Apparently my job description is not your run of the mill type of job. When family and friends attempt to explain what I do, it becomes befuddled. Is she a clown? Nope! No red nose, white make-up, or giant shoes. Hopefully, doesn’t incite nightmares in children. Is she an actress? Kinda, but it’s acting for children, so nope, not in the traditional sense! Is she a storyteller? Kinda, but she really involves the children in her shows, so nope! Is it a theatre company for children? Kinda, there are kids in all of the shows, but its really a one man band, so nope!
I think of myself as an entertainer (mostly for kids). I embody a fictional character and through this character – mostly Ms. Bits N’ Bobs or Lady Elizabeth Shakespeare, become a conduit into an imaginative space where kids can explore.
I was recently hired as the entertainment at a dinner party for a party of grown ups and the hostess asked me to share some stories about my experiences in my profession. As they are my experiences, I have always thought that they might not be too interesting to anyone else, unless they had been deserted on a desert island for a year and were starved for company. However, as I shared the stories with her, she apparently enjoyed them and encouraged me to share them with the group and they seemed to find the tales both interesting and amusing. Hopefully, so will you.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
I was living in New York City in the early 1990’s. I was a senior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and had finished my first summer acting job at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire as a mud beggar. That’s a good story for another time. Remind me, if I forget. I was working out in my local gym on the Upper West Side, as one did as a rising actress in the 90’s and met a teacher who worked up in Harlem. December was approaching and as we huffed and puffed our way through the elliptical, he brought up how the Kindergarteners and First Graders at his school never seemed to receive any resources in the realm of theatre and wouldn’t it be grand if I could come up with a program. Being a plucky and fairly over-confident nineteen year old, I thought that was an inspiring idea.
“How about I come to the school as Mrs. Santa Claus?” I suggested.
“That’s a fantastic idea!” He responded
A couple of weeks later, with a new mop hat, and a cheery red dress with an apron, I took the subway to an elementary school in Harlem. Despite having lived in NYC for about four years, I had not spend much time in Harlem. Undaunted by being the only white chick on the block, I made my way to the school. The first interesting discovery was that the school was surrounded by a sturdy metal fence with spikes on the top. I double checked the address, not sure at all that this was a school. However, there seemed to be kids randomly hanging out on the concrete black-top inside the fence. I found the rusty intercom and explained that I was here to be Mrs. Santa for the day. A garbled voice buzzed me in.
There was a strong security system set up. I wasn’t sure whether this was to keep the kids in or the bad people out. Meeting the Kindergarten teachers, who looked on me and my youth and the cheery red dress a little warily, I explained the nature of the show. It would be very interactive. There was music and dancing and the kids would dress up as elves and reindeer. The teacher’s tired faces grew more intrigued and eyebrows raised at the possibility of a moment of light-hearted fun for their students or perhaps it was just that they wouldn’t have to teach that class.
“… and then at the end of the show the kids will be able to come up and tell me what they wish for on Christmas morning and they have the option of giving Mrs. Santa a hug.” I finish up.
Multiple sets of exhausted eyebrows gather together in consternation.
“Hmm… No no no… that’s not such a good idea. We think every one of these kids should remain in their seats.” They opine.
But I, the nineteen year old professional knew better.
“I think it will be okay. I’ve done this many times before.” I reassure them filled with youthful confidence.
The children arrive for the day. Most, if not all are African American. It does, of course, occur to me that a Caucasian Mrs. Santa, who is a young version of that character, might be a little odd. This did not seem to be an issue for anyone there.
I generally go into a very lovely place as I prepare for a show, and get into the beloved character of Mrs. Santa. She really spends most of her time baking cookies and helping Santa figure which child gets each gift. She’s a happy lady.
I am blasted out of this delightful anticipation of the show, when the kids arrive for the morning and these lovely and expressive eye-brow raising teachers turning into heavy duty marine sergeants.
The concerned tones of the skeptical, loving caretakers of these Kindergarteners start yelling military style “GET IN LINE! TWO BY TWO! ANYONE WHO TALKS GOES TO THE BACK OF THE LINE. ANYONE WHO DOESN’T STAND IN THE LINE DIRECTLY IN YOUR ASSIGNED PLACE GOES TO THE PRINCIPAL.”
I am the only one who seems even mildly shocked by the raised voices and the harsh tones. The kindergarteners pretty much ignore the teachers. Some get in line. Others literally meander around the hallway as though the marine sergeants had not even barked at them. I’m currently terrified of the teachers and I don’t even want to consider what the principal’s office might entail. The threat that they might lose the chance to hang out with Mrs. Santa seems to bring the wandering classmates into line. The teachers eye-ball me as they march the children into the classroom, worried that I might run?… I’m not sure.
I begin the show. It’s magical. The room lightens. The children all focus in. It was one of those shows that you dream of, where everyone believes and the entire room transforms the space into Santa’s Winter Wonderland. Snow falls. The reindeer canter. We end up in Santa’s grotto. I pass out jingle bells and we “Jingle all the Way” to the conclusion of the performance.
It’s time for the Mrs. Santa hugs. In a swift breath, I get mob-rushed by forty kindergarteners who did not so much want to tell me their material wishes as much as they just wanted to touch Mrs. Santa. By mob-rushed, I can barely keep standing. I’m only on my feet because there is no room to fall. They just wanted a hug. They wanted hugs so badly that they were willing to run over friends and class mates. They wanted hugs so badly that when the teachers pulled them off me (well… Mrs. Santa) there were massive tears. It was as though they had never been hugged. These kids just wanted love. They wanted love for Christmas – nothing more and nothing less.
The teachers who had seemed so stern appeared kindly and in control of the classroom, as they mussed each individual’s hair or brushed away a tear and brought order back to the class. When all the kids were back at their desks, I was allowed to go over to each one and get a hug.
The day was declared a success and I acknowledged that the teachers and their knowledge and experience outweighed my youthful enthusiasm. I had been so quick to rush to judgement as I made my way back home on the subway, mop hat in hand – ready for a chocolate chip cookie from David’s Cookies, mine and Santa’s nutritional go to of the day.