June 23, 2008

How to be an MC

I've done very little MCing, but I've been introduced by many and watched them work and prepare their work. It's an art form in itself. Here are a few thoughts and observations useful for a first time, or relatively new variety-arts MC.

First and most important, the work of being an MC is not about you, it's about the show and the acts. You are the smooth interface that gets the show and the audience safely from begining to end. So you don't have to "be" anything more than pleasant, clearly articulate, and accurate. As you'll see, that's quite enough.

Doing your own schtick is entirely secondary to your purpose for being there, and everyone else's. It's not needed. A first impulse is to "cover" yourself by putting on a character, doing schtick, or bringing a friendly pet with you, so that there is something between yourself and the audience. This is usually a mistake. The best and easiest cover is a larger, more cheerful, and possibly more aggressive version of yourself. A super-you. People do like you, don't they? Just make yourself a bit larger than life, a bit more firmly in control, and go with it. Many performers and MCs use this technique, and the natural adrenaline of the moment will help it happen.

Another way to think of MCing is as a version of being a proper party hostess. The hostesses job is to keep things pleasant and flowing, make proper introductions, and send everyone home happy, regardless of how awful the canapes are, how badly the housekeeper and caterer have screwed up, the little traffic accident in the driveway, and despite Uncle Ernie getting the kids drunk and then falling into the pool. And if you really need table games or charades to keep them entertained, you'll just have to find more interesting guests to invite next time. The guests make the party, and the acts make the show. You, the hostess, just make the show/party move pleasantly from beginning to end.

Speaking of charades, many experienced variety artists who are drafted for MC feel that they must do some kind of humorous thing in between acts. This is a kind of cover for them, because they know and love their own stuff and feel comfortable with it. But unless you have a great deal of stage experience and have verified proof (outside of friends and family) that large groups of people really do find your "things" charming or funny, I'd avoid it like the plague! Really. MCing is a special kind of performance that is difficult enough all by itself. If you could do whatever-it-is really well, you would have been invited to perform, not to MC. So keep it simple. Your task (again) is to present the acts competently and clearly, and to make sure the show proceeds smoothly from beginning to end, no matter what. That's plenty, and if you can do just that, you'll be in demand for other MC jobs.

A well-run variety-arts show will require all the performers to be inside the theater several hours before the show. During that time the director, stage manager, producer, and you, will have to put the show together and test-run (tech-rehearse) it so that the sound, lighting, curtains and lineup are established, and everyone knows what to do and when to do it. When several repeats of a show are scheduled, a dress rehearsal as well as a tech rehearsal may be required a day or so before the first show. They may also be combined into one run-through, but the purpose is the same.

If you are inexperienced, pay attention to everything. Every event is different, and few are done perfectly. When you meet the performers at the rehearsal, tell them you need to have their intro cards completed now, and pass them out  (with a pen) before they go anywhere else. The cards should have space for their stage name, number of performers, type of act, its length, and the exact wording of how it is introduced.

While you are doing this the performers will be much more concerned with makeup, getting into character, the state of their own nerves, and lunch. So you'll still have to chase them around individually. Be polite but firm about getting what you need. If you know the act well, add whatever color and sizzle you think fits that introduction. If you don't know the act, gather whatever you need to make their introduction interesting, but only as an introduction to their preferred introduction. Get each of them to spell and pronounce their names for you, and repeat their name (and the act name, if any) back to them until they approve your pronunciation. Read the intro back to them to check it, along with anything you might add so they can check it for accuracy. Get all of this down on one or more cards for each act, and put the cards in the show's order of appearance once that's been established, and number them.

Check with the stage manager or director to make an exactly parallel order of line-up. (He or she will have his own 9,000 things to do, so don't pester. Check once, thoroughly, and be done with it. They'll let you know if things change.) Unless someone is introducing you, you will begin the show, introduce yourself, and welcome the audience. Make a card for that. I've seen MCs, even experienced ones, forget their own name when the lights first hit them.

Make a card to introduce the intermission. This is typically where announcements about mailing lists, t-shirt sales, etc. are made. You'll also need a card for the close, where you thank the audience, invite them to next year's show, and remind them to drive home safely. The director can tell you what else is needed at the start, intermission, and close, but be sure to ask. All of these announcements should be brief.

You set the tone, sense of excitement, and joyful expectation at the beginning and middle by your own attitude. At the end the audience may already be leaving their seats (especially if the house lights are up too soon) so you'll have to speak a little faster and louder (they'll be talking to each other). You still have to speak clearly and distinctly, and sound like you're having fun too.

You may also comment on each act after it closes - just be kind, no snark! - and then move right into the next introduction. Try not to use the same terms and phrases repeatedly. A store of pat phrases is useful, but they have to be appropriate. Performers have off nights and on nights. Watch the show enough to know which was which. Then don't lie to the audience -- they saw the same act you did and probably have the same reaction. You don't need to diss or slam the mediocre or bad acts. You're an MC, not a critic. Just thank them and move on.

Your backstage friends are not the performers, who will have little or no time for you anyway, but the stage manager/producer, who will give you the final line-up and make sure everything works, and the tech people who will handle your microphone, lighting, sound, and curtain (and a dozen other things you don't need to know about).

Take notes during tech rehearsal so that you at least know how things should unfold. When they don't, be ready to continue regardless. Somebody has to take responsibility for ensuring that "the show goes on." You are the face of the show, and first in line of command to take charge of what happens in front the curtain.

You are the visible facilitator of the show and who the audience will blame or praise, but the people who really make it work are behind the scenes and it is good manners to publicly thank them at some point, perhaps between acts or after the intermission. (Yes, put it on a card!) This will include at least the producer and host, who may want to make a speech or dedication of some kind, so be sure that the stage manager/producer works this into the tech rehearsal so nobody is surprised.

The rest of the monkey gang that really did all the work don't expect to be named, but they should be generally acknowledged and publicly thanked.

Things will go wrong. You don't have to apologize or explain any glitches to the audience unless it's going to delay things for more than a few minutes. Don't feel you have to cover by entertaining them in the meantime (though that can be useful). Just let them know what's happening, or simply tell them things will be delayed a bit due to "technical difficulties," which is an acceptable way of saying an actor is having an hysterical fit or the electrician isn't quite sober yet.

By now you may have gathered that you will be holding a set of cards tightly in your hand for the entire evening. Once you have the final line-up, number each card clearly in a corner reserved for that purpose. Then when you drop them you won't have to shoot yourself.

It's perfectly acceptable to read directly from your cards. Even the Academy Awards presenters and the President use cards (though on a teleprompter). If you have really never done this before, then a week before the event you should make up a set of cards for an imaginary show and rehearse, using the cards, speaking aloud, and tape recording yourself. Then listen to the tape, and do it again. Are you enunciating clearly? Are you speaking slowly enough? Do you sound like you're having fun? Would you like to see the show that you just MCd? Do it again and again until you get bored. Then do it again, making it seem like fun even though you are bored. Does it sound artificial or genuine? Think of this private rehearsal as speaking to a friend on the phone, or to your mother. If necessary, actually call up a friend (or your mother) and really do the whole thing on the phone. (Just remember that parents and friends will never, ever, tell you that you're not absolutely wonderful. But they may help you to relax and to sound relaxed, even though you are being Super-You.)

A last point:
Your pet or your child does not belong on stage. There is a very good reason why actors often dislike working with children and animals. Pet owners and parents think their own pet or child is not only wonderful, but loved and tolerated by everyone else too. They are wrong. Pets and children must be trained to instant and absolute obedience before they can reasonably be included in your shtick. (Think of the Chinese Emperor who, before a battle, would send ten of his warriors to the front of the army so that they might simultaneously behead themselves with their own swords, simply to demonstrate their loyalty and discipline. Expect no less from your pets or children.)

Anything that interferes with or screws up the introduction of an act, such as your own humor, a wayward pet or child, or simply mispronouncing their name, will make that performer hate you forever. And even if they do forgive you, they certainly won't ever trust you again.

Now that I've upset and frightened you, insulted your doggy and child, and messed with your mind . . . go out there and kill! You'll come back a star . . . or at least an MC.

First published in Tribe, some time ago.

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