Odd-jobs: Performance outside of theater
Like many actors, it is a fantasy of mine to support myself by performing in plays full-time. In my fantasy life, a well-received performance leads to a steady stream of offers from more and more monied houses until I never need to audition again. As anyone even tangentially involved in the arts knows, however, even the most talented performers struggle inwardly and outwardly with the fickle reality of the entertainment industry.
Great reviews do not necessarily beget audience or job offers, so we must work other jobs and make our own opportunities to stay afloat. Fairly early in my journey I discovered a subset of performance based jobs only slightly off the beaten track. A niche market to be sure and one that doesn’t appeal to all actors but one that happily dovetails with my particular skill set: I love variety, am independent and reliable, can go with the flow, and enjoy new experiences and people. And so I made singing telegrams, live mannequin work, promotional staffing, full body costume appearances, kids parties, emcee work, and corporate events my bread and butter.
Typically, singing telegrams involve a 15-minute comedy act customized to the recipient and performed as the character of your choice: gorilla, police woman, FBI agent, chicken, grim reaper, naughty nurse, bag lady (as raunchy as you like – sure, I’ll offer to have a threesome with your parents), fairy, wacky fairy, sexy cupid (Valentine’s day is coming folks and I’ve got bills to pay), bad drunk clown, Easter bunny, and assorted trademarked characters/celebrity impersonations. (my Reba needs work but I’ll do my best if that’s who you want to see…)
So far I have drawn the line at strip-o-grams although I did perform Olive’s strip from the movie ‘“Little Miss Sunshine” as the choreography was ready-made. I once announced myself as “Hazelden, your magic genie, here to grant you 3 wishes and leave you begging for more," only to have the defensive birthday boy retort “Yeah, well what if you’re not my type?” (I told him to wish for another genie at the end of the gig.) I visited a 21-year-old missionary’s birthday claiming to be a girl he’d jilted in Tijuana. I riled up the manager of a Home Depot by pretending to be a dissatisfied customer and saying I didn’t think he was old enough to be a manager; this conveniently got him to lie about his age which I could then call him on as I broke into song. Now I can carry a tune, but make no mistake: I don’t belong on Broadway. These gigs are sold on charisma and being able to roll with whatever happens – and everything does happen.
I got dangerously close to removing my gorilla mask once when I didn’t regulate my breathing enough and ended up gasping for oxygen (but I muddled through). I got the fish hook from my fisherman's hat caught in my bag and had to flag down a passing vehicle and ask the driver to use his knife to cut through my bag so that I could wear the hat into a gig with hip waders and a heavy vest on a 95-degree summer day. As I finished a number I was dripping with sweat, and the 85-year-old birthday boy remarked that I looked like I was overheating. I said it was a little warm that day and he told me that it wasn’t, and when I gave him a “lei” (wink wink) he launched into a buzz-killing story about the friend he was with the last time he was in Hawaii who had since passed on… (Still, I got the best tip of my career so I’m not complaining.) And speaking of death, a word to the wise: If you ever dress up as Cinderella and a young girl asks you what happened to your mother, gloss over this information. Do not let on that she is dead or you may derail the rest of your schtick entirely while you reassure the child that this probably won’t happen to them.
Living statue work does invite strange human behavior. People will pass their hands very close to your face and say all sorts of things to try to get you to blink or laugh, and once a small child poked me right in the eye. (One attempts to respond robotically). Outdoor performances have weather hazards – standing on a street corner dressed as a doctor the wind whipped all sorts of dust into my eyes, which I couldn’t close fast enough. They watered uncontrollably for the rest of the hour.
Still, how else would I have ever gotten the opportunity to climb on a platform in the middle of a pond at the Arboretum with hoses running up my sleeves and enjoy a beautiful, serene afternoon as a fountain?
I’ve been paid to scour the skyway for men with wicked combovers and try to convince them to audition for a television commercial. I’ve childwrangled for the Weather Channel’s Ultimate Beach Party held at 7 a.m. on a suburban street in Fargo, ND. I’ve had my hair cut, colored and styled for professionals and hair fetishists alike. I’ve performed kabuki with Green T in a baseball stadium and posed as fake paparazzi for a double bat mitzvah. I’ve offered to knit a 200-armed sweater to show my gratitude for the employees of H&R block, taught folks how to use magic wants at MagiQuest, stiltwalked as a giant pirate, dressed up as Gidget and rode around on a giant bodybuilder’s bicep for a beach themed NYE party and hawked the ‘FURminator’ at the convention center. I’ve voiced a cartoon character and a math-based computer program (those sixteenths are killer).
Before you ask, yes, I have been punched in the face while appearing as a beloved children’s icon. Yes, it gets hot and, no, it isn’t comfortable perching on top of a barrel for five hours wearing an enormous headdress and kitted out as an east Indian princess. But comfort isn’t really the point. I get a lot of laughs and a lot of hugs and I’m rarely bored.
I am grateful for my very flexible part time job Mall of America as an Entertainment Team Leader. I make sure Spongebob appears on time and train young people about what it is to be responsible and have a job (call us at 952.883.8540 if you’re under 5’3” and would like to audition). I also emcee for events like PacMan’s 30th anniversary and lead Toddler Tuesdays in the rotunda including dance alongs, story time and the occasional themed workshop – surfing perhaps? Cowgirl dance show? I’m in!
Roadside attractions are a particular passion for me and I like to think of my career as one big ever-changing attraction catering to individual human foibles and pop culture trends alike. In order to write ‘entertainer’ in the occupation field at customs I embrace opportunities on the fringe of the field. Sometimes when I try to explain my career to others I encounter raised eyebrows and the sneer ‘your parents must be so proud’ but just as often people laugh and shake their heads. I know it isn’t for everyone and I haven’t lost sight of my goal of performing more regularly in plays -- I got some great reviews last year and am in a show right now-- but I’m not selling out. I’m living the dream, and the fact that the dream could so easily slip into a nightmare at any moment of any gig just keeps the adrenaline flowing.