Backstage, Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, Canada.
I stare into the tangle of straps in the empty hole of what will soon be my giant bear head. Is this really what I’m about to do? Am I sure I don’t just want to get some student loans and go back to school and become a teacher or something? No… no more debt. That’s why I’m here to begin with: to get myself out of the hole I’d dug for myself by producing a play I’d written. I’m here for the money. I’m putting on this giant bear head and dancing around to pre-recorded voice-overs for the money.
The rumble of hundreds of parents asking their hundreds children if they’re sure they don’t need to pee one last time penetrates the heavy red curtain. Sweat already streams down my back inside the thick fur of my costume; a costume in which I am trapped, my mittened hands unable to grasp the zipper to free myself.
The houselights dim under the curtain. Unlike grown up audiences that immediately hush when the lights go dark, an audience of children just get louder until their enthusiasm is squashed by their accompanying adults. Put the head on, I tell myself. Get in the head. I close my eyes and when I reopen them, the world is dark and sound is muffled. I am in the head. My own voice is oddly close, and all other sound is oddly distant. I struggle for a few moments with the straps that keep the head from popping off and ruining children’s lives before I manage to get them clipped together, pinching the skin under my jaw.
My only window to the outside world is a few inches of black mesh that covers the back of the bear head’s constant idiotic, open-mouthed smile. My girlfriend (dressed as “The Spirit of Christmas Fairy”) approaches, looks up into my mouth hole and wishes me a good show.
I tell her I can’t see shit.
She assures me I’ll be fine, then takes her place in the wings. What the fuck does she know? She’s not in a fucking head. How did I let her talk me into this?
I’m jostled from behind and stumble forward. I turn, but can only see the lower half of the giant rabbit who bumped into me, untangling some tinsel from around her legs. I lean back as far as I can to get a view of the rabbit’s face. The rabbit leans back to get a look into mine and an unfamiliar voice apologizes. I apologize back for some reason. An assemblage of other animals ready themselves next to us in the wings.
Beaver steps in front of my field of vision. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says something in a very serious sounding tone. As his voice had to pass through his giant Beaver head, out into space, and then into my giant Bear head, however, the only words I understood were, “Hey, don’t forget to…”
“Don’t forget to what?”
“That’s right. Have a great show!” And with that he was gone—running on stage to the gleeful screams of hundreds of children.
Dammit, I thought, I’m going to kill someone out there.
The veterans of working in those heads had a preternatural ability to know where everyone else was on stage. I managed to make it through the big ensemble numbers by keeping my hands in front of me the entire time. Whenever I ended up in the wrong spot, or started exiting to the wrong wing, one of them would gently guide me in the right direction—and by “gently guide,” I mean shove.
Sweating, heart pounding, and out of breath, I imagined the bored faces of the parents in the audience having to sit through this ridiculous show. I hated myself for taking the job. I hated my girlfriend for talking me into it. I hated everyone from the production side who was responsible for putting these shows up. But most of all, I hated the whiny children and weak-willed parents who spent so much money on its over priced merchandise.
The next song ended with a big spin, which my flagging energy had caused me to unwittingly under-do. I couldn’t see that I was facing the wrong direction, so when I turned to march off stage during the applause, I was actually headed directly downstage, into the audience. An odd hush fell over the crowd, immediately after which I fell into the audience. Thankfully a gap between the stage and the front row prevented any children from being crushed by a giant dancing bear. I clambered back to my feet, collected what dignity I had left (which didn’t take long, because there was none), found the stairs onto the stage and slunk off into the wings.
Backstage, Rabbit, Fox, Turtle, and Beaver were howling with laughter, which really worked because those characters had the same idiotic, open-mouthed smiles plastered on their characters’ heads as mine. I made it through the rest of the show, thankful that the giant head covered the humiliation that would have otherwise been transparently displayed on my face.
After the curtain fell on the last number, I ripped the head off and made my way to the dressing room. I collapsed on a seat and stared at myself in a mirror. Really? This is really what I’ve become? The rest of the male cast members entered the dressing room joking about my fall. I accepted the ribbing with an outward good nature until they moved on to other topics. I stuffed my furry costume up into a purple canvass bag, and shoved the head into its massive box. Two more months of this tour. I sat back in my chair and pretended to play with my phone while the boys finished packing up their costumes and made their way out. A few minutes later the road manager poked his ever toque-covered head in the room.
“Hey, Bear! You got some fan mail!”
He dropped a hand coloured picture of my character in front of me. At the bottom was scrawled a name and the message, “I love you Bear!” I felt like crying. I felt like laughing. But most of all, I felt like an idiot. I had gauged my validity as a performer off the looks of a few bored parents when right next to them were enraptured children. What I was doing meant something to that child. Though I lost the picture itself (somewhere between Fort MacMurray and Fresno), the image of it stayed with me the rest of the tour. And every time I felt like I was going to die in that costume, or felt like killing one of my cast-mates or felt like my bladder would rupture on one of our epic twelve-hour drives across the rocky mountains, I remembered that every town we performed in there was some little girl out there who loved Bear, and I better make damn sure I don’t walk off the stage and crush her to death.