For professional stilt walker Todd McClain, a typical workday might consist of performing stunts at Knotts Berry Farm. Or he might spend time chatting with puppets as he tapes a show for his children’s education website. Or you might spot him as his stilt walking alter ego “Captain Tall Tale,” a giant sea captain who tells stories, jumps rope, and leads parents and children in fun dance routines.
Yet as unusual and exotic as Todd’s career might sound, at the end of the day, he’s still a freelancer like thousands of other self-employed professionals. And like all successful freelancers, he follows a set of business practices that serve him well — and can take your own freelancing career to new heights.
Want to see what a professional stilt walker can teach you about reaching your goals? Hectic caught up with Todd and learned more about how he became an entertainer, what being part of the circus community is really like, and how time-tested values are helping him build his dream career. Here’s how Todd’s stilt walking business practices can be used in your own work.
How does someone become a professional stilt walker? For Todd, that road began not under a circus tent but under the heavy mask of a theme park mascot. Having gone directly into the entertainment business as a young adult, Todd found a lot of his early work as an actor at Southern California theme parks. Yet, even under those cumbersome costumes, Todd discovered he was developing vital skills.
“Being a mascot is what helped me be a stilt walker,” he explains. “Because you have to walk around under a fake head without being able to see. So, you’re using your other senses. And once I got up on stilts, I had to use my other senses and feel around with my feet because you can’t see the bottom of the stilts all the time.”
These experiences showed Todd that sometimes your best freelancing skills come from unusual places — and you shouldn’t discount the importance of what all your experiences can teach you. Writing, speaking, and physical skills can all be marketable attributes, especially if you can apply them to multiple fields.
Todd gained most of his early training by taking gymnastics at the age of twenty-one — something he credits with helping him gain the body awareness and fundamentals needed for circus performance.
But taking gymnastics did more than just hone Todd’s body for circus work. It also allowed him to meet circus performers who train and network within those gyms.
“The circus community is a very small community,” he reveals. “Everyone recommends each other. And networking is how I get most of my work. A friend that I performed with at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm recommended me for a job I’m now doing at San Diego.”
Of course, gaining a good network is only part of what helps gain a freelancer work. Building a good reputation is also key.
“You’ve got to have a good attitude about yourself and your acts,” Todd states. “Because if you don’t, people will talk and be like, ‘let’s not work with this person.’”
Just like Todd, find communities that will help you network with other like-minded people in your industry. More importantly, show your fellow freelancers and employers that you’re the type of person who’s easy to work with and knows how to contribute to a team. Whether you’re swinging from a trapeze or filing taxes, everyone wants to know they have someone watching their back.
Circus performers may be taught a wide repertoire of traditional acts, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation. While Todd has played many theme park mascots, eventually he developed his own stage persona, Captain Tall Tale, who headlines Todd’s traveling circus show. Playing a character who’s not as immediately recognizable as high-profile cartoon characters is challenging, but Todd’s developed creative ways to engage with his audience.
“Kids want known, brand-name characters like Spider-Man or Disney princesses at their parties and won’t know Captain Tall Tale,” he admits. “But it’s interesting — Captain Tall Tale will be there for two or three hours of non-stop fun and entertainment, and the kids will go nuts and want more of him and start ignoring the other performers.”
Having over twenty years of performing experience allows Todd to offer multiple forms of entertainment in his act, from storytelling to puppet shows to interactive dance parties. He knows how to value himself too — where generic acts may work for cheaper rates, Todd charges more for his Captain Tall Tale appearances, communicating the quality of his services to clients.
And he keeps working on increasing Captain Tall Tale’s brand awareness. A lifelong fan of children’s educational shows, Todd’s been working on making his stilt walking captain the star of his own online children’s show where kids can learn about other cultures, nutrition, and physical fitness.
Developing your own unique brand is something every successful freelancer needs to do. While it might be easier to follow someone else’s lead and offer the same products and services dozens of others do, smart freelancers know how to distinguish themselves. Be creative, embrace the skills and perspectives that make you unique, and show your clients how this makes you more valuable to them.
Captain Tall Tale may be Todd’s creation, but that doesn’t mean the sea captain emerged fully-formed from his mind. Instead, Todd developed his stage persona gradually by interacting with multiple audiences who all had a hand in how Captain Tall Tale evolved.
This meant doing charity performances and listening to the questions children asked, which influenced the jokes and personality quirks Todd gave the captain. Todd also found much inspiration overseas when he performed in Europe and immersed himself in the food, culture, languages and practices of other countries. This inspired Todd’s Captain Tall Tale series where the good captain finds himself in “Culture Island” where people from cultures all around the world focus on living together in peace.
“You’ve got to keep building it and pull from what’s going on in the atmosphere and how people react to things,” he says.
As Todd found, all products and services go through an evolution as they adapt to their markets — and one of the best ways a freelancer can make their business resonate with an audience is to connect with their clients and see what they find most beneficial.
Todd regularly picks up new skills as he finds a need for them. When it came time to promote his books and spend more time speaking to audiences, Todd spent a lot of time working on his public speaking abilities. He recommends freelancers in similar positions join a group like Toastmasters to refine their stage presence.
“Get feedback from other people, videotape yourself, and be honest with yourself about how you sound,” he encourages. “I used to be the person who spoke too fast, too soft, never looked anyone in the eye, and I had to work a lot at it.”
Likewise, Todd found he needed to learn web design to create his Captain Tall Tale website. He experimented with different social media channels like Facebook and Instagram to learn which ones got the most notice from his audience. Educating himself while also performing regularly is a major time investment, but also one that keeps paying off.
It’s no secret that freelancers need to wear many hats — but our willingness and ability to keep expanding our skill set is the reason we thrive in this marketplace. From copywriting to public speaking to stilt walking, you never know what talent might grant you an extra edge in this business.
Todd might be a multi-talented guy, but he also knows when to delegate responsibilities. Writing a series of Captain Tall Tale picture books meant teaming with an illustrator — which took years of networking, going to conventions, and trying out potential candidates. Now that he is working with El Salvador artist Cecilia Coto, however, Todd truly appreciates the benefits of strong partnerships.
“My illustrator is saving me so much time and energy,” he says. “She doesn’t just do the illustrations; she does the digital layouts. A big part of staying balanced is finding people who can help you. Learning to delegate and keep to your standards.”
Freelancers may sometimes feel like they’re running a one-person show, but there’s no reason you need to build your business completely on your own. With freelancers now offering practically every service imaginable through the Internet, you have a powerful network of supporters literally at your fingertips. Use it!
Keep in step with Todd’s entertainment career at captaintalltale.com.
And start expanding on your own freelancing talents by taking advantage of the online resources available to you. Hectic Academy offers plenty of free micro courses that help familiarize you with key skills like developing your brand and creating life-long clients. And Hectic Guides delve into marketing strategies, freelancer taxes, self-care, and other vital lessons for the successful freelancer. See how Hectic can support you today!