I nearly didn’t post this because it stresses me out so much. But I believe the curtain needs to be pulled back some more on what we call “Reality”.
I do believe we are a very shrewd audience, over all. Our grandparents were introduced to the invention of television and so our children are essentially bred to understand it. It’s a language and it’s what I do for a living. Story telling can be a beautiful art.
And so it surprises me that we’re still all so naive. Maybe we’re not as much “naive” as we are “trusting”. We know that reality television isn’t “real”. We understand that the show will edit whatever story they need out of sound bites and glances, even if they have to edit sound bites over glances that never happened together. It’s how the show makes a good story, and eventually good money. They have to advertise their eventual product.
Actual reality would look like us, sitting at home, staring at the TV, eating dinner, farting and working really hard to pay our bills. So of course we understand this. In our brains, we understand it… Sort of. A little. But we still seem to want to trust that there’s truth in these stories and that the free fame and fortune they offer is still something worth pursuing - that ANYone can have it.
There was a time when I would get sucked into the massive, world-wide talent shows. I wanted to believe it for a while, too. The hype was just so great and the tension, so palatable. It was a damn good story!
But the more I got involved with variety performance, the closer to home these shows got. When my friends are up there, not only subjecting themselves to being judged on something they’ve made a good living at (by a ridiculous, not-very-intelligent drunk who got famous for running in slow motion, no less), but also being blatantly manipulated while signing away their right to any fragment of truth… my chest clamps up, my ears get hot, and I have to leave the room. I can no longer watch Simon Cowell shows. As my my eyes glaze over with the cataracts of cynicism, I’ve long since stopped believing Mr. Cowell wants good and magical things for these people’s lives. It’s a glorified Gong Show that earns a LOT of money. It does wonderful things for the few who are chosen, but can potentially ruin the otherwise-fine careers of anyone else who unsuspectingly gets in the line of fire, because they believed it was a fair game.
I have friends and acquaintances on every end of these shows. The winners, the buzzed, the boo’d (the ones who had booing edited in where booing never happened), the ones who really shouldn’t have even bothered auditioning in the first place, and even the professionals who lie to make it look like, “Aw, gee-whiz, I’ve never really sung before getting on stage right now in front of millions and having a standing ovation after singing two notes”.
Now, the talents on those shows are real talents - don’t misunderstand my opinion on that. They’re real people who’ve worked on real skills. They may not be the best in the world, but they’re they’re good. Good things deserve recognition and the ones who win - more power to them! I’m very proud of my friends who have made it far (and even won) these shows! But I think they’re taking an enormous gamble - a gamble that might not be worth taking, if, for reasons beyond their power or contractual rights, the show decides their face would make a better joke than a winner.
It’s not within your power to amaze them. They choose when they’ll admit to being amazed. It’s not even within the audience’s power to decide who they like best. The production needs a good show and they will make a good show.
You know, I might consider the damage done to individuals by a silly show forgiveable if the creators who benefit from it tried to, say, bail the world out of debt or feed a country or two. I could, perhaps see a glimmer of good in it all, then. But right now it’s just something that tramples many for the benefit of few — Like a cartoon of the worst sides of capitalism.
But now my rant from the outside, looking in stops here. I will now pass you on to play write, variety performer and business woman, Allison Williams for an inside peek, behind the curtains.
This is not a unique story. This IS the show. This is how it happens. Please read on.
I said no the first six times.
The seventh year, the seventh season, after an hour-long phone call with William the freelance producer, I think, well, it’s in my mom’s city, and there’s money in it, and this project we’re working on, the one that can’t get booked because nobody’s ever heard of it? It could use some exposure. And I say, “Yes.”
And, with William, I start mapping out the act.
“What the producers really like is the fire trick,” he says. “But bigger. Can you add some aerialists?”
William thinks it’s important it be big. America’s Got Lawsuits (If You Reveal The Outcome Before The Episode Airs) is focusing on group acts this year. I know one fire-dancer, two jugglers, six acrobats and a pole dance team that have done this show. I know fifty more entertainers who will never do this show, who have said no seven times.
I know we’re not going to win.
I know the contract says “Producers of America’s Got Lawsuits reserve the right to determine the winner by any means they choose.” I’ve heard about the holding rooms, about showing up at 7AM in full hair and makeup and waiting in a convention center ballroom full of chairs for twelve hours, for three days, and then being told, “Everyone else, sorry, you won’t be doing your acts in this round, you’ll be flying home tomorrow.”
William has gone through the act with me. We have storyboarded every four seconds and provided a recommended shot list to the director. Everyone in the act has been issued a plane ticket, a room at the Hyatt, and a list of instructions from Aubrey, our perky brunette Production Assistant.
“Remember guys!” chirps Aubrey, “Never look directly into the camera! It ruins the shot!”
I have met the rigger and the pyrotechnician; we have run the full act once and the fire section three times, for the stage manger, the director, and the fire marshal.
And here we are.
The glossy black stage gleams.
The new judge on the left, a shock jock brought in to expand the demographic, wears his sunglasses all the time. The lady in the middle, married to someone famous, smiles supportively. The man on the right twirls the straw in his water bottle. (“Fist bumps only!” said Aubrey, “No handshakes, no hugs!”) He will not drink from anything not handed to him wrapped in a towel, his assistant hovers out of frame with a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Up to this point, we have been guessing what role we will be cast in, how the editors will choose to show us to America. The pre-interview questions—
“Could you say that again, but touch on your street performer background?”
“Could you phrase it something like, ‘This is our big chance?’”
“Just say, ‘We’re here to win’, and make it really big, OK?”
“Can we do that again? One of you glanced at the camera.”
Our guess on the edit is Small Time Big Dreams or Scruffy But Driven.
Before we start the act, the sunglassed judge tells us he thinks street performing is sad and pathetic. We talk about theatricality, about performing for people regardless of their ability to pay, about shows for war orphans in Kosovo. I don’t know if any of that will fit our eventual edit. The lady judge smiles supportively. The straw twirler twirls, and we hold briefly for a new water bottle and a squirt of sanitizer. He’s given a new straw and unwraps it himself, the assistant taking the end of the paper wrapper without touching him.
With a burst of nothing—the sound cue is late—our act begins. The sound kicks in. The singer sings. The aerialists spin in a whirl of colored fabric. The fire-eaters await their cue. And at second number thirty-nine of the act that William has scripted with my complicity, my brain begins evaluating.
What’s that sound? Has something gone wrong?
Fast check. Aerialist Number One, still in the air, her split is beautiful. Aerialist Number Two, his split amazing. Aerialist Number Three is in a flaming aerial hoop. Is she on fire? No. Good.
What’s that sound?
And as I step into position to pass a flame from my tongue to my partner’s tongue and down the line of eight people (second number fifty-nine, midstage close shot) I realize,
“Hup!” to cue the group and I set my tongue on fire, pass the flame to the right.
Have we ever been…booed before? By a sober person? With a home to go to?
Have we ever been booed by an entire audience?
No, I don’t think we have.
Not in the early years of dirt shows at two-bit medieval faires. Not at new festivals in new countries, navigating foreign social cues. Even the teenage Gypsy boys wanted attention more than to tear us down, and when I learned to say Tumen boot! I love you! in Roma, it stopped them like a switch. Not in the slums of Mumbai, stepping around eddies of trash to crack the whip. Not in Mexico, the freshly-ironed children shyly pressing single pesos and cookies into our hands.
At the eighty-seven second mark (exactly on time, exactly as William and I scripted, wide shot then cut to judges), I am already disconnected, awaiting the verdict I already know. I smile and thank the judges for their feedback. Maybe if we aren’t funny or angry, they will leave us on the cutting room floor. Even when the shock jock judge turns to the crowd, exhorting them first to cheer him and then boo us again, louder, I think only,
Those jeering young men ages 18-25 are certainly his demographic.
Even if I could win a verbal fencing match the edit would make me a Loser. A Bad Loser or a Bitter Loser or an Arrogant Loser Who Had It Coming.
The first exit interview, immediately offstage with a rapper-turned-TV-host, is called the “kiss-n-cry” by most producers. We neither kiss nor cry. I grin directly into the camera and say, “Hey, we’re already professional entertainers and this was just another gig!” and high-five the host.
Edit that like a Loser, motherf***ers.
We bail on the second exit interview, telling Aubrey we’re sorry, but we’re finished. And Aubrey, who is a local, listens shocked when we tell her about the booing and escorts us past five security checkpoints and out of the building. I hope that this lack of footage will help us be no-one, not even a two-second clip in a montage. That the mother called to the stage to be reprimanded for her six-year-old twins’ salacious choreography or the water-skiing squirrel or the girl whose father cuts her hair while blindfolded will be far more fascinating. There is nothing compelling about polite, upbeat professionals.
Later, my mother reclaims her cellphone from the audience security point and tells me that the audience was coached, their cue to boo was the crewman with the white sign in front of stage right. We learn that the audience was seeded with plants, paid to be there, knowing who wins, the locals who lined up for tickets instructed, “If someone next to you jumps up or makes an X, you do it, too!” Knowing that the contest and the voting and the judging is rigged, I don’t know why it surprises me so much that the audience is rigged, too.
America sure does have talent, but that’s not what this show is about. Talent’s not in the 90-second bites boiled into montage clips, not going with the breakdancers “Goin’ to Vegas!”, not listening to the singer stopped at two bad opening notes (this is round three—we were recruited, but that singer waited in line and has twice been told “You’re good enough!”). Talent is back in the driveway where the breakers popped and locked on flattened cardboard boxes. Talent is lip-syncing in its bedroom. Talent is hanging with the adult beginner aerialists back in the gym in Memphis, working out on borrowed equipment, their bodies aging out on borrowed time. Talent is singing with its friends in the car with the stereo up and the windows down.
And that’s the shield that keeps me gracious on mic while the 18-to-25-year-olds jump up and down, howling for our third X. Back at the hotel, showering out hairspray and removing the last of the glitter from my eyes, I wonder just how dumb this mistake will turn out to be, how many Americans this summer will see me and see a Loser. But as I hang up costumes and plan the route to the next gig, and the next gig, and the one after that, I thank the universe that I am up there taking scorn, instead of watching and dishing it out. Even standing up to boos and jeers and the caustic acid of three judges in the twilight of their celebrity—their downward trajectory still a place higher than I will likely ever reach—even that is better than waiting for opportunity to knock, for lightning to strike. Waiting for a life to begin. Waiting for a dream—any dream—to arrive.
See Allison’s original article here.
To other bloggers who are interested in this topic, please get this article out and around the internet. Part of me feels as though I’m preaching something as obvious as WWF wrestling being fake, but we really need to smarten up to who we trust with our well being, when volunteering for free fame and fortune.
The contestants are real. The environment they’re locked into, however, is as manufactured as a fine tuned machine, making the game an unfair one.
There’s a new theatrical circus called “Stand Up Eight”.
I’ve proudly written about them before, and I’m currently in the last steps of wrapping up their documentary. Since being financed by Dragon, W. Brett Wilson, I’ve had the honour of participating in the show through the making of their posters, graphics, logo, promo videos and the many incarnations of their behind-the-scenes documentary.
As an animator, it’s been an opportunity to stretch my wings and play with other mediums. I’ve discovered that I like it!
I’ve just watched the “Where Are They Now” episode of Dragon’s Den, which once again, focuses a lot on The Angels and “Stand Up Eight” circus. Not only is it exciting to be involved with these CBC stars, but now I also get to say that a whole few seconds of my documentary work has been aired on CBC! (Because in the end, we all know this is all about ME! …Isn’t it??)
You can watch the entire episode on the Dragon’s Den site:
I’ve just finished the first promo video for Stand Up Eight Circus.
Filming and editing by Rachel Peters.
Second camera man, Dragon Alexander.
To read more about the show, click here.
More promo and a documentary to come.
And here’s a 90 second version of the same show (for those whose attention can’t hold for 4 minutes).
I’ve just come home from a visit to Kalamazoo and nobody at home believes me. I may as well have said I was going to Timbuktu or Lake Titicaca.
Kalamazoo happens to be the home base of a new, innovative circus and Kalamazoo should be proud.
Allison Williams of the world renown Aerial Angels is writer and director of STAND UP EIGHT, a theatrical circus show that brings you closer to the performers and sometimes right up onto the stage, along side them.
After a great deal of development and investment Allison and the Angel’s co-Artistic Director Zay Weaver got one final and dramatic boost into production when they appeared on the CBC’s reality show, The Dragon’s Den. They received a generous investment from W. Brett Wilson, Canada’s cutest blue-eyed zillionaire, with soft spot for entertainers.
(If you’ve seen CBC ads for either The Dragon’s Den or for CBC programming itself, chances are you’ve seen Allison and Zay. They were by far the coolest looking entrepreneurs to appear on the show, eating fire and tumbling from silks, and having the most teeth grittingly tense discussions of any I’ve ever seen aired on that program, ending in a few tears and some accusations of arrogance. The Aerial Angels, in my opinion have single-handedly provided the CBC with a season’s worth of promotional ads.)
I went to Kalamazoo with my video camera in tow, to film the process of this new show and its first few performances.
What does it take to start a theatrical circus show and get it rolling?
What sorts of people invest their talents and personal lives into it?
This documentary will introduce you to them.
Along with other creative projects working their way out, I hope to spend my summer piecing together a masterpiece that captures what I see developing down in Kalamazoo Michigan, and quickly spreading across the globe.
Art. Passion. Drive. Skill.
…Lots and lots of kittens.
(It’ll make sense.)
As a peculiar little side note: My aspiration to break out into documentary (as I am primarily an animation filmmaker) was what originally brought me to the world of variety performance. I had desired to make a film about the life of circus/sideshow/street performers many years ago. Realizing I knew little about either documentary or the lives of variety performers, I dropped that story to experiment in actually performing as a comic fire eater for a while. Allison Williams taught me how to light my tongue ablaze in the back alley of a street festival one summer in Toronto.
After a few years and some short edits of performance related video footage, I have now come full-circle with an inside scoop of the variety life and some documenting experience. I couldn’t have worked it out better if I had tried. …and I did try. Funny, that.
I’ve just finished the first promo video for Stand Up Eight Circus.
Filming and editing by Rachel Peters.
Second camera man, Dragon Alexander.
Stand Up Eight in 90 Seconds! For the busy business person who just doesn’t have time for 4 and-a-half minutes.