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This week's Chicagoan: Chris McBrien, educational performer

"About two or three times a year, I'll have a kid who has puppet phobia."



A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"The majority of my work is presenting educational assemblies for schools and libraries about everything from antibullying to reading. I use ventriloquism and comedy and a little bit of magic. My main puppet is Dewey Duck. The kids just love him, even when I go to junior high or high schools.

"What I do is basically back up the teachers in the classroom by supporting the information they're giving to students, but delivering it in a different paradigm. For instance, I might talk about the importance of reading, and tell the kids how there's a picture from ancient Egypt of a person doing a magic trick called Cups and Balls. And then I'll show them the trick. Kids really like that. Hopefully it inspires them to think that history isn't something dead, that it's something that helps us learn a lesson, and they'll pick up a book on history and start to read it.

"You have to have a tough skin to be in this business. Working with kids is really fun, but it's not easy. If a school hasn't ever hired you before, they treat you politely, but they treat you mechanically. Like, 'Here's your setup, we'll see you in ten minutes.' Because they don't know if you're gonna bomb or do well. If you do well, they're like, 'Oh, that was awesome!' One lady was like, 'I'd love to buy you lunch.' She wasn't offering me lunch before the show, but she sure was after the show.

"About two or three times a year I'll have a kid who has puppet phobia. Sometimes the kid has to leave for a little bit. I get that there are some things you just have an uncontrollable fear of. I personally have a clown phobia. Clowns come out in whiteface, and I'm out of there.

"Working at military bases is my biggest thrill. Those kids are under a lot of strain, because most of the time one parent's enlisted; sometimes you find out both parents are enlisted. One time I was at an army base, and there was a kid who got called out of my assembly, and I saw him in the office crying with a lady who turned out to be his grandmother, and it turned out he'd just lost a parent. The kid had missed a few parts of my show, and he was sitting there waiting while they went and got his homework for him, so I went in and entertained him with Dewey Duck and made him smile before he went home. Obviously that can't make up for all the things he was going through, but to be there in that moment was something really big for me.

"This is a really intense job. You better be really educational and know your stuff, because if you're not, word spreads fast. In June and July I did 72 library shows. And you have to do it the right way the first time. There's no second chance. You have to be on; you have to wear a smile. I don't care how the sweat's dripping down your back."

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