A ‘Mummer’ Is Born – A Look Back at My Start in Summer Mummers
"Let's go somewhere that lets you throw food at other people."
That's all that my dad had to say. I was 13 years old, and my dad was looking for someplace fun to take my sisters and me. He took us to the Yucca Theater in downtown Midland, into an atmosphere that seemed other-worldly. You don't see a lot of kids at Summer Mummers these days, but back then, it was even more uncommon. I remember getting odd looks from people. Kind of like when you walk into the wrong restroom. Just less screaming.
As the night wore on, my sisters were having a blast pouring popcorn on each other, but my eyes stayed glued to the stage. I had already been doing theatre for a couple of years, but this was something else. Something different. This wasn't theatre. This was an EXPERIENCE.
I distinctly remember watching one character throughout the melodrama. He was seemingly taller than the rest of the cast, had a goofy orange wig on his head, and was wearing black wax on one of his front teeth. On top of all of that, he was funny. He was the Hero's Sidekick. Even though I'm sure that most of the jokes flew over my head, I could see how much the adults were enjoying his every word and movement. At that moment, I knew that one day, I had to be that guy.
Fast-forward to 2002. A bunch of my friends who were in Mummers at the time said, "When are you going to get up there with us and have some fun?" I had been performing for about nine years at that point, but had never dipped my toe into the Mummers water, salty as it probably is. Long story short, I auditioned, and when the cast list was released, it said, "Hero's Sidekick - Justin Tate."
At this point in the story, you might have a picture in your head of how I reacted. The boyhood dream comes true, tears of joy, thanking my mom and dad...nope. I was scared. Just absolutely terrified. Why? Because in that moment, I realized that I had huge shoes to fill. A 50+ year legacy. I had an obligation to bring as much joy to these audiences every night, just as I had seen other Hero's Sidekicks do before me. On top of that, I was only 20 years old, so I couldn't use the good old "liquid courage" to help me out.
Rehearsals began, and after the first two weeks, I was miserable. Everybody was so much funnier than I was. Everybody was so much more comfortable with each other, with their characters, and with the humor. It was so frustrating. I knew I could be funny, but the moment I walked into the rehearsal room, all of my abilities disappeared. Why wasn't this working? Why did I sign up for three months of this?
Then, it hit me. I had spent all of these years doing serious theatre, where you really think about your character, motivations, etc.. But remember what I wrote earlier? This wasn't theatre. This was an experience. From that point on, all cares dropped away. I was making my fellow performers laugh. I was getting asked to be in more Olio bits. The girls in the show suddenly got more flirty with "the new guy." Life was good.
BOOM! Opening night. I put the grease paint on my face. I put the wax on my tooth. I put the orange wig on my head. I stepped onstage to cheers like I had never heard in my life. People laughed at the jokes. They laughed at the ad-libbed lines. They laughed at my bony frame contorting like a rubber band. We moved on to the Olio, my bleached-blonde hair drenched with sweat as I portrayed a dancing cow, a beer vendor, and a circus performer. Those three hours flew by faster than the entire run of "The Paul Reiser Show."
As the crowd left, I walked into the popcorn-covered pit, and had to take a seat. The adrenaline had gone into overdrive, and I was so amped that it put me into a stupor. A veteran performer walked past me, took one look at my face, and patted me on the shoulder while saying, "Soak it all in, kid. You're a Mummer now."
Here we are, in 2014. Every weekend for the past 12 years, I've put on the wig, the grease paint, and the tooth wax. Cast members have come and gone over the years. Many nights, I look around and realize that I'm the most senior cast member in the dressing room that night. Even though I'm a young guy, the show definitely wears me out more than it used to. If you ever go to a Summer Mummers cast party, I'm easy to find. I'm the one asleep on the couch. Can't miss me.
But every night, right before I take that first step onto the stage, I think about my experience seeing Mummers for the first time. For the next three hours, it is my job to create the wonder, the humor, and the experience that I felt 20 years ago.
Those are the best three hours of my week.