As a theater artist, my non-artist friends typically ask if I would like to do film work. I typically shrug knowing that I would if the pay were good enough. But that is mostly because artists need to eat too. Truth is, film has never been for me. There is such a large disconnect between the creation of film and the audience. It is a great challenge, and I admire the artists that do it well.
I prefer direct audience-performer relations. At times, I feel starved for this feeling in the theater. All of the work in the theater happens for months before the audience gets a glimpse of the action. Once the performer makes it onstage they may be discouraged by their director, by the blinding stage lights, or by the impending “fourth wall of doom destruction and lack of fun-ness” from looking out into the audience. There is still an interaction through laughter, silence, and applause, but then again there is also nutritional value in lack luster food.
I grew up working for my family’s entertainment business, G. F. Entertainment. Every summer, they would perform on the boardwalks of Wildwood, NJ. I started off as a kid in a stroller; eventually I began handing out souvenir plastic ducks and sailboats. As I got older, I became a roadie for one of the bands that performed for us. Working with the McCool Brothers for a couple summers, I really built an appreciation for Jimmy Buffett, the stilt walkers and larger-than-life puppeteers that paraded beside me up the 2-mile stretch of boards every Thursday night. My time as a roadie ended, as I finally became old enough to strap one our puppets to my back and join the world of entertainment.
I got a lot of kicks out of being that puppeteer. I put a lot of effort into making the puppet dance and high-fiving people as I went along my way. People laughed, they smiled, and inevitably a child got scared of it if I bent down too quickly with the puppet’s body. I was no Jeff Dunham, but I knew that I was a part of the vacation of countless strangers. That was really something.
Then, I became a stilt walker. It was gloriously liberating to immediately go from the shortest guy in all of my classes to the tallest man in Wildwood. Yeah, I was moving up in the world. Instead of seeking out the audience, I could normally find an audience coming to me. That first summer was the hardest that I ever worked as a performer. While parading up the boardwalk, I rarely missed a single soul. Even if it was a quick high five or a simple joke, I wanted to do what I could to brighten each person’s day.
And many times it was much more than that simple joke. There were about 6 stilt walkers, including myself, but I am pretty certain that I was in at least half of the pictures taken those nights. I often found dancing partners when we would stop for the band to play its venues. As strange as it sounds, it was also common to have people limbo through my legs, whether it was some slightly inebriated college girls, or some parents pushing strollers. On a few occasions, I would join a lonely person leaning up against a rail to share a brief philosophical conversation overlooking the sea as the sun went down. Semi-weekly, I would get invited to join people at playing boardwalk games such as water shooting races, basketball and balloon darts…at no expense. There were also some times that I came to a child’s rescue as a seagull tried to steal their food, pesky birds. My job was simply to go out and have fun with people, easily the best job I could imagine.
One day, I stopped to chat with an elderly couple seated on a bench. They thanked me for my entertainment that day. I was confused at first, but they pointed out my tendency to entertain everyone. They expected me to entertain the kids, as all the other entertainers do. But they saw I that entertained all ages, even reaching out to the older couple off to the side without any kids around them and the punk teenager who is filled with angst as they skateboard their lives away. I have always cherished their words as a memento for why I do what I do; touch as many people as I can.
I am unsure how well those families remember me from that first summer. Perhaps I sneak into tales as the goofy yellow stilt-walker as they reminisce by the campfire or when they flip through old photo albums. I do know that I have gotten better at creating those moments as times went on. Those moments continued as I worked events as a scarecrow on stilts at Halloween time and Monster Mashed with kids at costume competitions, or when I would become the world’s tallest elf at Christmas and prepare kids to meet Santa.
My weekly event in Wildwood has changed in the past couple of years to a Saturday morning Farmer’s Market that is held a couple blocks from the boardwalk. I do not get a chance to see as many faces as I did before, but I instead get to see regulars and have had the opportunity to form long standing relationships with the vendors. I have never thought of my work as that of a merchant. They all show up week in and week out in hopes of selling their products or to spread the word about their business. Me, I am there to entertain. And yet, they can count on me to be there as a part of the community in that market as I can count on them to be there with their table and tent. Regular customers can come each week just to see me in the same way that some people stop by Nummy Town’s table to get their weekly batch of peaches. This one mom brings her two little sons each week because they want to see the “stilt man” and each week I sell them some more of my entertainment with a new costume and a new trick. I value these days at the Farmer’s Market in the same way that I valued those nights on the boards, because here I get even more feedback about how I might touch someone’s life. Many of the merchants really miss me at the end of the summer when I have to go back to college. It is small, but it has a lot of value.
I worked at a local amusement park called Storybook Land as a ride attendant. That was my official title, but occasionally during special events I became Peter Pan, their mascot Bubbles (a jolly green dragon), and the Easter Bunny. Bubbles was based off of the one roller coaster at the park and most kids really liked to hang out with him. He had free range of the park, minus actually going on rides. So I got to enjoy some shenanigans as long as I did my part to ensure that his head did not fall off and that I did not overheat inside the costume. Being the Easter Bunny, I had the pleasure of being a cultural icon that many kids adored, but I was always stationed in one place and unable to do much besides hold a kid and pose for the picture.
Peter Pan was a bit different though. More than just a holiday icon, he is the childhood hero of many children. He was certainly mine. This was a far different experience than stilt walking. For the first time I was doing the walk around performing while having to maintain a very specific character. Sure, I stayed in the same personality in Wildwood as I teetered around the boardwalk, but in this situation every single audience member knew as much about the character as I did before I even put on the costume. As a fairy tale character, the actor needs to have an answer to everything and know the character inside and out, not only because it is crucial to playing the part and to entertain, but also because the child’s belief in the character depends upon how credible the actor is.
This credibility of character has intrigued me tremendously for the past few years. At Storybook Land, I have only had the pleasure of playing the character a handful of times, but I have played the part at events outside of the park as well. In all venues, I had a mixture of kids who believed, kids who knew that I was an actor, and kids who wanted to blow it for the ones who did believe. That is to be expected. But I had not realized early on that the actor could rebuild credibility. That brings me back to the theater.
In the theater a hot phrase is “the suspension of disbelief.” Everyone in the theater knows for a fact that the action on stage is not actually happening. They all just agree to do their best to forget about that element so that they can get lost in the story. I found that a good actor could create that same contract with their audience in a walk around environment. The secret is to make it worthwhile for the audience. In the theater, the audience has something at stake. They normally paid for their tickets and have given time out of their schedule to see the show. The entertainers are merely bonuses at amusement parks, festivals, and other events. In these cases, the entertainer needs to strive to become one of the biggest attractions at the event or location. Look, make the stakes their maximum amusement, since that is typically what the audience came to gain.
Whenever I play a fictional character as a walk around performer, I focus first on those who believe that I am real. I offer them a high five or a handshake, and I look them in the eyes. If I see wonderment followed by a smile, then I create a game. Peter Pan is a great character to do this with, because everything is a game with him. Sometimes I evolve the high five into multiple high fives that slowly grow into a game of the kid chasing after my hand as we play tag. This trick is great because automatically the kids who might not believe want to join in our game anyway, and it will normally only take a moment to invite them in. Even the parents become captivated in that moment as I run with a swarm of kids at my heels. Soon enough, they get to join in the fun as I try to explain how to crow and enlist their mom in our crowing chorus. Many of them know I am not Peter Pan, but just for the day, they all will put that fact aside to have fun. And who knows, for many of them I will always be their Peter, even those who know that I am not a boy who can fly and that I have grown up.
As Peter Pan, I have played many games. Tag is always an easy one to start up, as is crowing. I can always muster up a game of “How does this thing work,” wherein my audience member has to try to explain random objects that people use for which I would have no need in Neverland. If there’s music, the game can easily become dancing. Some of my favorite games that I have played have taken place in specific venues. At Storybook Land, they started an annual Pirate Princess Day event. They casted me as Peter Pan for that day, and I was expected to stand in a hut to take pictures all day with Captain Hook. Outside of this hut, however, was a manmade beach filled with sand, photo ops with pirate ships, buried treasure, and more. Needless to say I got bored inside the hut and left to join the kids. It is also needless to say that many of these kids had plastic swords, and Peter Pan never turns down a fight with a pirate. So swordplay can become a game. If the kids also have little buckets to collect treasure in, you can also make a game out of flipping the doubloons into the buckets at a distance. You can make fun shapes in the sand with the different colored gems and go sailing on the pirate ships and tell stories of how you cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile (that codfish!) and as a prince you can borrow a bow and arrow toy from a merchant and teach the kids how to arch and who knows, maybe as the Beast you will wind up dancing with a little princess and start twirling her over and over and over again. Once I even played basketball!
The secrets are two-fold. First, you must play the game as well as your character. You may not usually be fantastic at a game in real life, but playing against kids gives you an advantage beyond the adrenaline that is running through your veins. It is also perfectly fine to mess up a few times, so do not sweat it. The second secret is to be even better at starting a new game. Most of the time kids do not want to stop until after their parents take them somewhere else, that means that unless you move on to an easier game, you will be sword fighting and playing tag until you are blue in the face.
Through all these games, all of these stories, all of these escapades as a performer within an audience, I have gained three major things that I cannot seem to find on stage. I first noticed a large development of skills. I suppose theater and film actors gain these skills too, but at a slower rate. They are limited to learning skills from themselves and the other actors and crew members. I am limited to the hundreds and thousands of people that I encounter. It is amazing to give a gift of performance to someone and to see his or her desire to give a gift back. The second gift I get from the audience is an acceptance into their community. In the theater, we invite the audience to join us, as a walk around performer; I am granted permission to become a part of their lives, their family, and their area. At times, I get to learn their struggle and their passions, and with that information I can give them an even better gift. Finally, they give me an understanding of life from a different vantage point. On stage, I can only guess what someone of another age, another stage in life thinks about the content of the show or of the world. In person, I get to feel it. I can talk to kids that tell me how their parents read my story every night before bed and how they wonder why Peter Pan has not yet whisked them away to Neverland. On stilts, I can meet an amputee who has gone to war and looks at what I can do on the stilts as if it were a distant memory. Both scenarios taught me how beautiful and tragic the world can be years before Hamlet would have.
So, my recommendation when presented with an opportunity to be a walk around entertainer is to try it. If you do it once, you may just do it a thousand times and never get bored.