As a theme park performer, I’m aware that within the arts/theater/dance world there are some stereotypes surrounding my job . As a lover of the theater (pronounced theatAH, because I’m about to get on my soapbox, which requires a British accent) I’ve always gone to theme park shows (mainly because my family LOVES to go to theme parks on vacation… you should come with us, we do it RIGHT!) and scrutinized the performers, their technique, their talent, the show, the writing, the music, and on and on… and underneath all that was always the question “could I do this?”
So now that I’m doing it, I feel bad for ever silently criticizing other theme park performers. Artistically, we’re often put at the bottom of the pack when it comes to performing artists, and I understand why. We’re generally not pushing any artisitic boundaries, we’re not doing work that says much except “have fun, love our park! Celebrate ___insert current season here___” Many times artists don’t value accessibility in their work, and that’s our number one goal… that our audience, no matter the age or status in life, would find our show accessible and easy to understand and enjoy. Pointed toes comes second.
Two of my concert dance friends came to see the Halloween show a couple weeks ago, and I was very nervous to perform for them, but I was ecstatic to find out that they were impressed.
“I really wasn’t expecting anything, but I mean everything, the songs, the set, the lighting and special effects- I was really impressed!”
And so I would like to tell you some other reasons why you should love and respect your theme park performers:
1) Multiple Shows
Typical performers do one or two shows a day, we often do 5 or six. Without proper care this can cause wear and tear on our bodies and voices since we are doing the same strenuous material over and over. So it’s take care of yourself, very carefully, or do it anyway, because that family in the audience bought cotton candy, popcorn, and a turkey leg and they want to see a show!
If you know me as a choreographer, you know I value accessibility. I don’t like to create art that an audience can’t enjoy because they’re too busy wondering what it’s about. It either needs to tickle their senses so much that they don’t care about a “story” or it needs to have an interesting, followable (spell check says that’s not a word, but it’s staying… I laugh in the face of spell check), and hopefully enjoyable story or concept. I like to be accessible. People generally like it, and I like when people like my stuff. It’s quite selfish actually.
As I said before, obviously a theme park show must be accessible. But we’re also artists, so we love to add stuff that we think would be funny, interesting, things that would make us look good.
Unfortunately we are not the target audience. My point is that, as much as I love the shows I’ve worked on, there are parts that are ridiculous—loose plot, VERY short scenes that give just enough information, events happening at such a fast pace that I’m wondering if they’re even getting what’s happening between these two characters.
But then I remember, that we have pretty lights, and crazy costumes and fun songs, and oh look at that! There’s very little development that the audience will see, so we get to do it on our own… and after doing thirty shows you start to go “I just don’t know if I can get excited/upset/annoyed/sad/deliriously happy about what just happened two seconds ago with virtually no warning” There’s just very little time within the show to warm up as a performer and develop your character within the context of the show. You just go in, no matter how many times you’ve done it today, and hold on tight because once it starts you’re running at 80 miles an hour, hoping the audience gets it, because they need to be out of here in less than 40 minutes, preferably 28, but usually we have some fun.
And while I’m sure there are some audience members that leave going “what just happened?” most leave happy, and a lot leave laughing, so it works.
3) Extreme Technical Elements
The particular show I just finished for the Halloween season is 15 years old, so the technical elements have been perfected and some run virtually on their own… things should be flawless.
They’re not, we become very well acquainted with technical difficulties. And with such a fast show that must be done by a certain time, we can’t take a break and ask the audience to wait while something gets fixed. It’s either make it work or call the show.
When you grow up doing concert dance, you generally don’t get to work with lots of technical elements due to lack of time and money, and you definitely don’t call the show… you only have one, maybe four chances to do this show, you can’t cancel one midway through!
But yes, sometimes it’s unfixable and you have to call the show because these people can’t be made to sit here while there are roller coasters out there!
Most technical problems we just deal with- water on the floor from a fog machine, avoid it if you don’t want to slip, sticky floor from too many things being onstage, just make that pirouette work, some set piece or prop broken, just keep going and hope no one notices.
But some things are just unavoidable and definitely noticeable… and even if it’s no one’s fault, the audience gets to think it’s our fault, because the performers are the face of the show.
4) Confused/Oblivious Audience members with non-theater agendas
As a teenager, I was a part of a student dance company, and we would perform 2-3 times a year. I always invited EVERYONE! Now, I’m sure that some people really didn’t like what they saw and were bored for the 2 hours they were there, but they had time to prepare. They knew they were coming to see a ballet/theatrical performance, and they were coming for me. As a dancer in those shows, I knew that people had made a conscious choice to be there.
This is not so in the theme park.
People (minus a select few) do not come to our park for the shows. It’s not that our shows aren’t good, but they come for the rides and the food and the general atmosphere. I’m guessing that many people don’t even realize there are shows when they enter the park. Considering all that, we have pretty large audiences that collect. But a good portion of our audience uses the show as a weather shelter when it’s raining, a way to pass time when they are tired of walking, a way to avoid long lines, and sometimes they mistake it for some other attraction at the part.
We’re generally not the destination. We’re like the largest ball of yarn that you stop by on a road trip… you didn’t make the trip to see the yarn, but you’re driving right by so you might as well stop in and see what’s up.
Sometimes people get really excited and come back for more, but sometimes people are too ADD to sit in one place for more than 20 minutes at a theme park, so they get up and leave.
Which wouldn’t be so bad except we have lots of lighting that goes into the audience, so we can see when they’re leaving. Once we had an entire section take an entire song to move their whole party and leave the theater. And we’re singing and dancing our hearts out and they’re just walking out so they can get to that one roller coaster in time before the pass that lets them cut in line expires.
My other favorite thing about our audiences is that they like to text during the show. We also know when this happens because their face starts glowing.
When I first auditioned for this job I didn’t know what to expect in terms of who I would be working with. But when I got into rehearsals, I realized that I was working with some really talented people who knew their craft and had worked very hard to be great at what they do. I mean really, come see us and you’ll know what I mean. I LOVE working with talented people, and they are oh, so gifted singers, dancers, performers.
I know some people that I studied dance with may chuckle at my job, but I’m working hard, dancing well (and getting paid for dancing well), and it wears me out.
And I get to look around while I’m onstage acting like a fool with the rest of my cast doing my grapevines, battements, body rolls, and jazz hands and think “ummm, this is my job.”