When Dressing for Success Means Chicken Wire and Air Holes
by Jenny Coyle
We were fish. We were eagles, manatees, and trees. We were also Persy the Polar Bear, Captain William Clark, Paul Bunyan, and Larry the Light Bulb Guy.
No, we're not talking about past lives here. We're talking about costumes and how Sierra Club organizers around the country use them in their outreach and activism.
Maybe you've seen us. We held interviews in Boston dressed as the Statue of Liberty with a gas mask strapped to her face to demand enforcement of the Clean Air Act. We squeezed into tubes of cardboard decorated like smokestacks and waddled on the sidewalks of Oakland County, Wisconsin, to protest mercury pollution while the presidential motorcade passed by. And, in San Francisco, we shouted through the gills of a fabric salmon head while delivering a speech at a forest-protection rally.
There's really no end to the creativity organizers have shown over the years when it comes to wearing a mask or a furry suit to get our message across.
And guess what, folks: It works.
"We try to make our activism as fun and engaging as possible," says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, who once dressed as a fish at a forest rally. "Costumes, music, and games get people to stop, look, listen, and participate. And they get media attention, too. If a reporter is covering a public hearing and recording person after person stepping up to the microphone, and then a fish steps up to the podium, well, that's going to be the story of the night."
In order to get you all thinking about costumes in a strategic way (i.e., beyond Halloween and Mardi Gras), we interviewed some folks who have used them with success. They told us why they chose to use a costume and how they made or acquired the thing, and offered tips to those who think about giving it a go.
Light Up for Alternative Energy
It was April 2004, at the opening of "The Day After Tomorrow," a hit Hollywood movie that took a dramatic, if exaggerated, look at the effects of overnight global warming on New York City and elsewhere. Members of the Sierra Club's Massachusetts Chapter wanted to team up with the Boston Climate Action Network to distribute important literature to movie-goers.
They also wanted to piggy-back on all the media attention the movie was garnering, but they knew there'd never be a headline that read, "Enviros hand out flyers at movie premier."
So the Boston Climate Action Network came up with a polar bear costume and dubbed him "Persy," short for "Perspiring," which polar bears are apt to do when their icy clime heats up.
Meanwhile, Sierra Club conservation organizer Jeremy Marin put on his thinking cap. Actually, he put on his hardhat, which he had fitted with a light fixture and a compact fluorescent light bulb; a wire ran down to a battery lodged in his backpack.
Larry the Light Bulb Guy joined Persy and 20 plainclothes volunteers on the sidewalk in front of the theater -- and they were an instant hit.
"People loved it!" says Marin. "They were actually interested to see our literature, they took pictures with us, and we got lots of media coverage, even from the local Fox TV affiliate.
"I think it showed them that we understand the gravity of the issue, but we're not just going to stand out there and yell about how the sky is falling," he says. "We took a humorous, easily digestible approach, and it worked with both the public and the media."
Washington, D. C.
Hug a Tree-Hugger
Years ago there was a half-mile road along the stream leading into Rock Creek National Park in northwest Washington, D.C. In the early 1990s, sections of it were washed out, rendering it impassable to vehicles. Two years ago, a campaign was launched -- and backed by the city council -- to rebuild the road; the Washington, D.C., Chapter of the Sierra Club believes the old road should be turned into a recreational foot and bike path instead.
At stake are the creek and wildlife in the watershed, the ambience of the park -- and some hundred-year-old trees that would no doubt be cut down in the process of rebuilding the road. The chapter decided that to gain visibility for the issue and educate the public, a couple of tree costumes were required.
The way Chapter Chair Jason Broehm tells it, some visionary volunteers cut cardboard slabs from large appliance boxes, rolled them into tree trunks, and covered them with dark brown paper. Thick paper was set into the top opening, and into that they stuck several limbs from an artificial Christmas tree. They cut out holes for two arms and a face and attached support straps to the inside.
Broehm took several turns wearing the trees at council meetings and outside city hall.
"My record was four or five hours at a community festival," he says. "I'm sure I did a little damage to my posture at that time. But it was perfect -- there were city council members coming by, members of the community, the media…and it was a hit with the kids."
Broehm convinced folks to take flyers from a tree when they normally would keep a wide berth from a tree-hugger handing out literature.
"There were even some young ladies who wanted to get their picture taken with me," says the bachelor, "but it's hard to write anything down when you're a tree, so I didn't get any phone numbers."
The real advantage of the costumes, he says, is that they gave the media an image for the evening news and drove folks to an information table they might not otherwise have looked at twice.
"I guess people are just more willing to listen to a tree," he says.
Beloved Manatee Still a Pro with Soundbites
In 1999, Jonathan Ullman saw another group's fish costume and slapped himself on the forehead. "That's what we need," he thought to himself, "to help fight the expansion of the Homestead Air Force Base."
Ullman -- a Sierra Club's organizer in Miami -- wanted a life-sized manatee, because the sea creatures' habitat was threatened by the air-base plan. Through a series of Club connections, he got a volunteer seamstress in Colorado to make him one out of chicken wire, padding, interior backpack straps, and a shiny gray coat-lining fabric. The mute beast was shipped in a refrigerator box via Greyhound, and when it arrived in the tropics, Ullman named him "Manny."
Manny basically fits over a volunteer's body such that he or she can see out a screen in its chest; the feet stick out the bottom. Ullman usually serves as a guide and co-spokesperson. The costume's been worn at so many hearings, rallies, and other events that now everyone asks Ullman whether he's bringing the manatee along.
"He's more of a mascot now, I guess," he says. "He's been a very important part of our work down here."
Manny first appeared at a conference where then-Mayor Alex Panelos -- who supported the airport expansion -- was invited to speak. Manny rushed the microphone and was about to speak, but a security guard pulled the manatee away by its tail. A picture of the fracas appeared in the Miami Herald.
"Then, the first time Manny appeared at one of our rallies, the response was so great, it was like a spiritual turning point," Ullman says.
Alas, Manny is a bit the worse for wear. He's been scrunched into too many compact cars, had drinks spilled on him, and the shiny gray fabric is torn in some places. "Some time has passed since his glory days," Ullman admits. "He often has to sit in the corner at rallies, holding an American flag, his head propped up against a fence. Some people don't recognize him as a manatee anymore, which causes him to sink into depression."
Now and then, though, Manny still grabs the spotlight.
"We were bird-dogging President Bush during the campaign, and Manny sauntered up and the cameras descended on him like vultures," says Ullman. "He even managed some good sound bites. He hasn't lost his touch."
The Giant on the Doorstep is Paul Bunyan
The Paul Bunyan costume commissioned by the North Star (Minnesota) Chapter not only was professionally crafted, the chapter also made a training video that shows the best way to get the costume on and off, and how to move around to make it most expressive.
Chapter leaders decided in the summer of 2002 that they needed a good visual for their forest-restoration campaign, and realized that Paul Bunyan would be pretty darned mad if he came back today and found so much forestland destroyed by over-cutting. A Minneapolis artist was hired to create the ideal costume.
The 8-foot-tall lumberjack is mounted on a backpack frame, and PVC-pipe arms connect to ball-joint shoulders that enable the actor inside to wave and shake hands. He's constructed of heavy flannel and denim materials, sports faux leather boots, dons a Sierra Club ball cap, and has huge foam-stuffed arms that some kids just can't resist punching. The costume weighs about 25 pounds.
"But Paul's not a speaker," says chapter conservation organizer Josh Davis "He has a beautifully designed face, but his lips don't move so it confuses kids when they hear a voice come out of him."
Volunteers put together a fact sheet about Paul Bunyan and Davis wrote a children's story, both of which are distributed when the mountain man makes appearances. He shows up in parades, at tabling events, and for press conferences when accompanied by a spokesperson who can do the talking. He also goes door-to-door in neighborhoods.
"It immediately puts people in a good mood when they open the door and see Paul standing there," Davis says. "He's a good topic of conversation, and suddenly they're not worried about you asking them for money. He stands there and waves while the door-knocker explains why Paul is supporting the Sierra Club."
Paul has also traveled a bit. He toured the Southeast recently, making stops in Georgia and Tennessee.
"He's important to the national forest campaign because he so effectively brings attention to our message -- and that's not always easy to do," Davis says.
Not Exactly Hooked by a Salmon
In 1996. there was to be an outdoor rally in San Francisco to draw attention to the battle over old-growth redwoods in the Headwaters Forest.
"The organizers already had 8 or 10 talking heads lined up, and we figured they didn't need another one of those, so someone suggested that I wear a fish costume," says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton. "I don't remember where the heck it came from, but it worked."
A modest crowd was gathered in a downtown plaza, alive with music and folks handing out flyers. Hamilton slipped into the costume and stepped onto the stage.
"Mind you, it's tough to read your notes and deliver a speech in a fish costume," says Hamilton. "I was onstage with former California Governor Jerry Brown, and it was also hard to make eye contact dressed as a fish and expect to be recognized later. The costume was uncomfortable, and I was grateful to get it off."
In spite of that, Hamilton is a fan of using costumes -- in the right venue, under the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. "Animal costumes are a good way to connect with people and draw that emotional connection to our message."
"But if you want to communicate with a key decision-maker and be taken seriously, a costume can get in the way," he says. The venue matters too, because if you dress as a caribou to protest Arctic drilling and run in the Bay to Breakers (a San Francisco race full of costumed runners), then you're just going to blend in.
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