I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest differences between a professional performer and an amateur performer is that the ability to perfectly conceal your contempt when working with less than stellar material.
Dusteroo had a very difficult time hiding his contempt for his role in The Show About the Rat.
Many of the people who work with the Touring Children’s Theatre Company are relatively young theatre school grads who are looking for some cash and an opportunity to travel. And putting on a giant animal head that gives you headaches, or sweating your ass off in a costume that is essentially a full body rug, or sitting in a cramped van with someone who’s eaten too much hummus is still better than slinging lattes at your neighbourhood Starbucks. Plus, you get to see some pretty cool places.
Unlike most his colleagues in their early to mid twenties, Dusteroo was decidedly on the wrong side of forty. A few years previous he’d quit his job and, with the support of his wife, pursued his dreams of becoming an actor. The Touring Children’s Theatre Company is great because most of its tours are through the fall to early spring—when it tends to be slower for film, TV, and other theatre.
So for Dusturoo, going on tour with a kid’s show was a good way to make a few bucks doing something that was kind of like what he wanted to be doing, in a time when he probably wouldn’t be making any money performing anyway.
He was getting sick of hiding behind the giant animal heads, as everyone inevitably does. But every show has a “host”—a character without an animal head who is able to improvise if something disastrous happens. Once while hosting, my wife had to play Simon Says with the audience for ten minutes while the crew madly fixed some technical problem. When you’re talking about an audience of hundreds of children, you can’t just turn on the house lights and announce that the play will resume in ten minutes without totally losing them.
So here’s this forty-something guy, who didn’t want to go out on the road anymore in a head character. But The Show About the Rat featured not one, but FIVE hosts. He jumped on the offer to play one of the host roles, in which he would portray a number of different characters (including the pseudonym I’ve been using for him, the Dusteroo). His face could be seen throughout and he would be mic’d for a live vocal. Real acting! What joy! What bliss!
But what killed the experience for poor old Dusteroo was his star costume, and the song and dance that went along with it.
The Shooting Star Song was one of the campiest, most painful things I’ve ever had to watch a grown heterosexual man perform eight to ten times a week. In it, Dusteroo was one of the backup singers/dancers to the “Shooting Star,” and was dressed in a big, puffy, shiny, bright blue fabric star that had a little hole cut out in the topmost point for his face. His arms had to be outstretched at all times to keep the two side points from drooping. His spandex clad legs stuck out the middle of the bottom of the star. It was truly a hilarious costume, provided you weren’t the poor bastard inside it.
In the twenty seven years since my first performance in a community theatre production of The King and I at the tender age of four, I have occasionally found myself involved in productions that I’ve known were not of the highest quality. As a teenager in a devout, church going family, I was constantly being roped into performing in the most ham-fisted “dramas” and the least funny “skits” the evangelical religious community could muster. In my professional career I have found myself cast in roles I was ill suited for (like when the twenty eight year old me was hired to play a fifteen year old skateboarder in a rock and roll musical—in which I actually had to skateboard1). I have thrice found myself engaged in professional revue shows that required me to rap—which means I’ve made considerably more money rapping than most people who actually consider themselves rappers ever will.2
Suffice it to say that, in the name of paying the bills, I’ve done some things on stage of which I’ve been less than proud.
I like to think that in all those circumstances I did my level best to conceal the contempt or embarrassment I felt. But to be honest, I don’t think I have what it takes to be able to make the best of having to do the Shooting Star Song, and I hope to God I’m never put to the test.
The song was about “Shooting Star” trying to figure out what kind of “star” she should be. The accompanying choreography was upbeat and cute to the point of psychosis. Imagine Zooey Deschanel on crack, LSD, and a couple martinis after suffering severe blunt head trauma. If the show weren’t targeted to three to five year-olds, you’d wonder what kind of diseased mind could come up with this stuff. After an introduction in which Shooting Star wonders about all the different kinds of stars she could be (little stars, big stars, bright stars, etc…), she has this startlingly vapid revelation (and this is verbatim from the script):
“What kind of star shall I be tonight? Well it’s simple! I will be who I am. And that’s me! Because that’s who I am!”
And then she launches into the song about being a “shooting” star.
The more you think about that line, the less sense it makes. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like it’s supposed to make sense, so you just let the sentiment wash over you. But when you really think about it, “I will be who I am. And that’s me! Because that’s who I am!” is absolutely meaningless. I’d say you can’t write this shit, but the crazy thing is, someone actually did.
And there’s poor old Dusteroo behind her, singing and dancing his little heart out, but utterly dead behind the eyes.
During rehearsals, Dusteroo asked me how a grown man was supposed to get through this song without feeling utterly humiliated. The only way I saw was to go deeper down the rabbit hole. Don’t act as big as the women smiling and singing beside you. Go further. Smile bigger. Sing louder. Don’t just grin and bear it. Don’t just accept it. Don’t even just embrace it. This is camp we’re talking about. You’ve got to lube it up and fuck its brains out.
But Dusteroo couldn’t. I don’t think camp was in his vocabulary. He just put his star costume on every day and white-knuckled it until the song was over.
One of our technicians and I used to watch from the wings to try to fill in the inner monologue that must have been going through his head as he sang and danced the Shooting Star Song. What we came up with usually involved a lot of four letter words and repeated appeals to whatever higher power might be listening to put their smiting powers to full use.
After more than hundred shows spread out over two months, it never got any easier for Dusteroo. To this day, I think I could probably bring him to tears just by singing the Shooting Star Song in his presence.
1 For anyone curious as to whether they should take up skateboarding in their late twenties, I cannot express in words how much of a bad idea this is.
2 For anyone curious as to the ethnic appropriateness of me rapping, consider that the reflected light from my naked torso in full daylight will cause your eyes to bleed. PS, why in God’s name do people insist on putting rap songs into shows when they know damn well that the people who are going to end up performing it are white musical theatre nerds?