This is an opinion piece about stage entertainment at Awards Ceremonies, and the biggest problem I feel they face, as a Professional Magician.
Who do I think I am?
It can often come across as egotistical when a writer qualifies themselves at the beginning of an article, as if to say ‘I’ve done X, so I know more about it than you, and you have to listen to me, idiots!’. I certainly don’t know more than anybody else, and I definitely don’t think that anybody should listen to me, a full-time messer often found dangling from burning ropes in a straitjacket! That being said, over the years I’ve had the privilege of performing on stage at countless awards ceremonies, from the highest profile awards shows, to the very odd ones...in a hotel...in the middle of nowhere that you discreetly leave off your website! I’ve been announced, I’ve made that walk, I’ve stood under those bright lights that make you sweat twice as much, and I’ve done that ‘dance’ countless times…I even died on my arse once as well! A look at my website will tell you everything else you need to know. So hopefully this unique perspective gives me license to express an opinion about entertaining at these events.
If you’ve ever been to an awards show, you’ll know that they can be fairly raucous affairs. Various departments from various companies have been nominated for an industry award to acknowledge their accolades, and are invited to a plush ceremony in a even plusher hotel, where they’ll be given their own table together, a 3 course meal and alcohol a-plenty. It’s a work night out, and everybody’s there to have a great time.
A Vested Interest
Here’s the problem. Let’s imagine that this ceremony is the ‘National Fast-Food Awards’ (I know…very generic!), and one of the categories is ‘Best Customer Service’, and tables 1, 2 and 3 all have a horse in that race, i.e, they’re there because they’ve been nominated for that award. The 'celebrity' presenter gives the intro spiel and the build-up to create anticipation…The winner is announced, and table 2 go nuts! They’ve won! They excitedly accept their prize and return to their seats to rapturous applause. Do they then sit there in silence while the host continues? Nope. They start to talk and laugh amongst themselves because they’re so thrilled to have won. They’re vested interest in the ceremony has significantly diminished because their part in the evening is over and they no longer have to pay attention to what’s happening on stage. 'Yahoo! We've won, let’s hit the bar and do some shots to celebrate!’, and off they go. Not only that, but Tables 1 and 3 have also lost interest because they didn’t win, and their vested interest is also gone. ‘Screw it, we should have won! Let’s hit the bar to do some shots to commiserate’. In the space of a few minutes, you’ve lost the interest/attention of 3 tables. There’s 9 more categories to go, and this is going to happen every time. The chatter amongst the audience catches like wildfire and suddenly the presenter is battling to try to hold their attention and keep them quiet so that he or she can at least remember their lines. If you’ve never presented or performed on a stage for any extended length of time, this might seem like an innocuous irritation…but trust me, it’s an awfully distracting, disheartening and frustrating situation to be faced with. It’s like being a school teacher trying to control a room full of sugar-filled kids.
Aside: I once performed at quite an important awards ceremony, which had enlisted a Dragon’s Den star/Dragon to steer the ship for the night by way of hosting duties. This star quickly began to die a very slow and painful death on that stage, and couldn’t handle the audience chatter, and couldn’t control the room at all. To make matters worse, this star began to ‘Shush’ the room repeatedly, and even said ‘If you don’t keep quiet, we will be taking your awards back from you….So, Ssssshhhhh!’. How do you think the audience responded? Badly. From that moment on, maybe 3 awards in, this host had lost them entirely. Now, imagine you’re the Magician who’s been hired to perform for 25 minutes on stage 'during the break', and you’re about to be fed to the Lions! (Please see *End Note)
Just Get On With It
At this point, it doesn’t matter how good your act is, you’re going to struggle, and those tables at the back who can’t really see everything are still going to just talk and laugh amongst themselves. The client who’s hired you will look at you wide-eyed, accusingly, as if it’s all your fault that the audience just want to hit the bar, chat amongst themselves and flirt with each other. As a performer, you have a certain etiquette to which you must adhere to…which quickly goes out the window as you wrestle with the crowd, trying every 'trick' in the book to capture their imagination and get their attention. The environment is simply not conducive to a spoken form of entertainment. Now of course the cynical amongst you might think ‘Maybe you're just a crap magician Rua!', and perhaps you (and my parents are both right!). All I know is that I’ve done these shows with top level Comedians, Motivational Speakers, Circus acts, Hypnotists etc. and I can count on one hand the amount of times that the entire audience sat and watched, enraptured.
So, what’s the solution for stage entertainment at Award Ceremonies? I think it starts with two questions:
Do the audience actually want to be entertained from the stage? Or, do they just want to get on with it and get through the awards?
As event professionals, should we force entertainment on our guests?
The solution, I think, is quite simple. If you’re going to treat your audience to some relevant entertainment, have it at the very beginning of the show before the first awards are given out. This will ensure that the audience are engaged, and most importantly entertained and having a great time. After that, get through the awards efficiently and effectively without ‘dragging the arse out of it’ too much. Event planners seem to think it's a good idea to put entertainment in the middle 'during the break' to 'shake things up'. But, it's at this stage when everybody wants to hit the bar, chat to their friends, or even just use the facilities.
Close Up Miracles
As a Magician, I’m blessed because Close-Up Magic is my forte, and it lets me go from table to table or group to group and perform a uniquely engaging and stunning show for a small number of people. It doesn’t require a stage, it doesn’t require a microphone, it doesn’t require the attention of the entire room, and I promise, it will be the talking point of the night for days afterwards. This is my personal solution when asked to entertain at these events. Forget putting me on stage - put me in the trenches among the crowd instead.
The final issue that we're faced with is Reputation. I've had to potentially sully the reputation of a nameless Dragon's Den star to make this final point (admit it, you're trying to figure out if it's 'Him? / Her?'). This person was lovely to work with, and very professional. I enjoyed having a quick chat ahead of the event and they seemed to genuinely want to do a good job. They rehearsed their lines over and over like an excited actor, and they were definitely new to this hosting stuff. They really wanted to deliver. But faced with the reality, and the pressure of the situation, it all crumbled before them, they didn't know how to handle it and this person looked awful.Everybody at that ceremony, some 200 people or so, were there to witness this and have probably told all their friends that so-and-so was terrible. But...they weren't terrible. The situation was. In a different situation, this person would have killed. It's really a shame, because reputation is everything in this business. Personally, I know for sure that there's about 50 people out there who think I'm a terrible Magician because I was faced with a similar situation at an Awards Ceremony as well. If we can take the 'Vested Interest' point into account, perhaps together, we can strive for more efficient and enjoyable entertainment at Awards Events.
Award Shows are tough gigs, and maybe that's just the nature of the beast. But this beast can be tamed, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on solutions / opinions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org