Creative KidTalk: Working Outdoor Shows
The following chapter is taken from the book Creative KidTalk by David Ginn, Steve Smith and Samuel Patrick Smith
Working Outdoor Family Shows
So we were talking about working with children-and the subject came up. David started packing up his props, Sammy checked for rain, and Steve started the show.
David: Outdoor shows can be both fun and profitable. Lots of clowns and magicians do these shows at picnics, birthday parties, and fairs. In fact, I have a picture of myself doing an outdoor birthday party that dates back thrity years! So let's talk about the pros and cons, including some of the do's and don'ts, of working outdoors.
At the top of my list of things you DON'T do are dove productions outdoors. I know a guy who borrowed a couple of doves to do an outdoor show. The first dove he produced flew up into a tree. The second one flew down between him and the audience. A dog present at the show leaped onto the bird and chomped the poor thing to bits-with the audience watching!
Steve: Finally, a performer who had his audience literally eating out of his hand!
David: But there's more. Undaunted, the guy ended his act with the dove cage vanish. Empty, of course, but he vanished it! Remember, the show must go on!
Sammy: There are different kinds of outdoor shows and some I like better than others. If necessary, I don't mind doing a birthday party show out in the yard. What I don't care for are outdoor festivals where you are standing in 130 degree heat all day long. With kids in a yard, you are only there maybe forty-five minutes.
Steve: Personally, I usually avoid outdoor birthday parties. The kids don't enjoy the show as much, plus it could be deadly to your rabbit. And having a LIVE rabbit in my show is its biggest selling point.
David: Outdoor rabbit productions are fine as long as the bunny remains in a COOL safe place until just before the production, then you load him into the box.
Steve: So doing an outdoor show creates some very unique performing circumstances.
One of the most obvious is the heat. Therefore, you don't particularly want to wear your evening formal tuxedo at an outdoor show. Carefully select a wardrobe that is both cool and makes you look like the paid performer, not just another picnic participant.
Sammy: One thing I've found-it helps to find a good shady area for setting up.
Steve: Definitely. Shade is a big plus for the audience, too. People don't want to be uncomfortable trying to watch your show. If they get hot or have to look directly into the sun, they won't enjoy your performance. That means they won't stick around, and you probably won't get hired back. Plus, those who do stick around will barely react to anything you do.
If my only two choices are having the sun in my eyes as the performer or the sun in the audience's eyes, I get the sun in my eyes. I'd rather be a little uncomfortable and have my audience enjoy the show then the other way around.
Sammy: At an outdoor festival once I was on the back of a flatbed truck about six feet above the audience. Everyone was sweltering in the hot sunlight. John Young, who introduced the show, relieved some tension with a little humor, "Welcome to our outdoor tanning salon!"
Steve: One thing I see some performers do when it's bright outside is wear sunglasses throughout the show. I personally feel there is nothing worse for an audience than to have to watch a performer when they can't see his eyes.
David: Some performers don't realize it, but that puts a huge barrier between you and the audience.
Sammy: Personally, I dislike doing outdoor shows because of all the variables, athough sometimes you have to work them. But with outdoor shows, it is much harder to develop a rapport with your audience.
Since the people are sitting outside, without chairs, in hot weather. What are some things we can do to make our outdoor shows better for the audience?
David: Short, simple tricks and routines help.
Sammy: Because people are free to come and go, a long routine might keep people from stopping or make you lose the audience you already have.
Steve: I personally feel it's also a good idea to shorten your show. Thirty minutes is about the optimum length of attention span for an effective outdoor show. That same audience, if indoors, could easily sit through a 45-60 minute show. Of course, if there's a lot of variety in your show, the inclusion of a section of juggling, puppetry, games, and so on, you can go longer.
David: Humor definitely helps. Projecting to the back row. Every once in a while, I try to make a comment especially for those people standing or seated at the further perimeter of the audience. If someone is leaning against a tree, I will yell "Hey! Hold that tree up!" Anything to connect with the people who are far away to pull them into the show.
Steve: And don't be afraid to tell the people sitting far away to move closer to the stage area. Another thing: I also use a little more audience participation than I do at an indoor show. I have found more adults will stick around to see the show if they think you might use their kids as helpers. Plus, this helps keep the audience focused on your show and not on the distractions.
David: What are some of those shorter, quicker tricks we each have used in our outdoor shows? I like the Pom Pom Pole.
Steve: Fraidy Cat Rabbit. You can hold it in your hand, and it gets the people responding.
David: The Vanishing Coke Bottle.
Sammy: Cut and Restore Rope.
David: Linking Rings. Sword Thru Neck. Disecto.
Steve: Besides being shorter and to the point, outdoor shows require tricks that you can do surrounded. People will walk up and stand behind you during your show, so you must plan effects that can be performed successfully with the audience behind you.
Sammy: Burling Hull wrote a book called Entirely Surrounded By the Audience about 1949, and he listed every trick in existance at the time that you could perform surrounded.
Steve: How about a stage? The few times I have encountered a stage at a company picnic, the band is on it, and they won't move their stuff for nothing.
David: But if you can get on that stage during a band break and use their sound system, your show will go off more smoothly. Just work in front of the band stuff.
Steve: Sure, but your company picnics of fifty or a hundred people will rarely have such a nice set up. Rarely do you have a stage or even a backdrop.
David: Sometimes I create my own backdrop when I do an outdoor show. A creek or a tree can become your backdrop. I have done things like set up jet sets and actually tied them down with ropes to trees or poles. One of the best outdoor backdrops you can use in the world is you own car or van. Drive it up immediately behind your performing area, lay your curtains over the van, and work out of the other side or the back of the van as a backstage.
Sammy: A friend of mine was once doing and outdoor stage show at a fair. During his performance a walk-around clown came up with a dog and tied the dog to the corner of the stage, then left. All during the show the dog barked, and the kids kept asking, "Can I pet your dog?" My friend kept saying, "It's not my dog!"
Steve: I thought you were going to say the clown started doing balloon animals during your friend's show. Speaking of unwanted distractions, have you noticed that every bird, car, dog, tractor, and tornado knows the exact moment you are going to start your show? Some outdoor shows can present real challenges.
David: Of course, but there is good money in outdoor shows. What we need to do as performers, if we take on that outdoor show, is to work out ahead of time with the client as many things to your advantage as possible. In other words, if they offer a platform, take it. If you can work during the band break and use their sound system, that's to your advantage. Prepare to erase as many distractions beforehand as possible.
Steve: Another distraction can be the picnic itself! At many company picnics they schedule so many other events opposite you, like the three-legged-potato-race-for-left-handed-kids-with-blue-eyes, that you might end up with only four people watching your show. So, when booking an outdoor show with the client, I try to arrange beforehand that all other competing activities STOP during my performance. No bands, no face painting, no games, no balloon animals, no dogs tied to the stage, no dove buffets. If possible, suggest to the client that during your show it would be a good time for all the other performers and workers to TAKE A BREAK. You will have more people at your show, making you look good, and you'll solve many of your distraction problems at the same time.
Sammy: What are some ways to make sure you have enough people in the audience of your outdoor show?
Steve: Good question. I have found it helps my show if I become a Pied Piper and round up my own audience a few moments before show time. I do this by walking around, maybe doing some close-up magic, the vent pupet or spring animal, and start plugging the start time and location of the show. Plus, this helps get people to follow me back to the show area.
Then over my sound system I start announcing, "Ten minutes until the magic show. Fun for the whole family!" "Five minutes to the FUN MAGIC SHOW. Kids from four to a hundred-and- four will love it!" and "MAGIC SHOW IN ONE MINUTE! Helpers will be picked from the kids sitting up front," and so on.
I beieve in creating your own audience, because the bigger audience you draw means the client who hired you will be more pleased with the job you did.
David: ortability for outdoor shows is also an important consideration. If you can, go in with a show basket or suitcase table that packs up quickly. In other words, don't take in a lot of equipment and side tables with silk covers that might blow away. In fact, any trick involving silks you might want to eliminate, your productions, your blendos, due to wind problems.
Steve: Otherwise, your expensive silks could be "Gone With The Wind!" How's that for Southern, David?
Sammy: Which reminds me-we haven't even mentioned the most notorious outdoor variable-THE WEATHER!
David: Once a client hired me to perform an outdoor show for 300 people at a family picnic. Fortunately, the audience was under a shelter. So we moved the van into place as a backdrop an worked under the shelter. That was lucky for everybody. Just as the show started, it began raining, and it rained during the entire show. At one point during the show, I walked over to the client and asked if he wanted me to keep the show going because it kept raining. He said "yes" and we kept he show going for 75 minutes. I had a very happy customer.
Steve: You stretched a 45-minute show to 75 minutes? Exactly how many times can a performer do the Wilting Flower?
David: Hey, I had two pretty female assistants!
Sammy: A similar siuation happened to me in a park, under a shelter with open sides, I got my sound system up, and I thought I had it in far enough. But during the show a rain storm started, and it rained on my amplifier. I had to discontinue using the sound system and talk loud.
Steve: You could have kept going and gotten a free perm!
Sammy: Didn't need one!
David: You have to think ahead and bring some waterproof tarps folded and ready for an emergency. Properly thrown over your equipment in case of a sudden storm could save you thousands in ruined equipment.
Sammy: In case of rain, I say, "Be prepared. "Have enough ponchos on hand to sell to the audience!
Steve: Before we wrap this up, let me put in a little plug, pun intended, about outdoor sound systems. If you are planning to have a couple of hundred people sit and watch your show, make sure your client supplies you with, or you bring your own, a large, powerful sound system. There are no acoustics outdoors and for two hundred people to hear you will take a BIG, LOUD SOUND SYSTEM. Believe me, if they can't hear you, they ain't gonna like your show! Plus, if you bring your own, don't forget plenty of extension cords-because outdoors it is usually a long way to the nearest plug!
David: In conclusion, let me make a suggestion. When performing outdoor shows, you have to be willing to roll with the punches, be flexible according to the situation, pre-plan for the possible distractions, and be adaptable to the crcumstances.
I remember reading in an old Genii Magazine about a guy up on a platfrom doing a magic show for a picnic. He was about to do his next trick, when he noticed a big dog running directly at him from behind, out of view of the audience. The dog was running so fast, he knew that dog would be up on that stage with him in about four seconds. He realized instantly that the audience couldn't see the impending arrival of the dog, so he thought quickly and improvised.
He picked up a big cloth and let if drop down to the stage like a bullfighter holds his red cape. At the same moment the dog jumped up onto the stage, directly at the cloth, intent on ripping it to shreds. The performer instantly removed the cloth to reveal the apparent appearance of the uexpected canine. The audience was astounded with the wonderful, magical appearance, out of nowhere, of a REAL, LIVE DOG!
Steve: With a dead dove hanging out of its mouth!
David: That performer knew how to be flexible and adaptable, the two keys to successfully performing outdoors.