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April 01, 2013

The Stage Vanishes: A Play in Three Acts

By Liese Gardner

In theater, to break the fourth wall is to speak directly to the audience, eliminating any barrier between reality and fantasy. Event entertainment producers also breach that fourth wall in order to fully engage the audience and achieve the highest retention of the message and the shared experience. Here is the tale of the vanishing fourth wall in three acts, each a different take on event entertainment.

Act I: Song Division
When it comes to Song Division and the fourth wall, it's vanished before the play has even begun because Song Division's sole purpose is to enable the audience to become the performers.

Andy Sharpe began the company 10 years ago, taking a rather circuitous route. After a fairly successful career in the UK as a musician, he decided it was time for a "real job" and went to work for IBM where he remained for 10 years. "During that time I was on the receiving end of General Sessions, incentive events and team building events both good and bad," Sharpe says. Then one day someone asked him to lead a song writing workshop in Australia and a business was born.

Today, Song Division has produced song-writing experiences for corporations and private events in more than 20 countries using an international network of top session musicians. In 2011, the main headquarters relocated from New York to Las Vegas--at the intersection where great talent and corporate clients (which account for 85 percent of Song Division's clientele) abound. The company recently produced an event in Las Vegas that showcases its capabilities.

For a three-day meeting for CraigMichaels Inc., a corporation that produces invitation-only summits that connect people through content, Song Division was asked to produce a networking opportunity for 225 guests that was creative, delivered a message and got people interacting.

"It was the second night of the meeting," Sharpe recalls. "The guests were invited to a cocktail party yet they weren't told what they'd be doing. We almost never tell them beforehand. After doing this for so long we've learned that there really are no gray areas to how guests respond when they find out they are going to be writing and performing a song together," Sharpe says with a laugh. "It's either horror or elation that all their dreams have come true."

Having professionals from the entertainment world as emcees helps alleviate most fears almost immediately. "The band is on stage as guests arrived," Sharpe says. "Everyone gets drinks and the lead guitarist in the band--in this case Angus Clark from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra--plays a great song that gets everyone's attention. These first 15 minutes are key to the entire event. He then plays a song badly, apologizing that the band needs more material." As this is taking place, Clark begins to let the audience know that he's looking for their help.

At this point Clark tells them that no one has to do anything, but if performing live is their dream, this is their chance to make it come true. According to Sharpe, often people in the audience who have musical skills easily step up at this point. They start playing and the band falls in behind them, making them look and sound great.

For this event, the group was split into four groups of 80 with an hour to create their songs (the entire experience was two-and-one-half-hours start to finish). The client had given Song Division several themes they want the audience to work with--a new trend, new legislation and being together in Vegas. The group was broken down even further into tables of 10, were given their assignments and assisted through the process by the professional, studio musicians.

"These weren't campfire songs," Sharpe says. "No Kumbaya. These were fully realized songs, be they reggae, punk or rock 'n' roll. After an hour of writing, each group got together with the full band and turned their work into a song. They rehearsed together and then performed for the entire group.
It's an event that carries into the real world. "They now understand the song writing process," Sharpe says, "And most important, they have had conversations about that and they have made a fun, meaningful connection with people who only hours before they didn't know." And, in this case, not only did they make that fourth wall vanish, but in its place they created a wall of sound that reverberates into the future.

Act II: The Beckys
Similarly, The Beckys are focused on breaking down walls between the stage and real life in addition to more esoteric walls such as the separation of ourselves from our environment and each other. An all-female troupe born from the ashes of Burning Man (an annual week-long arts festival in the desert where many of the troupe hone their performances) The Beckys weave environmental and social concerns not only into their business model, but their performances.

In January 2011, after 10 years of performing arts experience, Samantha Ceora, creative director, began to assemble an all-woman entertainment troupe that takes its visual cues from the forties (think Steam Punk meets Cirque). The Beckys was created--a group with a light-hearted name that would have at its core a serious mission. Crystal Miel Cossey, CEO, brought much-needed event production experience and 10 years of marketing to the troupe.

At events, the troupe's main goal is to create an interactive atmosphere. A good example of this was an event during 2012's Fashions' Night Out at Los Angeles Mall with an appearance by actress Tori Spelling. The event planner, Jupiter Productions, contracted The Beckys to create a series of vignettes throughout the space. Their overall theme was Disgruntled Housewives. Performers in character greeted guests and led them in the event's activities. Others performed vignettes throughout the space. One entailed fabric dancers and a character who sewed on a vintage machine while a piano player performed nearby. Later, on the main stage, the troupe performed a choreographed dance with suitcases.

The Beckys also move beyond the stage by using entertainment to further their personal passions. "We believe in civic responsibility and inspiring people to lead lives that are rewarding while taking care of the earth and each other," says Leah Estella Abdenour, manager and stylist. "As women we feel this is also our time to stand up and bring attention to these issues." For instance, The Beckys are creating their own traveling performance event--Becky Saves the World Tour led by organizer and core member Mieka May Ginsburg. The goals include teaching about recycling, education, enlightening youth, helping the homeless and spreading consciousness through entertainment.
Lofty goals for a group with a girly name. And yet, that may well be the point--another way to break down that fourth wall through entertainment, and our own walls of preconceived notions that separate us from each other.

Act III: Bella Notte
The thing about the fourth wall is that sometimes it has to be there in order to vanish. More traditional in terms of the entertainment experience, New York-based Bella Notte and its headline act, the Unexpected Boys, takes the notion of live, staged events to find myriad ways to enhance the act until it too becomes an experience that connects with the audience.

In the case of a recent charity event, Brian Noonan, creative and managing director of Bella Notte and Unexpected Boys Entertainment Ltd., traveled to Washington D.C. to create a theatrical staged show experience. "The client wanted to offer something different for this huge gala for the SOME (So Others Might Eat) Charity which honored Bob Shieffer and the work this group accomplishes," Noonan explains.

The task of engaging the audience is always strategic, but becomes even more complicated when the space is so large that it becomes a barrier to that ever-so-important connection, especially between the audience and a group like the Unexpected Boys - a four-part harmony group.

The event was held at the National Building Museum in D.C. which is a stunning, yet cavernous venue constructed from brick and marble. "A potential sound nightmare," Noonan says. The next challenge was timing. "This was in a public space that closed at 5pm so no sound checks could take place until 5:01 and 900 guests were going to arrive at 6pm." When the team arrived it was instantly apparent that they were going to have issues with the echo.

They immediately dispatched their technical director, Greg Moreno, to the in-house sound production company to address this. "In order to ensure the best sound," Moreno says, "we used timed delays on the front of house and side fill speakers." The biggest save of all was setting up in-ear monitors. "With these," Noonan says, "Our lead vocalist could hear his voice and a little backing track in his ears. The rest of the vocalists needed a full mix of all four voices to complete the harmony and blend in their ears. Plus, this eliminated the need for onstage floor monitors which can clutter the stage."

For Noonan and the Unexpected Boys, the biggest takeaway of the experience was to trust their instincts. "When we heard the event space was a big museum hall, we immediately packed our in-ears just in case."

Those are the details which always exist and are always important. Take care of the details, it is said, and everything else falls in place. Yet entertainers such as the Unexpected Boys, Song Division and The Beckys are all looking at a bigger picture--one that creates an emotional, memorable experience for the audience that goes beyond the stage. And, it's clear that they are all looking for, and finding, this bigger picture with no fourth wall to obstruct their view.

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