(Sharpening my skills with these lovely ladies from The Beverly Belles, in Santa Monica, California. www.thebeverlybelles.com)
When I moved to Las Vegas to continue my vocal career, I saw performers just like me earning money at tradeshows during the day, before heading to the theatre at night. So I signed up with a few modeling agencies, and a pattern began to emerge on my assignments at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Standing at a corner booth in the freezing cold air-conditioning, I gave out branded bags for nine hours a day in stilettoes and a tight dress. Or sometimes biking shorts. Or another ridiculous costume related to the theme of the show.
But around every corner, there were talented speakers on the stages giving presentations every hour on the hour. They did most of the work at home prepping the material, and they had a lighter schedule than the booth models. They earned more money and wore sensible, warm suits instead of “booth babe” attire.
I can do that. Where do I sign up for THAT?
The potential was obvious. But how does one break in? Hmm. Maybe a good hosting class. So my friend Sam and I found one and enrolled.
Class time was packed with practical information, from equipment to marketing. Our teacher was dynamic. “Tradeshows happen in major cities every single week, especially right here in Vegas. There’s a lot of money to be made in hosting!”
Well, dag! I wanted a piece of that pie. By the end of the session, we learned that we needed a reel to show off our skills and preparedness.
Our teacher recommended a personal friend of his to make our reels. Sam and I contacted this woman, let’s call her “Miss Dodgers”, and paid her about two hundred-fifty dollars each for a shiny new hosting reel. She would shoot AND edit it! We were giddy. This is happening.
Step one, choose a location. She was going to work with us both at the same time, so that we could do one of the segments in tandem. Fun banter back and forth! Like real anchors! Glee!
Sam and I bought new outfits, bought all new ear-prompt equipment, and scoured advertisements and other material for ideas. We spent time writing and editing good copy to say into camera. We even took a trip to scout the Erotic History Museum as a possible location, thinking that the Vegas market would be receptive to at least one “edgy” segment in the style of a news story.
On the first day of shooting, we show up at Fashion Show Mall and meet Miss Dodgers to record the first segment. And as soon I as see her, I realize… something is up.
Pro shooters carry big camera bags, with lapel microphones, a tripod, and maybe one extra light for indoor situations. Instead, she had a hand-held digital camcorder. And nothing else.
Maybe I was considered green in Vegas, but this was NOT my first rodeo. I knew very well that the quality of whatever we were going to do at the mall with a Sears Family Handi-Cam was going to be exactly garbage.
Her plan was to get the shot of us talking about an event while riding the escalator up. She would stand below us, shooting upwards.
This posed unavoidable problems. What about ambient noise? What about the lighting? What about nose hairs? I had already paid this lady and I could feel the money falling out of my wallet.
I started asking questions. Oh boy. Miss Dodgers didn’t account for freshman graduates of her friends’ hosting class to know the difference between amateur and professional quality. Defensive and embarrassed, she insisted we try. So we went with it.
As predicted, It was too dark, too loud, and looked exactly like some chick with a get-rich-quick-scheme had nothing else to do that afternoon but film a couple of kids playing “host” on an escalator. People in the background wore confused expressions as they passed by with shopping bags.
That night at work Sam tried to raise my spirits by impersonating our teacher. “You know, Elly”, he joked, “there’s a lot of money to be made in hosting”.
“Sam, I don’t think I want her to film us at the Erotic History Museum. Or anywhere else”.
We never recovered the money.
It takes a long, long, long time to develop good craft in any discipline. Singing, speaking, and business skills all take the same kind of heat and pressure as diamonds. Mistakes must be made. Butts have to painfully hit the floor. Who to work with, and what to work on, are high-stakes decisions.
And then there is the material itself! One of my favorite pianist friends says that in order to sing a song, you have to wear it like a comfortable suit. There can be no questions in your mind about the lyrics, and no half-hearted choices.
Imagine buying an expensive suit “off the rack”. It’s the same suit that’s available to everyone else for the same price. Now imagine tailoring that suit to fit your body. Make a nip here, a tuck there. Adjust the hemline for your height. With the addition of a colorful scarf, dazzling watch, and a nifty belt, you are suddenly wearing a unique outfit—in a way that nobody else thought to try.
Artwork and lifework demands this level of personalization in order to stand out from the crowd. Audiences are very smart, and they can tell immediately if we are simply singing the version that came from the store without telling them loud and clear WHO WE ARE and HOW WE WEAR IT.
Nobody wore a song like Nancy LaMott. Her “clothes” fit her spectacularly. If we were to try them on, we may like the way we look in them, but ultimately people can tell whether or not we are wearing our own clothes. Suddenly we’re on an episode of “Bit&h Stole My Look”. I don’t want to be THAT girl! Or worse, we come across like a toddler trying to wear Mommy’s shoes. Stacy London would be mortified. Eyebrows would be raised.
This call for distinct personalization serves all art forms. I’ve seen a number of magicians perform the same types of tricks. But the magicians I remember the most are the ones who have personalized their unique point of view, informing every choice they make in their performance.
Take the snow trick, for example, where they make it snow in the theatre. It's called "Snowstorm in China". Plenty of magicians copy a standard monologue when they perform this trick. I had one friend, though, who incorporated an entire companion video he shot of himself making it snow for a bunch of local kids down in Central America. He set it to ethnic music, and it was absolutely captivating to watch kids in the tropical heat see snow for the very first time. Their reactions, in slow-motion, made the whole thing genuinly special.
It made every other performance look like "just a boring dude in a shiny jacket".
But we mustn’t despair, because everyone starts out as a boring dude in a shiny jacket. At the age of fourteen I was copying every single thing about the sound of Judy Kuhn’s voice. She was my favorite, and I was desperate to sound exactly like that. At the age of twenty-two I was appearing in cabaret performances I was unready to give, using a music stand to hold my lyrics in front of me. Ooof.
So we develop self-forgiveness, and allow heat, pressure, and mistakes to shape us into something interesting. Sometimes we accidentally pay the wrong people to help us. But we make a few discoveries, and add a few flourishes, and put on our unique outfits.
And then…eventually…the forces we called on during our preparation rush to our side and scream JUST GO FOR IT! And keep going.
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
What’s the best thing that could happen?
See where I’m going with this? I am proud to report that these days, if I'm working a tradeshow, I'm in a toasty warm suit.
“Eye on the target and wham, one shot, one gunshot and BAM. Hey Mister Arnstein….here I am!” --Funny Girl