Stage

In theLooney Bin

Backstage with the entertainment crew at Six Flags


Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Eric Boucher

Daffy Duck is hugging a six-year-old who’s half his height. The flaky fowl has jumped off the screen and onto the midway at Six Flags New England theme park, where he cavorts daily with Bugs, Tweety Pie, Foghorn, Marvin the Martian and other celluloid pals from the Looney Tunes stable.

As he dances among the crowd, along comes a little motorized cart carrying two of the park’s staff in dark green uniforms, apparently groundskeepers. But there’s something a little off. In the cargo compartment there’s an unlikely collection of tools. Along with a pair of long-handled Nifty Nabbers, there’s a big yellow fishing net, a giant toothbrush and a rubber chicken.

The vehicle comes to a sudden halt and the crew leaps out—a young man and woman laser-focused on a piece of trash on the pavement. They grab the litter-pincers and stealthily approach the offending object: a tiny wadded-up gum wrapper. Passersby are stopping to watch, at first bemused, then chuckling as one member of the team snags the debris and deposits it in a nearby trash can, then poses valiantly like a superhero after a planet-saving mission, receiving laughter and applause from the onlookers.

This clownishly intrepid pair are one unit of the park’s eight-member Mop Squad, I’m informed by my companion in this stroll down the midway. He’s Eric Boucher, the park’s entertainment coordinator and producer, who trains and supervises an 80-strong cadre of young performers who fill a variety of roles in the park. Working literally in the shadow of the park’s massive rides, these earthbound artistes are an often unsung but ubiquitous presence in the park’s environment.

The Looney Tunes characters, along with DC Comics’ superheroes, are a staple throughout the nationwide Six Flags franchise, but the Mop Squad, now in its fifth year, is unique to the Agawam location. It’s the invention of Boucher, whose background is in theater and comedy improvisation. “We wanted to remind people that we’re trying to keep a clean park,” he says. That initial goal developed into an improv troupe who interact humorously with the patrons (the official term is “guests”).

Selected through a competitive audition process, the team goes through a three-week training session in improv and clowning before the summer season begins. “They create their own routines and we workshop those into effective bits,” Boucher explains. “We also have a playbook of go-tos they can use in a variety of situations.”

Although he regularly hits the midway to check in on his performers, Boucher says that with the Mop Squad, “You just have to trust them. They’re going out there to interact with our guests with no script. It takes a lot of discipline.” Because of that, most squad members have worked their way up through other roles in previous seasons.

Fractured Fairy Tales

Those other roles include joining the cast of “Fumbled Fables,” a 20-minute performance in the StoryTale gazebo. In it, Suzie Goose (Mother G’s daughter) drops her big storybook and mixes up the pages. The result is a medley of just about every fairy tale and nursery rhyme character. The other two actors serve primarily as coaches—wranglers, really—for the guest performers, both children and adults, who are drafted from the audience to play most of the parts. As the action rolls, it’s underscored by the excited screams of passengers on the Goliath roller coaster roaring overhead.

Boucher, who wrote and directed the piece, tells me that StoryTale is one of the park’s most popular non-ride attractions. “We get lots of feedback and return guests,” he says, with kids and grown-ups coming back hoping to be cast in the show.

After the performance, Ben Wright, who was master of ceremonies here, tells me he got his start at Six Flags last fall in the annual Fright Fest, which serves as a training ground for quite a few of the summertime entertainment crew. He’s a criminal justice major at American International College, but has done a lot of community theater. Here, he says, “I’ve learned how to better my performance, not just at the stage level but also in the general workplace.”

Julianne Wendzel, from Southwick, is in her first Six Flags summer. “It was very difficult at first,” she says of her rather complex role in this show, lining up all the audience volunteers, outfitting them with the right props and costumes, making sure they know where to go and what to do. “But now it’s not hard anymore and I like it.”

Sydney Grant, who played Suzie, is a theater student at Suffolk University. She’s looking at a career in show business, and rates this as “a good theater job where I get the opportunity to act in the show and also perform as a dancer.” She gets the chance to practice that art in her other daily gig—onstage in IllusionQuest, the park’s magic show, where she and Wendzel do three shows a day, alternating with three StoryTale performances.

The Looney Bin

As they depart to prepare for that one, Boucher explains that each role in the “Fumbled Fables” show is double cast, “so the players get to work in different combinations, to keep it fresh and give them a variety of experience.” He then takes me behind the scenes, through a couple of “Staff Only” gates, to the dressing room known on the lot as The Looney Bin.

This typically scruffy-looking backstage area is a closely guarded sanctuary for the Looney Tunes characters and other park performers, and I’m one of the few outsiders who’s ever been let in. Here, taking a break before their next shift, are the Mop Squad team we saw earlier.

Katrina Perkins is a recent graduate of Cathedral High in Springfield, where, she says, “I wasn’t really noticed at first. Being here is helping me to grow, because I’m a shy person. It’s bringing me out and giving me more confidence in my acting ability.”

Mike King is a three-year veteran who likewise credits the experience with freeing his self-confidence. Self-conscious at first, he’s now in a mindset that says, “Okay, people are looking at you—who cares? I’m just gonna be an idiot, and they’re enjoying it a majority of the time.”

With a career in broadcasting in his sights, King does double duty as a DJ with Six Flags Radio. In that role, he emcees dance parties in the park, introduces routines with the Looney characters, and voices the live sound feed to locations around the site.

David Garrity has been doing magic at Six Flags since he was 16. Although he tours internationally, his home base is Six Flags, where he develops and hones new work. Today, Sydney Grant and Julianne Wendzel are his onstage assistants, no longer storybook figures but arrayed in a quick-change series of showy costumes.

As we enter the IllusionQuest theater, the two young women are participating in Garrity’s “Twister” illusion, in which Grant seems to be corkscrewed around herself. Minutes later, she’s the platinum-wigged image of Marilyn Monroe, waltzing with the magician.

There’s as much going on backstage as on, the trio of performers tell me after the show. The two helpers are not only changing costumes (five different outfits in all) but setting props and set pieces for each new illusion. “There’s a complete choreography back there,” Garrity explains. He emphasizes that his assistants are also creative participants. “Everyone in the cast brings viewpoints and suggestions, and we give them an opportunity to improv and try new things.”

As we hit the midway again, Daffy Duck is out in front of the radio booth, dancing with the DJ to the crowd’s delight. Boucher says he’s very pleased with the quality of talent and level of commitment his team bring to their work. “We have very good retention,” he says with pride. “A lot of people come back every season because of the experience they have.” The pay, he adds, is “about average, but I think the kids work here because the experience they get out of it is much more valuable for them.”

Not to mention the free rides when they’re off duty.•

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com, and check out the StageStruck blog at www.valleyadvocate.com.

 

© 2014 The Valley Advocate