Bear with Me has recently returned from a season at Perth’s Awesome Festival. We’ve had the privilege and pleasure of playing this piece all around Australia. Described as deceptively simple, The show is essentially a concert of original songs for bears, incorporating screen and participatory action in celebration of the attachment between teddy bears and very small children. You can read more about what’s behind the idea , and how we made the show. If you want to. I thought I’d take a moment to share what it’s like performing a show like this – glimpses from the stage.
After the first show, the operators, who are working from paper instructions, QLab, and the briefest of tech checks, tell us with a smile ‘it’s like a Slayer concert for three year olds’. They had no idea of how key audience involvement is to the show. Now they know, and they’re right there. They have bears up the back that they illuminate, and who take a bow at the end of the show, over the sound and lighting desk.
As the season progresses I notice older bears in the audience, who are less fuzzy than their younger compatriots. Threadbears? After the show one of the grandmothers shows me her bear, that she’s brought alongside her grandchild’s. It’s 63 years old.
A low rolling hiss. An unusual sound. As we’re still tuning in to the venue I wonder if it’s a speaker on the blink. But a three year old has wandered to the side of stage and is gradually pulling the curtain to one side, unmasking the bare walls of the black studio we perform in. That’s what’s behind there. Nothing! Back to Mum’s arms, back to the show. The world is there to explore, and this theatre is part of the world. Amelia the stage manager returns curtains to position, and the show continues, as it had throughout.
A four year old ‘flosses’, v e r y slowly and earnestly, having just mastered it.
During the show, a child wants to talk directly to me. That’s fair enough, but there are many others here as well and a show to do, and I know if I respond too directly I’ll have sixty conversations to conduct. I say ‘let’s talk after the show’ and after the show she does. After exit, I re-enter and sit on the rim of the stage post show, and children usually come to introduce their bears, say thanks, or tell me what’s on their mind. Another child gives me a full and serious synopsis of the Ballet’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ which he’s seen before our show, in which ‘the wolf ate the duck, and that was NOT cool.”
A be-bibbed baby flaps its arms, delighting itself and its family. The mirth spreads, and our song is a simple soundtrack as our attention wanders to where it should. To the child. It goes on for a long time, but why should it stop?
One family has forgotten to bring a bear. I notice it and call for a spare bear, which the festival has made sure is there. It’s only polite, I think, in the moment, but there’s a bigger truth for performers here, which is that audiences like it when they know you know they’re there (and that you respect them, unlike most stand-up comics). Luckily this performance vehicle, as tightly structured as it is, allows us to stick our heads out the window and wave, or slow to look at the view.
Mothers breastfeed their babies during the show. Fathers, less of them, form armchairs with their long legs for their children to relax into. They play, too: their children make them cups of tea, and feed them invisible cake.
I notice, at quite a few shows, some children who seem larger, older than usual. They sing along very easily. Their Mums know the lyrics. As a songwriter that’s gratifying, but mystifying. It turns out the bigger kids came to the show that last time we were in Perth, and our songs and games became part of the family. Now the littler members of the family are coming along too.
It’s sleepytime, and the children busy themselves putting their bears to bed, each in their own way. Some: cursory. In you go, no story, I’ve got a show to watch. Some take their time. A girl tenderly kisses her elephant, tucking it in, softly and skillfully. A her Nana has tucked in a toddler, who lies in her lap, drifting in the lullaby.
Tiny fingers pointing skywards, bathed in cool azure, as the lights change to represent bed time, and teddy bears are tucked in with gingham tea towels. Its like nap time at kindy, but it’s the bears that snooze on their cardboard box beds. We’re in a theatre, where blue night shines out of lights, and we can really pretend, and pretend it’s real, and happily know both at the same time.
Sam and I check in with each other, while holding our ukuleles, holding the song, holding the audience, who hold their children, who hold their bears, who hold us, in their way, holding a moment before moving on.
Bear stage, awaiting the next audience photo: Søren Kristoffer Kløft