox was designed for someone almost six feet. The Turtle who bravely volunteered to fill in for Fox was none other than my missus, who claims to be five feet tall, but is really closer to four-eleven. The way the fabric of the costume bunched up made it look like Fox had been squished like an accordion.
By the time everyone was back at the theatre from their daily adventures, we only had around thirty minutes to rehearse the dance numbers with our makeshift squished Fox. All the voices for the mascot characters were pre-recorded voice over, so we didn’t have to worry about her forgetting lines or lyrics. Even so, we didn’t even have time to get to most of the songs by the time the show started. Anytime Squished Fox wandered off in the wrong direction, someone would shove her where she was supposed to go. Anytime Squished Fox didn’t know what dance move she was supposed to do, she just busted out some sweet free-styling.
We survived the show and, it is hoped, the audience was unaware that anything was wrong. If a parent noticed Fox looked a little like a deflated balloon, or seemed to not know where she was going half the time, I’m sure the five year old they were with was too excited to notice. Normal Fox returned from the hospital that night with, miraculously, only minor bumps and bruises. Nothing broken, no concussion. Though sore and achy, she was well enough to do the show the next day.
The unpredictability of live-theatre—the fact that at any time, something horrible can go wrong—is one of the things that make it so rewarding both to be part of and to watch. When I stepped in for the actor who had a blood clot in his leg, we explained to the audience what was going on—and offered them free tickets to any future performance so they could see the show with the original cast. It ended up being one of our most vocally appreciative audiences. Any time I couldn’t find my place in the script, or started exiting in the wrong direction and had to be shoved towards the opposite wing by my castmates, they would erupt in laughter and applause.
Over the years, I’ve started looking forward to things going wrong in shows. Having someone rescue you when you drop a line, or having someone who can improvise with you when someone misses an entrance, or a phone doesn’t ring, or a light doesn’t turn on, or a curtain doesn’t close, or a prop breaks teaches you who you can trust better than a million perfectly executed performances. Some actors are unresourceful in the face of adversity. Some are too selfish or lazy to bother trying to keep things moving. But there is nothing more satisfying than discovering you’re working with the kind of people who would keep the show going regardless of nuclear holocaust, zombie apocalypse, or the fact that they have such bad diarrhoea that they have to wear an adult diaper in case they shit themselves.
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