Be Prepared

by Black Hart

Baden-Powell knew a thing or two when he came up with ‘Be Prepared’ for a motto and it is certainly worth bearing in mind for any magical performer. I have written before about the gripe us performers have about event organisers, not the ‘professionals’ but those who work for a company and once a year organise their own annual event. Well, I recently had an experience with such an event and Baden-Powell’s motto was a great help.

Black Hart Productions had been booked to provide 6 fortune tellers for after dinner entertainment at a large country house hotel in Surrey. We were also asked to supply someone to read a ghost story to the guests as they were seated awaiting their dinner. As this would obviously garner an extra fee, naturally this task fell to me (well you do need to have some extra compensation for being the boss). The host company were providing the ‘script’.

By the way, I did offer to do an introduction myself based on my well established ‘blood sacrifice’, but no, they wanted their own ghost story.

About 1 week before the event my ‘script’ arrived via email. It’s a good job it was email because my postman would have slipped a disc trying to carry it! This was not a short story, it was more like a small novel, and a very amateurish one at that. It was far too complicated and far, far too long.

As we well know, when people are sitting down to dinner they are, a) noisy – because they are chatting to their fellow table guests, b) in a hurry to get on with their meal and c) have a very short attention span. So any pre dinner introduction we do is brief, visual and simple. Hence my well established ‘blood sacrifice (now done by slashing my arm, or that of a chosen guest, with a cut-throat razor). How do we know all this? Experience – we have been in this situation many times before.

The event organiser on the other hand spends the rest of the year organising sales data or some such task, and this is their one chance in the year to give vent to their latent theatrical aspirations. They are not going to give up this chance easily.

Well, back to the script. For a start I don’t think even David Berglas could have memorised that script in a week! So, there had to be some drastic editing. I went through the story and wrote down the major points. I then cut out much of the dross. I re wrote it several times trying to tighten up the story and make it much more simple, after all people would only be half listening so it could not be too subtle or they would miss the point. Actually I had read the full story several times and even I was missing the point!

Throughout this process it was painfully obvious that the person who wrote the script had no real idea of theatre, audience dynamics and performance. I wanted to get the presentation down to 5 minutes, 10 at the very most, but the shortest I could get it was too about 20 minutes, which was still too long but far, far better than the original which would have taken about an hour!

So now I decided to check out the actual performance situation. More horror (but not MY type of horror). I was to stand on a balcony above the dining hall. Was there to be any public address system for me? No, they said, I wouldn’t need any! Once again proof that THEY had never had to stand up and entertain 100 guests at dinner. Would they provide any background music for me? Err, no, they hadn’t really thought of that! Need I say more…

After explaining to then the need for a PA they said that they would speak to the man doing the disco and see if they could get something set up for me. It did not sound hopeful.

So, let me recap. The organiser of the event wanted me to stand on a balcony, where some of the audience may not be able to see me and read out a story for over half an hour, to guests waiting for their dinner, with no amplification and no background music. This was sounding like a nightmare scenario.

Just imagine if it all went horribly wrong, do you think that the organiser would say to her (not being sexist, it was a ‘her’) boss, “sorry about that Boss, I cocked up the ghost story bit”. Or do you think she would complain to the agent who booked me, “hey, that story reader you sent was rubbish.” I know which I think is more likely.

So, whilst repeating my friend Baden-Powell’s motto like a sacred mantra I set about trying to drag this thing from the brink of impending disaster.

Alec Powell (Albion Magic Company) was coming down to do Palm Reading for me so I borrowed his Fender Portable Amplifier. This is a brill bit of kit. You have two speakers a 4 channel 100 amp mixer amplifier, microphone and all of the wiring in one suitcase sized unit. You can set it up in about 5 minutes. I took my radio head mic, a battery CD player and one of my background tracks of spooky music, a candle and candlestick and a large sheet of flash paper. I printed out my modified script on a scroll. On the evening of the event I set out to arrive early so I could sus out the situation properly.

By now I had changed the presentation quite a lot and of course the organiser would notice this straight away. However, the audience would have NO idea that anything had been changed. I knew that the original presentation by the organiser would have been a disaster. I was hoping that my modified version would go down okay. If I was right then the organiser would be able to take all of the credit with her boss and I may even get a good word about me to the agent. If it worked it would be a win-win situation, as our American friends would say.

Right, on with the tale.

I arrived about an hour before my performance was due. I went straight to the dining room to check it out. It certainly looked good. It was a Victorian replica of a medieval hall complete with minstrels gallery. The disco was set up at one end of the hall and there was a grand piano on a small raised area by the disco. It transpired that they had engaged the services of a pianist to play for the guests whilst they entered the dining room and during dinner. Nice touch, but he knew nothing about my performance!

I checked the gallery and sure enough, a) there was NO PA and b) only half of the guests would be able to see me and they would have to physically look up to do so.

Next thing to do was to get talking to the various ‘players’ in this scenario. Number one, the pianist. I told him what I was going to do and arranged for him to stop playing when I started speaking.

Number two, the head waiter. Surprisingly enough he did not know about me either (before you let your imaginations run riot, yes I was in the right venue). I told him about the performance and arranged with him that they did not begin to serve dinner until I had finished and we arranged for a cue that he would act upon.

Next I went up top the gallery and quickly set up my PA. I did a sound check with the DJ (disc jockey, not with a dinner jacket!). I cued my sound track and set my props, - the candle, the sheet of flash paper and the scroll with my script.

Now if I had been organising this I would have read the story from down amongst the guests, but I didn’t want to change things too much.

The flash paper? Ah yes, towards the end of the story the ‘hero’ finds a scroll pinned to the great fire place in the main hall. In my version he picked it up and having read it, the scroll burst into flame and disappeared. Now you see why I had the flash paper and the candle. It would provide a little visual cue and interest.

About 10 minutes before the start of dinner the organiser turned up. “Everything okay?” she asked. “Did you get the script?”

“Yes”, I lied. “Yes”, I said in all truth, but I chose not to expand on that.

The guests were of course late coming into dinner as they almost always are. I waited until they were just about all seated and as requested the pianist stopped playing. I read the modified story in my best dramatic voice to the background of some great spooky music. I got it down to 15 minutes. My scroll disappeared in a blinding flash of flame that generated a gasp from the audience and when I finished there was applause from the audience and dinner was served.

My gamble had paid off. Later that evening the organiser thanked me for reading the story but oddly enough she never mentioned the modifications!

After dinner the guests were entertained by the disco in the hall and the fortune tellers in the lobby. The PA was packed away in a couple of minutes and by 00.15 hours we were all on our way back to the Midlands. Another successful evening, thanks to Lord Baden-Powell (no relation to Alec Powell).

Anyway just so the others don’t feel left out, my fortune tellers for the evening were, myself, Alec Powell, Ron Popple, Razia, Louise and Natalie.


© Keith Hart, May 2004