Wellington Lambert

I am running down the corridor of an indoor mall, people are screaming at me, mostly kids, teenage kids. Words like “Faggot” and “Pussy” punch the air and smack me in the back of the head. I am dressed in black tights and sporting a tail that looks like a crocheted pot holder. I am not alone, there are four of us, one is a girl, but we all look equally ridiculous. Our faces have been done up in full cat make up, whiskers painted on, skin pan-caked in black, white and gray. Finally we approach a door, open it, close it and breathe a sigh of relief. We are now safely housed in a hallway that traffics supplies to and from the enclosed mall stores. We can relax…till the next show.

Sounds like a recurring nightmare, and if I were truly lucky I would wake up, but luck was always busy helping someone else, Brad Pitt, Bin Ladin…Oprah. No, luck was not my friend in those dark days; it appears I pissed luck off some time ago. But that was ok, I followed my instincts, my incredibly well tuned instincts, and here I am, cowering in a dark corridor, children outside wanting to rip my tail off, or head. I’m not sure why they wanted to hurt us, just for fun I guess, then again, we did assault them with some pretty bad entertainment, in some really bad costumes. Well, to give you a feel for the whole experience, let me take you back, oh, say, four months ago.

(Cue going back in time music)

I received the call. Every performers dream; you got the job.

For me, back then, getting performing gigs felt like a nice break from temp work, then, when the show had run its course, temp work felt like a break from performing. So, at that moment I was ready for a break from my temp job.

The show was called “The Cats getting ready for Christmas.”  Yes, apparently, Cats do get ready for Christmas, and Easter…and, perhaps Hanukah. And guess what, they do more than lick themselves and ignore people. They actually dance, and sing, about Christmas. Well, you can imagine my excitement.

I was going to have to reach deep into my soul for this part, do some real research, create a back story. Luckily I had two cats, two angry nasty cats, which, even though I’m sure they didn’t give a rat’s ass about Christmas, were certainly good at doing cat stuff. They had perfected the lick and purr, the “don’t touch me unless you feed me” look, the, “are you still here?” stare. Yes I was briefly a sponge, soaking up every nuance of attitude they managed to dish out.

I was ready…I was a cat.

It was September, but after rehearsals and sorting out this and that it would be time for touring a Christmas show. This show was divided into three casts. The A cast which toured south of the border into the states. The B cast which stayed put in a large fully stocked theatre and had the kids shipped in. And then there was us…the C cast. We were sent where no cat would want to go, north. We were given the privilege of being forced into every god forsaken hole that could hold a group of hostile children and support a healthy heckle or drunken slur. This was the north where drinking was a high school credit and gasoline was listed as an appetizer. Not pretty and not exactly open to having an exuberant Christmas spirit bussed in by a group of eager actors from down south dressed up as cats.

Now, to be fair, the music was great. The ex-rockers who put the show together knew what they were doing. The music was pre-recorded and pumped in with a healthy sound system that came with its own crew of one. Our vocals were feed through by microphones that were hand held and wired, creating an elaborate microphone dance that had to invented after the show was on the road. We were the first cast to be ready and shipped out, since, well, I guess, northern tomatoes were rotting and needed a target.

As you might or might not know, shows come with something called a stage manager. This is like a glorified baby sitter. Except the babies are bigger and the pay is smaller. They are responsible for the details of the show that take it from point A to point B. For a touring show the stage manager is even more important than a stationary show. They must establish the contact before we arrive, make sure everything is in place; ego’s in check and checks in hand. They handle all monetary, technical and costume issues. They are god, and it’s really really important that they know what they are doing.

This  being said, I’m not sure how it happened or how such a serious lack of judgement took place but we managed to start our touring show with someone who was, well, less then qualified as a stage manager and maybe even lacking qualifications as a fully functioning human being.

On our way to our first show I knew something was a bit off with our commander and chief. He was, well…different. At first glance he seemed like a regular Joe, you know some guy trying, like the rest of us to make a living in the fast paced world of children’s theatre. But it became quickly evident that he was a bit off. Quirky and off beat, he managed to hold his own when it came to getting into the van and starting it, but after that it was sketchy. He drove and drove and drove, none of us paying attention, being actors; we could never afford cars so therefore never really paid attention to where we were going since road travel in an automobile was a luxury we would seldom be repeating. Also, we just assumed he knew where we were going. But sadly, after an hour or so, it was clear he didn’t. Sarah, the female of the cast had the unfortunate luck of sitting up front and was soon taking over. This after a conversation with him about why he didn’t put his seat belt on, apparently, it hinders the ability to jump out if the car drives through a fireball….seriously?…seriously.

Well, after much negotiation with the show touring manager we were granted a new stage manager who had experience. This was followed by a very tense, handing over of the keys, in which, once again, we had to meet at a parking lot where nut job himself had to had to hand over the keys to the new stage manager. He met us there and kept his hand in his coat pocket all the time while carrying on a very bitter conversation about how we managed to get him fired. All we did is stare at the hand in his pocket and pray it wasn’t a gun..it wasn’t, I think he was just holding onto his pride.

When I think back on this it saddens me. Clearly the powers that be made us the scapegoats. I think this guy was actually a very interesting, maybe a tad bit off, but I think he deserved better. I did run into him a decade or so later at an open mic show with my trio and he did a bit that was not only funny but talented. Clearly he was meant to be on stage not behind it. But still…there was this edge to him that made you ask…hilarious…or homicidal?

Well, finally, we were on our way.

Our first stop with our new stage manager was an Indian reserve. I thought, great, they’ll be starving for entertainment. I envisioned sharing laughs and a bit of seal meat. They would regale us with stories of their ancestors while we would tell them of the new world, flying machines and the like. I had been raised up north and lived beside Cree reserves but I never went there, or, to be honest, knew where they were. So this would be a new experience, I was looking forward to it.

It took us a day or so to get there. Sarah now had a female companion with the new stage manager. I already knew one of the performers named Lance, from my work at Canada’s Wonderland. He was a very likable guy whose personality boded well with hours of travel together. Then, there was Albert. Now Albert was also a likeable guy but had this odd percentage to his personality that said, I am an actor. This percentage was usually the residual effect of a performer who has gone to theatre school. His intentions are good, but somewhat misplaced. There is no “method” in being a cat, there just, well, pretending to be a cat. No amount of theatre exercises is going to put your mind into a cats mind, although, he did seem to go into heat and occasionally peed on things, so, hey, maybe I’m wrong.

This is something I experienced numerous times on children’s shows which I have done, sadly, numerous times. The one “actor” will see the job as a stepping stone to higher projects and as a result, something to be endured with a condescending attitude toward the others, or they will treat it like an off shoot of Shakespeare and be annoyingly attentive to detail. Well, luckily Albert was bendable and eventually fell in line with the rest, making peace with his situation with humour, humility and perhaps a little bit of crying..late at night, while in bed, when he thought no one was listening… I’m just saying, I’m a light sleeper.

Lance and I had found a comfortable relationship that held us in a fairly healthy mental state for the entire tour. We also had a similar sense of humour and a god given ability to lower our expectations, a must in the world of children’s theatre.

After a lousy night’s sleep in one of the worst crap hotels I’d ever been in, I didn’t know cockroaches lived up north…in the winter, or maybe those were rats, either way, we were off to the reserve, eager and willing to spread the joy of Christmas.

Now, I wasn’t expecting igloos, tepees or Eskimo-like people scampering around in anticipated delight at our arrive, but I kind of thought I would see something…someone, but no. The reserve was like a lost town, or maybe, even better, a scattering of houses, ugly, uncared for, one room houses, that at one time contained human life. But now, everything looked empty. Bits of skidoo parts scattered across the snow on the front lawn, along with kid’s broken toys, summer toys, plastic buckets, shoves. The only color that was visible in this apocalyptic scene was the bright yellow stains on the white snow, dogs…I think, and of course the brown that usually accompanies that. We drove around looking for the location we were given and eventually pulled up in front of a building that wore most of the numbers of the address.

“This is it.” Our stage manager announced, with a voice already riddled with regret.

Most felines would have withered in despair, but not us. We were hardy cats, born out of a life filled with cat calls and call backs. We knew how to endure, we knew the show must go on, and so it did. We approached the entrance of the building, opened the door and walked in. Usually there is someone at each event that greets us and shows us the stage area. But here, the only thing that welcomed us was an empty space that reeked of disappointment and just little bit of anger.

We found the stage, which over looked a library of dusty books and an unused microfiche.

“You can change down here.” The stage manager pointed to a dark corridor that led to an even darker kitchen.

We had an extensive make up process before the show. One of the actors from the show “Cats” had been called in to give each cast a crash course on cat make up during rehearsals. After a few shows we all managed to add our own special touch. I was the mean cat, so I darkened the circles under my eyes, giving me a sort of evil look which sometimes scared the kids… and pleased me.

After a while our lone tech man joined us, then our stage manager. We eventually did our sound check and returned to the safety of our kitchen, tails tucked firmly between our legs. It was fifteen minutes to show time and still, not a soul. I was beginning to think that the only audience we’d have on this trip were the rats back at the hotel. Then, as we began to believe no one would show and started talking about packing up, a strange sort of squeaking sound came from behind the kitchen door. Holy shit, I though, those are really big rats. We stood frozen in time with our feet off the floor, knees folded into our chest. Then, finally, Albert ventured a peek out the door. He turned around, “It’s a couple of kids,” he said as we all heard them giggle their way back down the hallway to the main room. Finally the stage manager made her way into the main room and came back. There all there, she said, trying to hide the look of horror that lurked beneath that phoney “let’s get to work” smile. We prepared ourselves to go out and dazzle the audience, everyone trying to ignore the creepy fact that no one heard a room filled with at least one hundred people enter the building.

As soon as we entered the stage all talking stopped and giggling ended. Not a sound, not a peep, not a word. The next forty minutes of non-stop heart pounding rock influenced entertainment flew by like…oh, two hours. I wanted to believe that their stone cold stares were shocked looks of gratitude, but after the final song and an applause-free bow, then an almost mad dash for the exits. I had to conclude that the show was less than a success. We did have the honour of having one adult audience member remain, with arms crossed and bitchy face intact, watch in silence as we packed up. I think he was worried we’d take one of the children…or two.

One hour later we were off to the next location, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to share our talents with yet more entertainment starved children.

The rest of the tour would be filled with such highlights as several close encounters with eighteen wheelers, setting a school on fire, getting lost and lost and lost, till finally ending with me and my fellow pussies cowering in a storage transportation hallway in a god forsaken mall in a suburb of some shit hole town.

Well, it’s been fifteen minutes; I think we’ve caught our breath…time for the next show.

 

 

 

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