TRFCC Entertainment Coordinator
I designed and performed as a costumed character for a major Pittsburgh cultural group, entertaining and educating several-hundred children with a particular set of needs at a series of events over several years.
Three Rivers Families with Children from China (TRFCC) is an organization which provides cultural and themed experiences for Chinese adoptees from throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. In addition to several major events hosted throughout the year, TRFCC organizes an annual Chinese New Year celebration which welcomes over 200 families! Problematically, though, the children's entertainment was somewhat lacking and events focused on the cultural more than the fun. For that reason, a need presented itself for a children's entertainment centerpiece, of sorts, that could emphasize (rather than distract from) the cultural experiences at the event. I volunteered to create such a centerpiece.
2008 through 2011
Very early in the process, the idea of a mascot character was conceived. The first year I was involved with TRFCC, this idea manifested itself as a characterization of the Chinese New Year Animal (that particular year was the Year of the Pig). However, after a successful event built around the pig, we realized that there were several problems: first, that there would be some animals-of-the-year, like the snake, that would be difficult or scary to represent in mascot costume form; second, that we needed a consistent character which children could depend on and look forward to seeing every year. This was not only because of the necessity of branding, but also because many of the children would only have recently been adopted and would therefore need as much consistency as possible.
With this in mind, we developed the character of "Pittsburgh Panda". Representative of both Chinese and local Pittsburgh culture, this panda character would be able to interact with the children and endear to them certain potentially frightening experiences, like the lion dance or parade of the Chinese dragon.
As a result of being adopted at a later age, many of the children we would be entertaining struggled with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and would frighten very easily. Thankfully, we were able to find a costume in Beijing, China that served our purposes very well. The costume's soft fur, small eyes, and overall simplistic design made him ideal for a fragile group of children prone to sensory overload.
Next, we created a bio in the TRFCC newsletter order to introduce the character to the children. We explained that his name was "Pittsburgh Panda," including that his favorite food was bamboo perogies (a panda-themed take on a beloved Pittsburgh food), as well as several other ingratiating details.
At the event itself, I volunteered to dress as the Panda and interact with the children. The majority of them adored the character and followed "him" throughout the event, taking photos and participating in fun games.
For the next several years, I continued to act as the "Pittsburgh Panda" at TRFCC Chinese New Year events. The character was highly successful, with parents emailing to say how much their kids loved the character and children anticipating the event because of the character's presence. Most excitingly, we were able to use the character to introduce the children to previously frightening cultural experiences. For instance, the Chinese dragon - a hallmark of any New Year event - had formerly been seen as very scary by a number of the children. However, with Pittsburgh Panda leading the dragon parade, the vast majority of the children felt secure enough to participate in the festive activity. After I left the position in 2012, I helped to choose a new actor to fill the role.
Photos of my time as the Pittsburgh Panda can be seen below: