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"Being the Bear" by Michele Markarian

“All I have to do is put on a bear costume and march for two hours?” Jen asked.

“Yes.” The casting agent on the other end of the phone could barely contain her excitement. Finding an actor to don a bear suit had not been that easy. “You march in the parade. You’ll have a rope around the neck of the costume – loose, of course – to symbolize your captivity in the circus”.

“And I’ll get paid $1000?” Jen’s voice sounded doubtful. This was not the gig she had in mind when she quit her full-time job in Human Resources to put more energy into finding acting work.

“You need to show the Universe you’re serious about this,” her friend Samantha had urged. Samantha was also an actress; her beautiful blend of Hispanic and Asian features were a natural for film and television, even stage. She had quit her job ten months ago and been working steadily ever since.

Jen wasn’t sure she’d be as lucky. Her looks weren’t all that castable or interesting, she wasn’t getting that many calls from agencies. The bear job was the first to come her way in a long time, and she hadn’t even had to audition. Jen wondered what it was about her headshot that suggested covering her face up with a big fake head to this particular casting agent. “I’ll do it.”

The bear gig turned out to be pretty strenuous, although at least the rope was attached to the body of the costume by a hook, and not tied around the neck as suggested. The problem was the weather; it was a warm day, and being inside a furry bear suit and head was excruciatingly hot. The client, an animal rights agency known as Animals Are People Too (AAPT), had been very positive when Jen arrived, telling her she truly “embodied the desultory spirit of the overworked bear”. Jen was the only actor – the dog, wolf cub and several bunnies in the parade were all real.

At the end of the march, Jen took off the bear head to grab a drink of water.

“That’s not a real bear!” someone – a reporter? – shouted, as a flash went off in Jen’s startled face. She started to laugh, pleased – her attitude and body movements must have been really convincing – until she heard, “This is animal appropriation! Why wasn’t a real bear used for this?”

Jen looked to the agency spokesperson, who’d been fairly eloquent during the press conference at the beginning of the march. She was shielding her face and scurrying away.

“How do you think the bears feel about their opportunity being taken by a human?” another reporter almost spat at her. “Answer me that!”

“I’m an actor. I’m playing a bear,” stammered Jen.

“Tell that to the bears!” someone yelled.

“Don’t you think the bears deserve to earn a living, too?”

“Uh – I guess they’re pretty dangerous, right?” Jen said.

“Whoa! Are you bear shaming?’

“N-no, I “-

“The bears belong to this land more than we do! They were here first!” shouted a frizzy haired woman with a twisted mouth.

“But I’m – I’m sympathetic to the bear. I’m depicting the bear as –“

“The bears don’t need your HUMAN depiction! They need to be representing themselves and earning money for it!” a man’s voice bellowed.

Jen could see AAPT’s publicity person gesturing from a large white van. Jen made a run for it just as what felt like a woman’s shoe hit the back of the bear costume.

“What the heck?” Jen almost shouted to the publicity woman.

“Please don’t shout,” said the woman, looking hurt.

“I’m sorry. I – did you see what happened out there?” Jen was shouting again.

“I had no idea people felt so strongly about the plight of the bears,” said the publicity woman, her voice trembling a little. “I mean it’s beautiful the way they felt that the bear deserved to make a living, too. I didn’t expect that.” She started to tear up. “Do you have a tissue?”

Jen held out her furry bear arm. The publicity woman looked appalled. “Bears aren’t Kleenex for humans”, she said, before fishing around in her purse.

Jen called the casting agent the next day to see if she had more work for her.

“I think you might want to take a little break from acting,” said the casting agent.

Jen was stunned. Nobody could argue that her characterization of a bear wasn’t authentic; she’d managed to fool an entire crowd into thinking she was real. “I – I was good, right? They believed –“

“We take animal appropriation very seriously here,” interrupted the casting agent. “We have zero tolerance for this kind of exploitation, you understand?”

“But you’re the one who got me the gig!” Jen couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“You were hired to play a bear, not be a bear. You know, be playful. Like a dancing bear. They weren’t supposed to think you were real.”

“They wanted me to be put upon! I was being taken advantage of by the circus! Not a lighthearted role.” Jen could feel herself starting to get riled up. Be calm, she told herself. You need more work.

“Nobody expected Method bear,” snapped the casting agent. “That’s just the kind of attitude that’s going to brand you as being difficult to work with.” Jen could tell by the tone in the casting agent’s voice that she was already there.

“I’m very easy,” said Jen, remembering to unclench her teeth before she spoke.

“I’m sure,” said the casting agent in a tone of voice that said the opposite. “Listen, I’ll call you if anything comes up, okay?”

“Sure,” said Jen dejectedly. The bear stunt was all over social media; Jen in the bear costume next to a photo of a real bear curled in the fetal position, presumably sad because he or she or they didn’t get the gig. Jen started to type underneath it, “Maybe THEY should have stayed with the circus” but thought better of it. Jen had also left two text messages and one voicemail for Samantha, who hadn’t texted or called back.

It didn’t take long for Jen to realize that that casting agent, or any other casting agent, was never going to get her work. She’d been blacklisted. She called her old company, hoping to worm her way back in, only to be told, “We don’t think that anyone involved with animal appropriation should be working in human resources”. Jen thought she heard a snicker in her former colleague’s voice.

In desperation, she called AAPT. “I see you have an open position for “ – Jen swallowed hard – “a telemarketer”.

“Sure.” The woman on the other end of the phone sounded ecstatic, as these were not easy positions to fill. “What’s your name?” Jen told her. The woman’s voice hardened. “Are you the animal appropriator?”

It took Jen every ounce of acting ability, as well as improv skills, to answer the question. “I am. And I feel a really strong, and I mean strong, need to atone. This is the one way that I can truly give back. To the bears. And the bees. And the wombats. And the bunnies. And the wolverines –“

“Okay,” sighed the woman. She really didn’t want to do this, but times were desperate, as most young people couldn’t bring themselves to pick up a phone. “Come in on Monday. Starting salary is $11.50 an hour, with bonuses every four months if you make your quota”.

“Health insurance?” asked Jen hopefully.

“This isn’t a charity for humans,” snapped the woman. “You’re here to help the animals. That should be enough, don’t you think?”

“Sure,” said Jen, in a desultory tone. Telemarketing didn’t sound all that fun, but she needed the money. Maybe she’d join the circus.


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