The Washington Festivals and Events Association met at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia. I was featured on a panel discussion titled “That’s Entertainment.” WFEA president Craig Cooke (and owner of Pacific Rim Talent) chaired the discussion, which also included Steven Dilts (Pyramid Staging) and Jim Varnell (entertainment attorney).
My focus was elements that festival planners can think about in the planning stages to make the job of entertainers easier and more enjoyable. The main subjects I wanted to hit were parking/load-in, staging, and scheduling. However, I took off on little related tangents. My short presentation could easily have stretched into an hour, as there were many experienced performers, festival planners, and entertainment agents in the room who could all contribute to the discussion.
Entertainment Tips for
Festival & Event Planners
by Jeff Evans/Amazement Productions
Maps and Directions
Mapquest and GPS are great… except when they aren’t. If your performer hasn’t worked your event before, e-mail directions or a link to a map. If there are special instructions for parking, load-in, etc., let the performer know.
How’s this for timeliness: just today my magician buddy Isaac Louie told me about his recent trip to Montana to do shows. His GPS showed him going straight for many miles. He was driving in near-blizzard conditions, came up the crest of a hill, and the road STOPPED. He was stranded in a snow pile! Fortunately, he had cell service and was able to call his show contact. He mentioned what had happened, and they immediately knew where he was.
The solution? I always have a Thomas Guide (or similar) for both Washington and the Pacific Northwest in my car, and know how to use it. It’s saved me several times.
This is a big deal for me, and I’m guessing for other performers also. I have a lot of gear, usually two large trips at a minimum (hand truck + carrying items); sometimes four trips. Close, complimentary parking is important.
If you have space near the entertainment stage for parking, that is best. If not, a reserved parking area for performers and staff near the entrance is really appreciated.
The first day of a fair or festival is always hectic. Please mail parking passes in advance (or e-mail a printable PDF pass), and let your gate keepers know to expect performers to need access. As a festival coordinator, don’t ask the performer to “find me when you get here and I’ll get you set up.” This means I need to pay for parking, park in the back forty, pay for admission, try and find you, get a parking pass, and have you explain to me where to park. Of course, as the festival coordinator this is when you’re absolutely slammed and discussing parking is the last thing you want to hassle with!
Two other items to mail or e-mail, both very helpful to performers:
- A map of the venue grounds (showing parking areas, the stage area, entrances, etc.)
- Admission ticket(s) (if there is an admission fee)
Stage location is key to the success of your entertainment. I worked one fair where the stage was located behind a tall row of bushes and on the backside of the food booths. Although you could hear the sound if a show was going on, if you didn’t look at the right place you could miss the “entrance” to the stage area.
Instead, go for a more open approach. Having entertainment near your food booths is smart, as people frequently sit to eat and enjoy a show.
Covered Stages for Rain/Sun
Covered stages are great, but you know what? Ask most performers and they’ll tell you that they would rather have their AUDIENCE comfortable than them. Audiences don’t want to bake on aluminum bleachers in the sun, and they won’t sit and be drenched in the rain either.
The last several years juggler Rhys Thomas and I have performed for Tumwater’s 4th of July Festival. The city has a pop-up tent, but each year we’ve asked them to take it down. Jugglers can’t work under tents like this, and the only advantage I see is that it provides a visual focal point for spectators looking across the field to say, “Hey, something is happening over there.”
Most variety acts use audience participation in some way. This means that either the performer is going out into the audience, or spectators are joining the performer on stage. Sure, your acrobatic juggler or dancer has no problem leaping up and off small stages sans steps, but your lawyer wouldn’t want anyone from the audience doing the same thing! Steps are a must. Personally, I like steps going off the front center of the stage.
Glare from the setting sun can be an issue. At one event I worked several years the setting sun was directly behind me and people had to squint or hold their hands up to shield their eyes from the sun. Another performer and I talked with the entertainment coordinator and suggested a solution. The next year they had swapped our stage for the bounce rides, which made it a more enjoyable experience for the festivalgoers.
My act is not particularly physical; I’m not dancing, jumping, balancing, or juggling. I’d just suggest that you make sure that your stage is level, clean, and solid. However, my buddy Alex Zerbe does a host of juggling/balance feats that absolutely require a solid and level surface. One of his stunts is jumping onto a two-stack rola bola (basically an unstable platform). It would be very dangerous trying this on a surface that is uneven, wobbly, or slippery.
Dust/Mud/Confetti on the Stage
If an act makes a mess, spills liquid, leaves confetti, etc., it’s their responsibility to clean this up for the next performer. Please provide a broom and garbage at each stage. It makes it much easier to clean up confetti, aka “magician droppings.”
Dust gets everywhere. I know that the Brothers from Different Mothers, Alex Zerbe and Matt Baker, had two sets of all of their props: one for fairs and festivals and the other for corporate and colleges. It’s hard to keep equipment looking sharp when you’re lugging it across fields and tossing it onto stages all over the northwest. And keeping clothing clean? That’s another challenge which segues nicely to…
No one drives across the state in their show costume, so a dressing room or space to change is really a must. We don’t need a lot of space or anything fancy, but please don’t make your act change in the public bathroom. That’s just gross!
I’ve worked with a lot of different acts, and different people have different requirements. Little Rollo is a stilt character, a giant of a boy. He needs a place to put his costume on, as it’s much more elaborate than simply stepping onto stilts. Doing this in view of his “audience” would ruin the illusion. Other performers have make-up, hair pieces, etc.
A green room/hospitality area is really nice for all day, multi-day gigs. I see performers using the hospitality room to cool down, re-energize, fraternize with other performers as well as event managers and others involved in making the festival run well. Please don’t make us go and wait in our car. (I’ve done that at the Klickitat County Fair when the weather was well over 100 degrees. I really needed to take a nap, but it was just too darn hot.)
Set-up and Take-down Times
Pros will have their set-up and take-down times to a minimum. You can help by not over-scheduling acts. In general, acts starting on the hour (i.e., 2:00 and 3:00 pm) are an absolute minimum. Bands require more, unless they are “minimalist” and sharing a drum kit, etc. Some performers have special requirements.
I just spoke with a hypnotist who likes to do 75 minute sets. I prefer 45 minutes. Why the difference? A hypnotist may have an induction that takes fifteen minutes by the time they introduce themselves, get subjects on stage, and go through the induction process. During this time no real “entertainment” is happening, but it’s required for the performance. Once the subjects are hypnotized, it’s show time! The point: ask your act what their ideal performance time is, along with the amount of time required for set-up and tear-down.
Tip: Here’s where it is great to have an emcee/stage manager to fill the time between acts, plug the upcoming performer, thank sponsors, etc. If you have a professional sound tech, they can play music during this time also to keep the action rolling on the stage.
Morning Start Times
Let’s not be ridiculous. Just because the festival begins at 10:00 am does NOT mean you should have a show at 10:00… or even 10:30 am. My performer friends call these “miracle shows” because it’s a miracle if anyone shows up! If you’re in a gated situation it wouldn’t be practical for enough people to constitute an “audience” to enter and meander to your stage until at least an hour after opening anyway.
Another disadvantage of having these super-early shows is that event coordinators still want shows during the peak time, say 6:00 pm. This means that your performer is basically stuck at the venue for the entire day, even though they may have large chunks of down time. I ask that all of my performances be completed in a six hour window.
One plus about my magic is that since I perform both strolling and stage, in the event of a “ghost audience” I can travel to where the people are. And, I can invite a small audience to move in so I can perform more close-up magic.
Timeline for Setup
Personally, I like about fifteen minutes to set up. However, that can be less if there is an area backstage/in the wings where I can have my equipment pre-set. Then I simply roll it into position. If my microphone/music levels are preset then I can be ready to go in five minutes.
Each act is different. Ask in advance how much time they need for set-up and take-down.
An emcee for your stage is a HUGE plus. Your emcee is the glue that holds your production together. They make announcements, build up acts, inform attendees, and make separate acts part of one whole production.
Several years I performed for the Southwest Washington Fair in Centralia and Greg Bennick was the juggler and emcee. He was an ambassador of goodwill, making connections with vendors who would donate things like bags of cotton candy and popcorn for the games and contests he would play. In return, he plugged the businesses throughout the day. He was there to help guest acts plug into the sound system and insured that everything ran smoothly.
“Whew, you performers are an awfully needy bunch!”
In general, no. Most of the guys and gals I meet and work with are hard-working, talented, and loaded with experience. We do what it takes to put on the best possible show given the environment. Pros work under the worst conditions: wind, rain, sun, lack of sleep – and transform ambivalent audiences into hysterical masses with goofy grins and happy hearts.
These suggestions are things I’ve found that make my job of entertaining easier and more successful. Happy attendees come back year after year to your event. They bring their friends and families. They stay longer and spend more money with your vendors. And, this makes YOU happy.
Take even just two or three of these ideas and make a change to the way you work with your performers, and you’ll be happily surprised. This was just a small list as my presentation was just allotted ten minutes. I didn’t get to touch on other items that make a difference, like contracts, insurance, sound reinforcement, lighting, generators, merchandise sales, and more.
Performers and event planners: your comments and feedback are welcome!