Performances to Grow On
Performances to Grow On

My Bear Beginnings in the Performing Arts
by Brian Bemel, Founder and Artistic Director, Performances to Grow On

Like many people, I find myself doing a job I wasn't trained for, didn't study for and never dreamed I'd be doing. Life is full of twists and turns and my path made an abrupt change twenty nine years ago on a winding road along the Big Sur Coast. I was a first year teacher enjoying a weekend backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness. I had no idea that this particular trip was going to have the far-reaching impact on my future career.

It was a bitterly cold winter morning when I woke up on Sunday and prepared to walk back to my car. When I peered out of my tent, icicles hung from the fly, everything was covered in frost. After about three hours, I reached my vehicle, packed up and readied for the long drive back to Ventura, where I had a job teaching 2nd graders in Ventura.

The drive along Hwy. 1 with it's pristine views of rugged seascapes and spectacular cliffs was breathtaking, but that sight paled in comparison with the vision directly before my eyes. There standing along the winding road was a large shaggy bear, thumb out, beckoning a ride. This was the 60's, and I pulled over to give the hitch-hiking bear a ride. "Where you going"?, he asked. "Ventura, I replied, hop in". This hitch-hiking bear, I came to find out, was a clown from a traveling circus in Canada. It was so cold out that the only way he could keep warm was to don his bear suit. The bear's name was Billy and the drive south was filled with interesting conversation. As we got closer to Ventura, I offered Billy a place to stay on the condition that he visit my class the next day. He agreed.

Billy and I arrived at my second grade class a little earlier than usual. He put on his bear suit and hid in a large refrigerator box I had in the back of my class that was used for journal writing and time alone. The bell rang and the kids began streaming in, putting away their lunch boxes, hanging up their coats and making their way to the rug in the front of the room used for circle time. I began as usual with a song, but suddenly a scratchy noise interrupted the music. The kids turned towards the unfamiliar sounds but I reassured them and resumed my music. Again more noises… Tiny heads craned towards the big box and all of a sudden the door opened and there stood Billy the Bear, tall and proud. Surprise is a word which hardy conveys the sight I saw. 31 pairs of eyes bulging, a certain flushness of red on every child's face, hands grasping at rounded mouths. "This is my friend, Billy the Bear", I deadpanned. Not a sound… Not even a whisper… Billy walked towards the song circle and nonchalantly sat down. After what seemed an eternity, one brave little girl began to examine this bear a little more closely. Finally her piercing voice blurted out, "Hey, bears don't have buttons"! The secret was now out, but the magic stayed all day.

Billy began to tell the kids the most amazing stories about the places he had visited….Zanzibar, Calcutta, Timbuktu, Hong Kong… even the names felt mysterious to a child's tongue. Billy captured their imaginations with his stories of adventure and mystery. It the middle of his presentation, I looked out my door and found my principal taking in the whole scene . What a sight it was- A very tall bear, pointing to a map of the world, and 31 students totally engrossed with learning.

I learned something that day too that would stick with me forever. Art is powerful, art can fuel learning in glorious ways, ways that can't always be measured, ways far beyond the standards that have become the popular buzz word in education today.

It was this experience that propelled me to found Performances To Grow On, a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting audiences of all ages a unique glimpse into a world of creativity and education through the arts.. Our goal is that these experiences in live performance will stimulate dialogue and build bridges to the imagination. The name of our organization, "Performances To Grow On" was chosen because whether adult or child, each of us has the ability to grow in special ways.

Here are some of our guiding principles

For all of us, the events of the World Trade Center have had a profound impact on our lives and beliefs. Although at first I began to question the importance of the arts and my job, I have come to believe that we need the arts more than ever to help us heal, to continue to build bridges of understanding among people. We all need to laugh,, paint, sing, dance and dream and the arts can help. I believe more than ever that we must strive to keep the arts alive in our schools and community. When we fight for the arts, we ultimately fight for ourselves and the values of beauty, creativity and freedom.The following is an excerpt from a poem by Glenis Redmond,

The arts will let you 
Do what U long to do 
Scream, whisper, cry, dance 
Raise the roof like truth 
Make rooms for your dreams 
Coming true coming thru 
Smile 
U've make it to the core 
To the ultimate destination: YOU