Sunday, 29 March 2009

Production War Story of the Month

You can imagine that with 19 years of producing special events I must have a few war stories. I thought it might make for a light-hearted break in the heavy stuff to insert one of these every so often into my blog, so here goes.

We were presenting an evening of what might be loosely termed Asian entertainment. A large stage had been set up on one wall of a hotel ballroom and on this we were to provide a combination of continuous background music and live, interactive acts representing a variety of Asian cultures, throughout the event. Since it was a stand-up reception, the guests were eating and drinking while milling around and networking with colleagues. It was very crowded and the stage was a focal point around which people stood and chatted, on which they placed their plates and glasses, and near which it was almost impossible to move. Being the main organizer of the entertainment, I was required to be near the stage for most of the event, ensuring that the acts came and went according to our schedule.

For continuous background music during this event we had engaged two young – but very accomplished – Japanese koto lute players who were to play from the back of the stage for most of the event and to accompany some of the main acts. (Note: A koto lute is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument played with the musician in a kneeling or sitting position.) The girls were dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos and looked very pretty – but very innocent.

Eventually it came time to bring up one of the main acts for the evening, an illusionist named “The Amazing Jozef.” Now Jozef was a fairly elderly magician. To add to his appeal, he was accompanied by an extremely attractive female assistant attired in a diaphanous outfit that rendered her almost the spitting image of Jeannie in the old “I Dream of Jeannie” television show. (In fact, since I cannot remember her name, we will call her that for purposes of the story.) Jeannie came with her own added appeal - a 20-foot long python. Pythons, as readers may recall, are constrictors, and feed on birds and mammals, killing them by squeezing them to death. They will not usually attack humans unless startled or provoked (i.e. by sudden movements). Naturally, this combination of beauty and potential terror brought a huge crowd to the stage which, once the show had begun, trapped me in a position near the back of the stage. I could not move.

The show went fairly smoothly, with Jozef performing a number of old but uniquely conceived illusions, and alternately working with Jeannie and the python, gradually building towards the show’s climax. For his final illusion, Jozef had Jeannie lying rigidly on top of a vertical sword, an illusion that required his utmost attention. This meant leaving the snake unattended. Presumably being somewhat bored by his resulting lack of participation in the show and perhaps just a touch hungry, the snake decided to explore the back part of the stage, slowly slithering towards the two koto players who had continued to play background music during Jozef’s show. Jeannie, being totally incapacitated, had no clue where the snake was, Jozef was preoccupied, and only I remained to do something. Unfortunately, I was completely trapped by the audience and unable to communicate with Jozef. The audience was enthralled by the show and nobody seemed to care that the snake was on the loose. That is, except the girls playing the kotos. As the snake gradually moved closer to them, their eyes became fixed in a stare of terror and I was half-expecting them to scream and run from the stage at any second. If they did, it would be a question of whether or not they could outrun the snake. Amazingly, they held their ground – and continued to play, not missing a beat. At the last second, with the snake no more than about two feet from them, Jozef for no explained reason, turned around, took one step, and casually picked up the snake, thus saving the girls from becoming an unrehearsed component of the finale!

I learned some lessons from this seemingly minor incident. The first was small: Don’t ever leave an old magician, a beautiful assistant, and a large snake on their own and out of shouting distance. The second was more profound: One needs to develop tenacity or “staying power” to carry on, as my young musicians did, in the face of life’s adversities. Oh, yes, for producers out there, get good communication equipment and use enough people to manage the show properly.

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Rant About Planners and Technical Production

This must be my month for rants. Lots I want to get off my chest.

This one has been bothering me for a long time. I produced events for over 19 years and now teach event production. I have noticed a disturbing trend towards ignorance and lack of concern on the part of many event planners and students towards the technical areas of audio systems, lighting, and visual presentation technology (i.e., A-V by another name). Here comes the part that a lot of readers are not going to like. It is gender-based. That's right. The females shy away from the technical equipment and anything to do with it as if it were a venomous snake waiting to strike them dead. Since most planners tend to be female - at least that has been my experience, around 80 or 90 % - that means just about everyone. I thought naively that we were in an age of enlightenment now, but apparently not. What is going on here? Are we still really dividing up jobs based on pink vs blue, transformers vs Barbie dolls, fluffy decor vs the technical stuff?

I have noted regularly that in presentations I give - especially at conferences - audiences ask where they can obtain more in-depth information. Well, folks, that knowledge involves the technical areas in many cases. Certainly, a lot of technical people I know have done a bang-up job of presenting seminars in these areas, but in many cases they are barely scratching the surface of what I would call a necessary base level of technical knowledge.

I compare this to an airline pilot who can fly the plane but knows nothing about aerodynamics or gas turbine engine theory. Sooner or later, this lack of knowledge is going to get him/her in trouble. I doubt that Capt. Sullivan could have landed his plane on the Hudson without knowing a fair bit about aerodynamics and the reaction of the plane to the required tail-down attitude needed for a successful water landing.

Why is this basic technical knowledge necessary? Well, let's take a look at what might happen, because a lot of it is about risk - and it goes WAY beyond knowing how to tape electrical cords down. Here is a sample list of potential scenarios:

1. A truss loaded with lighting gear falls from a venue ceiling, injuring a number of event attendees. If this happened, you can be sure that the event planner would be near the top of the list of defendants in an expensive law suit for liability. Remember that the planner is responsible and liable for all his/her subcontractors and anything that they do. That means that the planner should be able to provide documentation that has been completed to prove that the loading on the truss was safe and calculated properly, as well as proof that the rigging was done by someone qualified. Do you have this information for all your events where rigging is done? By the way, do a search on the Internet for event disasters and you might be surprised at the number of trussing collapses.

2. Your incentive house client - yes the one with loads of money - cannot understand why a 2-hour sound check is needed for the stage show and dance that is to follow their expensive dinner. Do you:

a) Calmly and confidently explain the need for setting up the monitor mixes for the large band and the requirement to EQ the venue to avoid feedback, plus ensuring that all equipment is functioning properly, OR

b) Sheepishly admit to complete ignorance about audio systems while introducing your client to an overworked, tattooed, pony-tailed audio tech who has no time or interest in talking? (OK - a bit cliched for the tech, but it does happen) Would your client still be a client and have confidence in you the next time around?

3. As a wedding planner, you have been contracted to provide all technical services for a huge, 500-person Italian wedding. The groom's family is from North America but the bride's is from Italy. Both sides want you to show old analog videos and PowerPoint shows from the couple's childhood. They are bringing them to the event. Unfortunately, you know nothing about the different video standards or the formats for good still images. When the A-V tech tries to play the Italian videos they won't work on his equipment and when the PowerPoint slides are shown, the quality of the photos is so bad, nobody can tell who the people are. If you had known even some basic information about international video standards and about the optimum resolution needed for large image projection, this catastrophe could have been avoided by asking the right questions at the beginning.

4. You are dumbstruck when your much smaller competitor wins a big contract by proposing the use of some new and amazing automated lighting in a unique way. Did you know that these products were on the market or if so, how they could enhance your creativity? Maybe you missed that presentation at the last event conference or maybe you missed the suggestion to visit your lighting supplier for a briefing. Sure, you always thought that the lighting supplier would do all the thinking for you. Guess again. It's your problem.

I mention the above with all due respect and apologies to some extremely creative and talented females who are technical producers in the event industry and certainly some planners as well. However, I still firmly believe that they are in the minority. Ladies, it's time to get serious if you intend to make this your chosen career path. Don't miss that next technical lecture or, for that matter, any opportunity to learn about the technical side of our industry. Embrace it with enthusiasm as you have done all other aspects. It will help not only you but also the credibility of the entire industry.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Perception of Meetings and Events in This Economy

I know there has been a lot written about our industry advocating to the US and Canadian governments about how important meetings are to the economy, but I just have to say something about a hotel manager I recently saw interviewed on Canadian TV.

There was a top-level government meeting being held in an upscale resort on Vancouver Island in BC and the media of course jumped on it as being a waste of tax dollars and unnecessary at this time. They tried to interview the resort manager who basically told them to get lost because they were uninvited. I could not believe that a manager in an industry whose livelihood depends on positive publicity had the stupidity to treat the media in that manner. Instead of trying to explain why the meeting was held and all the positive economic spinoffs of meetings, he took a defensive attitude and actually made matters worse. Furthermore, a government official who was also interviewed made absolutely no attempt to explain why such a meeting was important and what meetings and events mean to the economy. These are people who should know better!!

Another sad aspect of this whole fiasco are the media themselves, who are unbelievably near-sighted. Vancouver is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010 and there is expected to be a ton of spinoffs in meetings and events because of the resultant publicity. In fact, that is the main reason Vancouver sought the Olympics in the first place. The media, who have been complaining all along about how much money the Olympics cost and what are we going to get out of all of the spending, is now bad-mouthing the very area that will indeed yield positive economic benefits.

No wonder our economy is in such a mess! Doesn't anybody have any brains out there?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Ritual and Performance in Special Events

Catherine Bell, one of the world’s foremost scholars on ritual, organized ritual activities into six main characteristics: formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.[i] In my previous blog entry, I talked about one of these, invariance, at a corporate special event. In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of performance.

This refers to what ritual has in common with theatrical performances, dramatic spectacles, and public events. As Bell says, comparisons of ritual with performance “rest on a recognition that the performative dimension per se – that is, the deliberate, self-conscious ‘doing’ of highly symbolic actions in public – is the key to what makes ritual, theater, and spectacle what they are.” She goes on to state what those of us in the event management industry have known for a long time, that “performances communicate on multiple sensory levels, usually involving highly visual imagery, dramatic sounds, and sometimes even tactile, olfactory, and gustatory stimulation. By marching with a crowd, crying over a tragic drama, or applauding an unconvincing politician, even the less enthusiastic participants of the audience are cognitively and emotionally pulled into a complex sensory experience that can also communicate a variety of messages. Hence, the power of performance lies in great part in the effect of the heightened multisensory experience it affords: one is not being told or shown something so much as one is led to experience something.” As I have mentioned before, our ancestors learned very quickly that events influence people and good performances, whether by politicians, priests, army generals, or real performers, can be used to emotionally draw audiences in to buying any message if the event is organized well.

Emile Durkheim, sometimes regarded as the founder of sociology, had it right when he first theorized that performing rituals created and sustained “social solidarity.”[ii] Anthropologist Victor Turner further defined the communal spirit generated by social groups participating in rituals – or as I would prefer to call them – events, with the term communitas. He discusses this concept in his many writings but one statement best explains it. “Is there any one of us who has not known this moment when compatible people – friends, congeners – obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved---.”[iii] What these scholars theorized through direct observation of primitive peoples has now been reinforced through the research of biogenetic structuralists (Biogenetic structuralism is a complicated name but a promising field that applies knowledge of human evolution to cultural behavior. Interdisciplinary, it brings together anthropology, psychology, and the neurosciences.). In summary, here is the logic of their current thinking:

1. Modern humans are “hardwired” for ritual behavior.[iv]
2. Ritual behavior overcomes social distance between individuals and helps to coordinate group action.[v]
3. Emotions weight decisions and influence actions.
4. Emotions may be elicited by sensory stimuli.[vi]
5. Rituals with high levels of sensory stimuli, (e.g. rhythmic drivers such as music and dance), will therefore be the most effective in bringing social groups and individuals together and in motivating action.

In short, it has finally been proven that highly performance-driven ritual activities should be the most effective in conveying messages. So what does this mean for special events? Quite simply, it means that the judicious use of highly rhythmic music and dance can greatly enhance the reception of a message, whether that message is a secular one (e.g., how to generate more sales, feeling patriotic, giving to charity) or a religious one (e.g., feeling closer to God). As I said, those of us who have produced events already know this. We just did not know the science behind it.

[i] Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
[ii] Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
[iii] Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. pp. 44-48.
[iv] Karecki, M. (1997). Discovering the Roots of Ritual. Missionalia.
[v] Guthrie, C. (2000). Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from
[vi] Alcorta, C.S. and Sosis, R. (2005). Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol.16, No.4. pp. 323-359.