Few industries are as susceptible to downturns in the economy than live theatre—and when we’re talking about live theatre for children, it can be especially bad. Most parents will grab any excuse they can to not have to take their screaming/urinating/puking kid to a show the kid’s probably going to cry the whole way through anyway.
In one such time of proverbial belt-tightening, the Children’s Theatre Company was putting together a show about an entirely different dancing ursine protagonist than my future role. The show required the construction of a simple animatronic: a magical moving tree stump that needed to slide from one side of the stage to the other. But before the mechanical components had been built, a bookkeeper made a startling discovery: the cost of weekly salary, per diem, and nightly hotels for an additional performer was actually cheaper than the cost of building and installing the animatronic. And so it was decided to put a human being into the stump.
And the Stump Complex was born.
The original Stump was a long-time member of the company, and a very skilled dancer/choreographer in her own right. There wasn’t anything else available, so she accepted the role of Stump, unaware of the damage that a playing prop dead tree could have on the human mind. To some it would appear as a dream job: a ridiculously easy task for the same pay scale as anyone else on the tour.
All Stump had to do was slide across the stage, whereupon the children in the audience would scream “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!” The Little Girl character (my future wife)1 would look at the side where the Stump had been, not see it, then ask the boys and girls what they were talking about. Then Stump would move back to its original place and the kids would scream again, but when the Little Girl looked at the other side, again, the Stump wasn’t there. Hilarious, right?
That single action is what comprised Stump’s entire workload. Stump spent close to a half hour sitting on stage waiting for her moment in the spotlight, and then another half hour waiting for the curtain to close afterwards. This gave Stump up to three hours each day (one hour per show, three shows per day) during which she had nothing else to do but reflect on the choices she’d made in life that lead her to be where she was now, trapped inside a fake tree made out of plastic, plaster and papier-mâché.
At the end of the show, Stump’s cast-mates would emerge from their animal costumes drenched in sweat, exhausted, and hungry. Stump, on the other hand, would emerge dry, well-rested, and utterly neurotic.
Stump was normally an instigator of on-the-road good times. Looking for someone with whom to tear up Bourbon Street? Need some company getting lost on the trails in Banff? Want someone to get drunk with you on Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s? Stump-before-stump was always game. Stump-during-stump on the other hand was more likely to make her hotel roommate uncomfortable by crying in the shower.
One night in Thunder Bay, or Duluth, or wherever, Stump wobbled and fell over. Little Girl turned around, and called out “TIIIIIIMBER!”—an awfully clever ad lib that was unfortunately steamrolled by the pre-recorded voices of the animals. Pre-recorded voices are terrible improvisers, by the way. Stump was stuck, unable to get herself back on her feet… or roots, I suppose. There was nothing to be done but be dragged off stage, in full view of the audience, by disgruntled, old Stage Hand Bob in a sweaty, stained Guess Who t-shirt from the 70’s. Stump emerged from her stump that night in abject misery; what could she possibly do with her career now? Who could want a performer that couldn’t even portray an inanimate object?
It took a few treks across our great continent, but you’ll be happy to know that Stump-after-stump has pulled a full recovery. She’s back to her routine of finding random strangers in Austin or Halifax or Saskatoon to party with. Stump has gone on to happy times in many other more gratifying roles within the company. The one benefit of playing Stump is that any role you take after that feels like King Lear.
As economic factors continue to encourage low-tech over high-tech solutions, other Stump-roles have been created within this company. There was Snail in the show I performed in as Bear. Snail felt so guilty about not exercising enough during shows that she refused to eat the catering. You’d find her, a gaunt and desiccated husk, eating cat-food out of a can in the ladies dressing room.
I also once took on a stump role in The Show About the Rat. I was placed under a couch for the entire first act, my sole duty to manipulate an inflatable dragon by pushing it when it talked during a single song that had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show. That tour was a constant fight against the dark forces of Stumpdom. I thought the best thing to do was to keep my mind occupied while I waited under the sofa. I got an ebook reader and tried my best to keep myself distracted. But still my mind grew more Stumpish everyday. It wasn’t until late in the tour—on a day I accidentally forgot my reader in the dressing room—that I realized an important truth. The only way to be happy while performing a task that is boring and pointless and repetitive is to give in to the banality and utterly commit yourself to that Sisyphean chore.
That day I plugged in the air compressor that inflated the dragon and gleefully pushed and shoved them with a deranged abandon that can only be described as psychotic. And it felt good. After all if you’re going to crazy anyway, it’s better to be crazy happy than crazy sad.
1 As an aside I should clarify that I did not marry a little girl. She specializes in playing little girls—she’s made a career out of playing Anne Frank in a variety of stage adaptations of her eponymous diary. This is slightly ironic as she would go on to marry someone who’s made a career playing Nazis—a somewhat unfortunate type-cast.