Writing Great Themed Shows 2

DON’T WASTE MY TIME

To a Guest the only thing more precious than their money is their time. They have only so long before the park closes (or the children implode) and there are (hopefully) so many rides and shows to choose from; if they invest part of their day in your efforts, you’d better provide something that starts ‘paying off’ in a hurry.

There are a great many ways we waste the Guests’ time; some have become second nature. The most obvious is the show opener that begs for an unearned enthusiastic response. “Are you having fun today?” The Guests respond with some cheers. “Oh, come on! I said, ARE YOU HAVING FUN TODAY?!” Repeat until the show director has beaten the crowd into ‘enthusiasm’. If this happened once a day it would be one thing, but the Guest spending a week in Orlando gets this in every show at every attraction for seven days.

The worst offender I’ve seen is a certain piracy-themed dinner show that divides the crowd into four teams before the ‘Big Competition’. The show host asks each group, “How will you cheer for your champion? And how will you boo the other side?” He proceeds to make the rounds of each section with these questions multiple times, back and forth, round and round… apparently deaf to the fact that the standing, enthusiastic cheers he got the first time around are dwindling to apathetic sighs; and all this before anybody has done anything worth cheering for. By the time the competition begins, the crowd has been effectively drained of any enthusiasm whatsoever.

You can bet that the first time this was performed the actor made the rounds of the room once, and the crowd’s response was fine. But the actor reacts to the high of the noise and the cheers and his position and then one day he goes around a second time. It’s like a drug… and the performer goes on chasing that high over a long run and the bit gets longer and who is there to call him on it? At moments like this I can often spot someone from the ranks of management standing off to one side, similarly pleased with the moment and not giving too much thought to what the Guest may be experiencing. Moments like this must be watched for and controlled throughout the long run of a show.

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Involving the Guest in the show is a wonderful thing if that involvement comes naturally (and if the show doesn’t come screeching to a halt for those who aren’t taking part in the bit). Otherwise it can be viewed as a terrific waste of time.

At Fort Liberty we had four points of direct Guest interaction built into the evening. Each was clearly connected to the attraction theme and advanced the story being told.

In the first, the waiter deputized the man nearest the aisle to supervise food distribution for the table. Born of necessity, it also served to cast him in a role in the cavalry theme and promoted similar interaction among the Guests at his table. At the end of the evening he was cheered by his tablemates and presented with a grandly executed certificate for ‘Honorable Service’.

Our next participation moment came after a medley of country/western love songs when the band broke into a spirited instrumental. Cavalry Soldiers are a naturally rowdy bunch. Combine that idea with a family attraction… a young, healthy wait staff… beer & wine service… and the men of Fort Liberty had no trouble finding partners eager to fill the aisles or take the stage to dance with their waiter. This involved only the women (generally the family member most willing to participate), built quickly and ended before it became tiresome; and it planted the seed for what would follow.

Main Course service started with a medley of Western Themes from TV & the Movies. After the food had been distributed and everyone had a chance to eat a bit, the Fort Commander would put the call out for New Recruits. The wait staff would encourage small children to step onstage for inspection and close-order drill; no one would be coerced (at least not by our staff). The bit was long enough to draw the kids in… the inspection process was built for comic interaction with the Commander, thus keeping those without a kid onstage entertained… and the drill made for a nice photo opportunity for the parents. It also, I noticed, gave the parents a nice breather to have the kids onstage and away from the table for a while; they could eat and drink in peace.

Having had the women and children onstage in featured roles made it easier then to drag the Daddies up for the show finale, a comic recreation of Custer’s Last Stand. Every man got a cavalry uniform and no one had to portray the Indians, since we had a family of real American Natives in the show. It also helped that this was toward the end of the evening when the beer & wine had loosened up the ‘troops’.

In this way, everyone that wanted to had a chance to shine, everyone got to see their family members onstage and pictures were taken (and shared with the folks back home) that showed us off to advantage, properly publicizing the attraction.

Meanwhile, back on the high seas — the piratical dinner show finished with a massive attack on the pirate ship, using all the men in the audience as mutineers and all the children as British troops, thus clearing the house of all but the women. The sheer numbers of people involved meant that no one had a chance to shine… and at the show’s climactic moment almost the entire audience was onstage where they couldn’t see what was happening. Meanwhile, management patted themselves on the back for getting such a large part of the audience ‘involved’.

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Another way we waste the Guests’ time is by repeating ourselves. When creating material for a franchised character there is a strong tendency to repeat dialogue and bits of business that the Guests have already seen spoken or enacted by the original.

The reasoning is, “The Guest expects to see the bit,” and that’s true enough; but that kind of thinking stifles creativity and takes the audience ā€“ and the actor — out of the moment, turning what could be an exciting, original encounter into an exercise in nostalgia. It’s better to think, “The Guest expects the behavior,” and build something new on the bones of the original.

Stage adaptations of film material, particularly based on animated films, are everywhere nowadays… and some wonderful work is being done there. Guests love to hear the songs they love and parents enjoy taking their kids to see their favorite characters live and on stage.

One drawback is the inherent invitation to compare performances. A singing teapot in a movie, brilliantly animated, becomes a dancing crate onstage, spectacular effects are replaced with flats & mylar and the limitations of the live venue are emphasized, if not for the children then for their parents (whom we are supposed to be just as dedicated to enchanting).

It can’t hurt to keep in mind that these characters have a life beyond the original tale; they surely have other tales to tell, tales they’d love to share and better suited to the strengths of the current medium ā€“ thus building on prior friendship and deepening the experience for everyone.

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Recently a performer’s skill at playing improvisational games has become the standard by which potential cast members and guides are judged. While improv skills and comfort in spontaneous performing are a good thing, this has led to certain places where the games themselves have been substituted for original show content.

For an audience looking to be personally involved in the story being told, improv games are a great way to waste time. They take all the focus off of the Guests’ experience and put it on the performers’ cleverness and skill.

It falls to the writer to keep the focus on the Guests’ Point of View. Each beat of the new show should provide more information, advance the plot or deepen the characters ā€“ thus encouraging the audience to invest themselves further in the experience. Any moment that can be perceived as ‘marking time’ or ‘treading water’ becomes a waste of time when the Guest is left waiting for the next remarkable moment to come along.

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About Ron Schneider

Creative Consultant, Lecturer, Freelance Writer, Director & Show Doctor, Actor and Voice-Over. Lifelong student of themed interactive entertainment.
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