The Pros and Cons of Christmas Performer Training
By Santa True (Robert Seutter)
While it may seem that there will certainly be some bias in writing this article (because everyone knows that I have launched a Training School for Christmas Performers), there is still strong merit in tackling these tough topics that are often discussed in our communities. Many people evaluate the pros and cons of attending workshops and classes that are designed for Christmas performers, often also known as “Santa Schools.” I will do my best to discuss these issues in as unbiased a manner as I can, although remember that “your mileage may vary.” I’ll be using “Santa” as short hand for all Christmas Performers—Mrs. Claus, Elves, and all other characters.
Two Points of View
On the face of it, there seem to be two primary points of view for the topic of Santa schools and workshops.
“I don’t attend Santa schools. You either have it naturally or you don’t. Just be yourself and learn from experience. The kids will love you because you are natural and spontaneous. I’m a REAL Santa because I have Christmas Spirit. It’s about what’s inside you and you don’t really need a school, because experience will teach you. Also, I don’t need someone to teach me how to say, ‘Ho-Ho-Ho,’ or how to read ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ The schools are for people who have free time, extra money, and want to hang out with other Santas. I get plenty of good gigs and people love me.”
“I take my craft seriously, and I want to get as much training as possible. I have even taken the same course, more than once. The potential for making mistakes is pretty high. I want to excel in my craft and get really good gigs. There is so much to learn and, honestly, I can’t see how anyone who wants to do well in this craft would NOT want to get some training, especially if they want to be called a Professional.”
Evaluating These Two Positions
The truth is rarely black and white (or red and green, in our case). There are some valid points to BOTH perspectives. However, as a community and profession, we need to look at some history and factors to get clarity.
Let’s talk history. People have been dressing up as Christmas characters for hundreds of years. If we just look at the tradition linking Santa Claus with retail sales in the U.S. (forgetting about home visits, parades, or theater), that tracks back to 1890 with James Edgar. That’s around 128 years of people suiting up for gigs. And we can be pretty sure that the vast majority of all those Santas probably had little or no schooling. Most of the time, they were lucky to have mentors to help them in their craft. Essentially, we have an art form that is unlike many others in that you CAN step into the role and, with some luck, do okay just navigating by the seat of your fuzzy pants!
What that also means is that more than half our ranks are self-trained. Most of the performers who are in the Santa Claus Hall of Fame and who are teaching learned by the seat of their pants (or had prior experience from other art-forms, like clowning, etc.). They self-taught themselves. And as a group, they have left us an amazing legacy and tradition. Yay Team!
However, our art form is evolving and, as it does, the need for more knowledge and standards grew. It is still growing and maturing. Now we have schools, conferences, and conventions, and many other workshop opportunities.
The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School started back in 1937. That’s 81 years of classes! Tim Connaghan’s School 4 Santa’s (aka, International University of Santa Claus) has been going for 16 years and has over 4,000 graduates. That is a lot of students, plus LOTS of time and money invested.
That may seem like a lot, but let’s put that in perspective.
Let’s say there are 10,000 working Santa performers doing some sort of paid or donated gigs across America, every year. When compared to the US Population of 325 million people, that’s a drop in the bucket! (Just one Santa per 32K+ people!)
Let’s estimate that all the Schools combined (whether fixed, roving, online, conferences, or conventions) train 4,000 people a year. Many of those participants are attending more than one training a year, and others may take just one course and never take another one. This could easily leave an estimated 5,000+ people nation-wide who have never taken a professional Christmas performer training course of any type.
Now consider that your average performing career as Santa spans roughly 700 days, give or take. And your ability to practice your craft in front of your chosen audience out of season is iffy, at best. When the Season starts, you are ON. There is an old saying in Hollywood: “You are only as good as your last gig.” All of us want to maximize our ability to make Christmas Magic and increase the quality and earning potential of our gigs. How do we do that?
Let’s Get Rid of Some Assumptions (right off the top)
- “I am not an Actor: I am a Real Santa, motivated by Christmas Spirit.”
The truth is that yes, motivation does matter. Being genuine and sincere can really help a performance. BUT, a professional performer who does not believe in Santa or the “ideals of Christmas” can still do a great job, and the audience will be none the wiser. (For example, Tim Allen was pretty done with playing Santa by movie two.) And having Christmas Spirit does not guarantee having actual performing chops (projection, etc.)
- “I am a Trained Performer, and I have invested a ton of time and money into my craft.”
This will likely make you a better performer. But without any peer review or feedback, you really don’t know.
- “Because I took school X, I am going to be better than performer Y, because KNOWLEDGE.”
Odds are better, yes. But sometimes folks come into our art-form with skills from previous lives, and some have natural talent or looks that carry the day.
The upshot is that neither the “pro schooling” nor “no schooling” camps have a lock on the truth. Having Christmas Spirit, experience, or a ton of training does NOT a guarantee that you will be a fantastic Christmas Performer. And there are host of other factors that are involved, such as resources, mentors, and more.
At the end of it all, the most important thing is your personal motivation and willingness to hone your craft.
So Why Invest in Training?
If it’s possible to be an awesome Christmas performer without the schools, why take the time and spend the money? Here are five really great reasons to get trained and to keep training.
- You don’t know what you don’t know.
And what you don’t know can, and will, hurt you. Part of most training schools includes “Best Practices,” that insider knowledge of what NOT to do. Why do you want to make certain that both of your white gloves are seen in every photo? What do you need to watch out for in contracts, or hair bleaching, or getting your suit cleaned, or insurance, or back ground checks? What seems like a simple mistake could cost you a lot of time, money, or jobs.
- Increased Capability.
Most of the schools offer training on a variety of gigs. While it is possible you can resource this information yourself, there is a pretty good chance it’s going to take you a while. Let’s say you have done ALL of the following: Home visits, mall gigs, parades, tree lightings, hospital visits, commercials, corporate gigs, strolling, and photo modeling. Would you have insights to share? Some tips to help someone who has not done those gigs? Schooling gives you additional resources so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. When a different type of gig comes your way, you are prepared and ready for the opportunity.
- It saves you time.
Time is the one commodity we cannot buy more of. Let’s look at two lists—one from a business-based school and one from a performance-based school. It could take you DECADES to accumulate all the knowledge being taught in these schools by yourself.
- Sample Topics in the Business-based schooling: The origins of Santa, the basics of Santa, Santa goes to Work, Seating and Photo Set ups, Posing for Photos, Training your Helpers, Talking with Children, Dealing with Non-believers, Honing your Image (grooming, bleaching, styling, different types of wardrobe, props, gloves, dressing), Working for a mall or photo company, Working for agencies or private parties, How to set up your Santa business, marketing, care and maintenance, Performing and entertaining, Other services (chairs, reindeer, etc.) Business cards, contracts, checklists, and multiple handouts for customers (how to have a good home visit, etc.)
- Sample Topics in the Performance-based schooling: Call and Response, Philosophy and Objectives, the Future of the Field, Current Issues, Unique Xmas Performer problems, Vocals, Public speaking, Singing, Storytelling, Story-Reading, Physicality and Movement, Character Work, Back Story, Character Creation, Improv Concepts and Practice, Breathing exercises, Understanding Space and Movement, Stage Movement, Character Movement, Blocking Exercises, Dual Performing, Breaking Down a Scene, Key Gestures and Phrases, Entrances and Exits, Building Expressive-ness, Marathon Performing, Supporting Women, Your Storytelling Tool box, Xmas History
- Networking and developing Peer relationships.
When you go to the schools or workshops, you meet other performers. Often times, you meet folks you did not know who were actually in your area! Meeting and supporting your fellow performers can pay huge dividends. The conversations and relationships you develop can be a great resource and establish your support network for when things go sideways.
- Industry Knowledge.
Most of us don’t have the time to follow everything that is going on in the Christmas Performer field. And we all know that things can change very quickly. Mergers happen, bad actors show up, there are new trends always developing. We live in the age of social media. The 40+ professional Christmas instructors out there today have to be plugged in so they can give up-to-date information to their attendees. Since they see a lot of people in the industry, they may be aware of sea-changes that many individuals are not yet noticing. Likewise, they might have tips on where to find good gigs and also give advice on the latest problems and which gigs to avoid.
Some Objections to Training and Responses to Them
What are some of the reasons NOT to attend a Santa school?
- That’s valuable time and money that can be used elsewhere.
Yes, but a couple of tips learned in a school or workshop could save you a lot of money. Since most schools are in the $300 or so range for a weekend of workshops, the math is on the side of the school. If you make more money after you do the school, then the course paid for itself. Investing in yourself is always the best investment you can make. The simple truth is that no matter how expensive the suit is, the magic comes from the performer inside.
- My particular gig is very stable, and I am unlikely to need to change.
Most of us are older folks. We already know that things in life can change on a dime. When we have a bigger bag of tricks, that advantage means you have more gig options—a very wise precaution.
- I have no idea if School XYZ is any good, and I’ve been doing just fine so far.
One rule of thumb: Ask folks who have attended that school or taken that workshop whether they would take the class again. If they would return, that’s a great endorsement. And then ask yourself what you are looking for. Every school has its own strong points. What do you want to develop?
- I have my own particular way of doing things, and I want to protect my gig and content.
While it is true that there are some people who are less than respectful of boundaries and creative content, there are a great many folks who are wonderfully generous with their time and resources. If you talk to most Christmas Performers, you will probably hear that excellence has a way of rising to the top.
- I’ve met some of the other Christmas Performers, and they are not my cup of tea.
We are a zany bunch (ahem). There are some folks who get their personal validation from being Santa 24/7. There are also some old Grumpa-Grumps. However, taking the time to truly meet and get to know some of fellow performers has been tremendously rewarding to me personally. I have made some great friendships. I think you might find the same.
Thanks again and please share this article and link!
May your season be amazing and full of wonders — Santa True, Ms. Cat (“Mrs. Santa True”), and all the folks at CPW.
You Put the Heart in the Christmas Art
So far this year, we’ve had two totally fun and fantastic workshops: Performing Fundamentals (with the fine folks in OKC) and Advanced Character and Storytelling (with great folks of NorPac in WA). We had rave reviews at both. Please ask them!
Upcoming still in 2018
- Phoenix AZ, Arizona Santas: Performing Skills Workshop, July 20-22, 2018
- Tarpon Springs FL, PalmTree Santas: Performing Skills Workshop, August 4-5, 2018
Sadly, we had to cancel the Jacksonville FL event July 28-29, 2018.
We are already reserving dates for events in 2019, and would really love to have CPW visit your area. Your group can come out ahead economically by booking CPW to train your members! We offer a Performing Fundamentals Workshop, AND an Advanced Workshop focusing on Storytelling, Character Work and Back-story!
Don’t forget to check out our site for additional Articles.
On behalf of CPW, True, Cat, and all our friends, thank you very much.
It is our belief that the future of our Art as Christmas Performers depends on investing in ourselves and in each other as Performers and Entertainers: Putting the Heart in the Christmas Art. CPW is about helping you make the magic happen! Contact Santa@SantaTrue.com today!
Amazing set behind me created by Bob Bulick