Thursday, July 12, 2012

Emcees: More than Just a Pretty Voice - Essay

Below is a lightly edited version of my column which appears on the second Tuesday of each month on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association web site. As always, I look forward to any discussion this essay might engender..

The role of emcee at a bluegrass festival is often underestimated as crucial cog keeping the event rolling along while providing support for the vendors, information for the fans, and discipline for the performers. It's a difficult task which requires preparation, presence, and personality.

Often bluegrass promoters hire a local or regional radio personality to serve as emcee (Master of Ceremonies) for a bluegrass festival. Such people, even on small local stations, often have voices that ring with authority and strength. Many effective people are quite well known as emcees and model strong skills. In the east and Midwest, people like Sherry Boyd, Cindy Baucom, Martin Anderson, Wayne Bledsoe, and Katy Daley are often hired to serve as emcees. Each of these people does their homework, arrives prepared, and keeps the festival moving forward. Let's take a look at the job.

Emcees function, essentially, as the on-stage voice of the promoter. Their primary job, along with the stage manager if there is one, is to keep the event on schedule and on task while introducing the next entertainment and being at least a bit entertaining themselves. This is no easy task and requires the able cooperation of the sound crews and the bands themselves. Often we see emcees arrive on stage not having the slightest idea who the band they're introducing is or what kind of experiences they've had or sound they produce. The job requires that the emcees arrive at the event knowing who the band is. Few emcees wish to have scripts written by the promoter about the band supplied to them to read from the stage and a brief interview with a member of the band is insufficient. Nearly all bands have web sites carrying all the necessary information about the their personnel, schedule, and history. Effective emcees know the bands and have done their homework. The performance should not turn out to be as much a surprise to the emcee as it does to the audience.

A most important part of the job requires the emcee to let the band know how much time they have left in their set to enable or require them to complete it within the schedule. To do this, the emcee must be aware of the schedule, the pace and habits of the band, and other factors that may throw the schedule off. Some bands are notorious for going over their time. The emcee must know about this tendency, plan for it, and have the authority to discipline the band when it doesn't comply with the requirements. This authority should be strong enough to include instructing the sound crew to turn off the sound when a band's control of the stage becomes too noxious. Promoters provide a schedule and emcees should be able to exercise enough influence to enforce it.

Controlling encores is a major factor in keeping on schedule. If an encore is provided to all, or nearly all, bands, it becomes a meaningless recognition and a waste of the time taken to bring the band back on stage. Some festivals adhere to a principle which eliminates all encores during the day, thus allowing the hour-long supper break to run its entire scheduled length. Encores in the evening, if there is no venue requirement to end the music by a certain time, allow for some flexibility in schedule. Nevertheless, audiences should be left calling for more rather than sitting on their hands while a few adherents egg the emcee on to prolong the affair by calling a band back. The encore should be a cherished recognition of a great performance.

Too many emcees show a need to fill time by talking when they're on stage. Katy Daley is quite adept at saying, “I'm going to step aside to let the band and sound crew do their sound check now,” before returning to the mic with the the band's introduction. During this time between sets, emcees sometimes resort to talking about themselves and their experiences; always a mistake no matter how interesting they are. The show is never about the emcee. Some of the time between sets should be used to focus on the wares of each vendor as well as upcoming events in the region. This gives emcees an excuse to visit the vendors, sample their offerings, and familiarize themselves with the wares. During changeover is also the time to remind audiences of workshops and other events at the venue as well as prohibitions against smoking and requests for restraint from chatting during the music. Timing and emphasis are important here, as audiences can only digest so much information at once. When the emcee drones on, audiences tune out. Also, it helps the sound crew work with the band if there is quiet from the emcee on stage for part of the changeover.

The job of being an emcee is a big one; probably too big for one person to undertake during a three or four day event where there is no stage manager appointed. The teamwork between a stage manager and emcee is an important aspect of maintaining the pace of a well-run festival. In areas where lots of competent people are available, emcees can team up to work together, but a good stage manager is important unless the emcee can act as both. It takes both solid preparation and careful presentation to provide the glue that holds a festival together. That's an emcees job, and it is difficult. Promoters should think seriously about the entire job of stage managing and emceeing before making a decision to save money on it. Like sound, light, and many other aspects of presenting the performance aspect of a bluegrass festival, the full range of skills required for a good emcee should be considered and then the best person or persons available should be selected.