Emceeing: the thinking behind writing the 11/4 two-hour show script

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On 11/4/12 the Golden Gate Marin County Barbershoppers performed the two-hour show called “Barbershopping from Coast to Coast” at the Civic Center in San Rafael. (See the actual script on the blog mentioned below.)

I wrote and emceed that show, so let me share the thinking that went behind its preparation and editing.

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First, before we get into copy prep, let me suggest three related blogs about emceeing, plus four speaking products here. What do I know about emceeing and speaking? See Gordon Burgett for more information about the 2000+ paid speaking/emceeing performances I’ve given.)

* “Emceeing: how to write a script that works!” (posted 7/3/12)
* “Emceeing or show planning: What to remember when prepping a one-hour presentation” (posted 8/7/12)
* “Emceeing: a full script for a two-hour show” (posted 11/4/12) This is the script talked about in this “the thinking behind…” blog.

* A new $4.95 ebook including the above blogs plus more how-to information is at “Emceeing, Show Planning, and Script Writing,” plus an excellent booklet, “How to Be a Great Emcee” from SpeakerNetNews ($4.85) is buyable, full of current, applicable “emceeing” information.

* “Four Special Tools That Get Speakers Booked First!” (ebook, available through order form or from Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords)
* “How to Set Up and Market Your Own Seminar” (audio seminar with workbook, available through order form)

This blog is the fourth of the emceeing series: * “Emceeing: the thinking behind writing the 11/4 two-hour show script (12/26/12)

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Writing the 11/4/12 script was more complex than emceeing the show.

Since I had written several B/S shows in Marin County (and for an earlier chapter in Santa Maria, CA), the “show committee” asked me to go at it again.

We needed a general theme to wrap the singing around, since we were already blessed with an excellent stage/theater at the Civic Center in San Rafael, CA, where we had given the last six or eight shows, always the first Sunday afternoon in November. Its maximum capacity was about 300, and we usually drew almost that many paying attendants, at $15 (seniors) or $20 (general audience). That also included a lighting technician and some set-up help, plus ticket selling through the County Box Office and at the show. (There were plenty of practice and dressing rooms, plus easy access for the stage rafters.)

I asked the show committee to pick the theme. President Obama was elected to his second term a few days after the show, so politics was suggested. So was travel, and a few other ideas. They had used the political theme once before and there was some reluctance about the possible partisanship. The enthusiasm for travel was somewhat muted too, but we agreed on a sort of cross-country bus trip for the chorus where we could sing the 15 or so songs at the locale that made the most sense, like “Coney Island Babe” when we were near New York and “Route 66” as we crossed from Chicago to L.A.

Many Barbershop shows are rather simple in structure because the choir only knows so many songs, can only learn four or five more (if they’re not too complex), and choreography can’t be too involved or require too much dexterity because the group is usually in their 60’s plus, stiff, standing on risers (some rather precariously), and already encumbered with new lyrics, the notes, and the order of the script, and are reticent to flap around.

So the driving force will be the emcee, a few singing actors, the imported acts, quartets, and the occasional line delivered by a chorus member on cue. Most of the music is unaccompanied (there is a starting pitch note). Sometimes background music or sound comes from a tape projected from the sound booth. There are usually three microphones: the emcee has one and there is a dual microphone in the center of the stage to pick up chorus and quartet sounds. Finally, there is a spotlight, or several, directed at the action from behind the audience (or from the sound booth).

Those are your tools if you are writing the show. I’ve found it most productive to let the committee set out the format, suggest any innovations, propose any changes from the usual shows, and select the theme (and maybe title). After that, I ask the director for any ideas/help he can offer plus the rough order he’d like the songs sung. I then write a rough draft and send it to the director and committee members, ask for any suggestions or ideas (again), modify the draft, and then post it on a website, and ask the chorus to look at it and offer ideas/suggestions. Then I pretty much pound it out and show it to the director, and thus the show is born. (If you don’t take control of the script at about mid-point, chorus members will be tinkering and dabbling with every line until show time.)

Here were the components of the 11/4/12 Marin show: (1) travel was the theme, (2) “Barbershopping from Coast to Coast” was the title, and (3) two acts, the first, “the show,” the second, the invited headliner quartet, local quartets, and the chorus for four more songs. To that we added a well known local entertainer (a Spike Jones imitator).

I proposed that we start the show with a noisy bang-bang act, without introduction (since traditionally the shows were too wordy and slow at the outset.) We’d have Joe Bondanza (Spike Jones) walk onto the extended stage (with the curtain drawn behind) to sing “Mule Train,” then the emcee in a gaudy costume and a high black magician’s hat would come through the curtain, bow, walk over to the lectern on the left side, the curtain would part, a few words would be spoken, the group would be introduced as it entered and climbed the risers. They’d start singing “I Want a Girl…”

The only thing different was that the emcee was a poet, and inside his high hat were a billion words from which to make his talking poetry—if he couldn’t find a rhyme, he’d take off the hat, thump it hard, and from the assorted words that came out he’d find the proper ending.

So I had to write the script in poetry, and also deliver it loudly and clearly so the audience could hear every word.

We had to create the image of a bus, so we had the singers on the ends of the risers hold a hood or the back bumper. The group also entered carrying suitcases, which they stacked in front of or behind the bus. They wore travel togs: hats, jackets, scarves…

From there the emcee explained where they were and indirectly introduced the songs, and the chorus and quartets provided the music as they visited Coney Island, Philadelphia, the South, Chicago to Joplin to Barstow, Route 66, the Range, San Francisco, and ended with “God Bless America.”

What I had in mind when I put the frame of the script together, then fine tuned it, was that the show must move quickly, have lots of fun in it, set up the songs as best I could, make the transitions as smooth as possible, and keep the same spirit and drive up in the second half that we created in the first part.

In fact, all I knew about “Spike Jones” was that he was funny and very reliable professionally. (We spoke for about five minutes before the show, and he understood why he was the opener in both acts. He was a great choice.)

It was somewhat the same with the highlight guest quartet, called Prime Time, two lads and two lasses. They gave me their introduction when we met about 30 minutes before the show began; they had been on the stage for about 20 minutes before that so they could figure out the microphone, the stage, and the lights. That was it: I relied on the others who selected them that they were capable. Turned out they were excellent. I lucked out twice. (I much prefer to have heard some performance tapes and get their introduction a week or two in advance, but it simply didn’t happen here—and it wasn’t needed.)

The rest of my interaction with the group before the day of the show was with one committee member who was script liaison. Bill liked the script from the beginning, and really gave me full reign.

And, of course, with the chorus director, Phil DeBar, who was a veteran at performing and staging. He too liked the poetry idea (I vacillated about it from the beginning to the end, and am still not sure it made a lot of sense, but others seemed to think it was clever, the hat with a billion words was funny, and it added another positive dimension.) With Phil we mostly positioned the songs and the pacing, then it was up to me to make it happen. He fit in perfectly, adding fun and gusto to the songs.

Once we had the order ironed out, the final songs chosen, and knew what would work in the second act about getting the quartets on and off, the chorus on the risers, all of the end-of-the-show acknowledgements of the performing groups, and the joining together to sing our usual closer, “Keep the Whole World Singing,” then I could tinker with the wording of my emcee script—just so I kept all the rest intact. (I was the only person with the word-by-word final script, which I had to follow closely because of the rhyming in each line, in Act One.)

All shows have zero-hour changes. It turns out that I had forgotten that before the intermission we asked all who wished to deposit a business card (or the info on small sheets we had on the table, with pencils) so we could award free tickets to next year’s show—and add the participants to out elist for the annual show promotion in 2013.

“Who will announce the raffle and the winners?” I was asked about five minutes before Spike Jones baffled the audience. Mike, our treasurer, was in charge of the raffle, so I asked him if he could do that. Just step to the front of the stage, near the end of Act One, and before Spike Jones returned for Act Two. He did like a pro, and I just wrote in the spots he would appear, I turned to him, and Mike kept the words to a minimum in his sophisticated English accent. Whew!

That was it, really. I had a few friends in the chorus with stage background and I asked them if/where my patter could be shortened and sharpened, and each had a thought or two (you don’t see the deletions here, but they amounted to about four lines).

As I reread the show now, I see that I spoke too much in the beginning. Yet others didn’t see that, feeling that the words settled the audience after the antics of “Spike Jones” and gave the chorus some time to adjust before singing. Others were very kind in their post-show comments, so I believe it worked well.

That’s a bit of insight into the emceeing and writing. I hope it helps.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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