Thursday, January 08, 2009

Guest Post: Participation Rocks!

This post was written by Screamin’ Scott Simon, member of the band Sha Na Na since 1970 and Nina’s father. While this post is not about museums, it tells the story of how a performance group developed participatory elements as an integral part of their show.

For most rock bands, the signature moment of audience participation is when the singer shouts “HELLO, CLEVELAND!” If the band happens to be in Cleveland that night, the audience feels included…”He’s talking to US!”

For the band I’ve been working with since 1970—Sha Na Na—this is not quite enough. We’ve always been a band that engages in play, whether that means wearing crazy costumes or interacting with the audience. We see the stage as a safe place for taking some participatory risks—we handpick volunteers who come up to dance and compete, and their terror, fame, and hijinks only last a few minutes. For our band, blending of audience members into the show (and the show into the audience) reinforces the idea that the show is “for kids of all ages” and that older guys onstage doing the Hokey Pokey or young kids coming up and doing the Hand Jive is something that is entertaining for everyone.

We started as ten guys in gold lame suits and 50’s street garb doing a rapidfire series of classic oldies. By 1973, we’d added our first audience participation segment, the Dance Contest. The idea came from the wife of one of the guys, although certainly dance contests have been a feature of rock & roll since Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand. The contest happened about 2/3 of the way through the show, and created a break from the endless stream of songs which preceded it. Originally the contestants were pre-screened and told to be at a specific place (the security gate keeping the audience away from backstage) at a specific time (“when we play In The Still of the Night, come to the security gate….”). As time went by, we realized we could actually descend into the audience in real time and pick women from the crowd, so that the impression that the dancers were “ringers” would be dispelled. It was a real contest, with actual contestants “who these guys have never met before.”

Since the contestants were legitimate, when asked their name, age, and high school the audience would feel an intense connection with the moment. And when the crowd became the judges and jury determining the outcome by their applause, their votes designated the winner (who won a dance with the ample Lennie Baker, the sensuous king of rock and roll). For a shining moment, it was the hometown women/girls who were the “stars.” Although the segment lasted less than 10 minutes, it was a bonding with the city we were playing in. It also provided some female presence onstage which otherwise was full of our guys only. The dancing guys from the band might even inquire about local high schools that THEY could claim to be from, and all of a sudden EVERYBODY in the contest was apparently from Cleveland (or wherever). Local kids make good!

In 1984, we replaced the Dance Contest with a new audience participation segment inspired by the presence of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles: The Greaser Olympics. Again it was three contestants competing, this time in a Greaser Triathalon: the limbo, the hula hoop, and the twist. The big payoff was the presentation of the gold, silver, and bronze medals against a backdrop of the three coaches holding 5 hula hoops in the Olympic symbol, while the contestants were being serenaded by the Statue of Lennie (dressed as the Statue of Liberty) singing a slightly altered version of “Only in America.” For the Olympics, we broadened our reach, choosing contestants without regard to age or gender. In fact, the then 5-year-old Nina Simon was a repeat gold medal Olympian. Her hula-hooping was show-stopping. If there were two females and one male as contestants, the boy/man would often win mainly because of the audience’s sympathy for the poor guy.

Another ten years passed, a period during which there was a female in the act. When the last of the four women who filled the role departed, there were some couple-dance segments that needed to be filled, and once again we looked to the audience. We’d grab one woman for a twist dance (“Cmon baby, Let’s do the Twist” being taken literally). Then another woman is chosen to do the Stroll. Eventually we also invited people onstage to prove they were “Born to Hand Jive,” males to do the Hokey Pokey, and finally a female to be the object of desire during “Save the Last Dance for Me.” These five songs in a row are still a staple of the opening “At the Hop” segment of the show, frontloading the audience participation and literally bringing the audience into the show right from the start. The performers are no longer icons to be stared at from afar. The audience is literally in on it.

How do we pick our participants? Finding “willing victims” from the audience involves a very quick sizing-up of people who are seated near the stage and actively engaged as audience. Some of these participatory songs give us only 12 measures (not a lot of time!) to get someone onstage. The most basic rule of thumb is that willing participants add more vitality to their role than those who are reluctant and resist being dragged onstage. We don’t bring anyone onstage who doesn’t want to be there if possible, because they won’t put energy into whatever it is we ask them to do, and the show will suffer for their discomfort being so obvious. No one is forced to participate. We try and find likely suspects, and “pick on” them. We want them to succeed, to win.

But it’s not easy. They don’t know what they are getting into when they show up at the concert. They shrink from participating. They look down. Or they are drunk and you don’t want them onstage because they’ll be out of control. You want them to be a little cowed, a little awed, but you also want them to be enthusiastic.

Sometimes no one wants to volunteer—but they want to volunteer someone else. I often see someone who is actively volunteering their spouse, their kid, their friend….standing and waving and pointing “Pick THIS ONE” while the person they are pointing at is looking very uncomfortable. I approach the person doing all the waving and pointing, look at the person they are pointing at, then look back to the waver… and grab the waver’s hand. Invariably they shrink in horror at thought of going onstage themselves. The person who was being pointed at immediately springs to life…supporting the justice in their victimizer being transformed into the victim. I merely say “This is what you get for volunteering someone ELSE” and drag the waver/pointer onstage. All in good fun.

Are there times when we don’t do the Olympics or bring people up to dance? It’s rare. Sometimes, we’ll read the audience, see that they are having a great time on their own—especially at a private party where we’re a kind of live jukebox for their dancing and fun—and skip it. You can’t create enough energy to support the participation without a critical mass. It’s one thing to grab a person and do a dance. It’s another thing to pull up three people and ask everyone else to applaud and vote when there are only 60 of them in the room—it feels like there’s nobody there.

Ultimately the use of the audience onstage is a demystification of the theory that only “professionals” should be exposed to performing in the spotlight, as “regular” people turn out in many cases to take very entertaining turns onstage. It’s their enthusiasm that shines through. After thousands of performances, we’ve developed a sixth sense as to which audience members will most likely enhance the moment. We grab them, we briefly coach them as to what they have to do, and they succeed almost every time. For a brief moment they become stars. They get their five minutes of fame. Friends and family rush to the front to take cellphone photos and memorialize the moment that someone they know was onstage with Sha Na Na. We let them take a bow and escort them back beyond the footlights to rejoin their fellows. And then…… on with the show!

2 comments, add yours!:

Alan M said...

Nina-
What a wonderful guest post. Not only for what it says about Sha Na Na & the art of crowd participation, but for the peek into your family life & into the creative mind behind Museum 2.0. As I read your dad's piece, I kept thinking: "Ohhh... that passion for engagement & interactivity & life -- it runs in the family!" ... Thanks for sharing it.

Jennifer Rae Atkins said...

What a great post, and what an important reminder of the value of including non-professionals in professional endeavors.

My most enduring memories of musical events and concerts have to do with some measure of audience participation, now that I think about it. I saw a Japanese punk band called Guitar Wolf not only pull someone onstage, but hang a guitar around his neck and nod enthusiastically as he tried to play. The country singer Don Williams, at a show at the New Mexico State Fair rodeo, sang his song "Amanda"—then humbly sang it again in appreciation for the audience's response. It felt like a unique, special moment where we, the audience, shared something with the performer. (In both these cases, Guitar Wolf and Don Williams, I saw them do the same thing at a second show, which made it seem gimmicky…How do you avoid that?)

It goes the other way, too, with a not-so-pleasant kind of audience engagement: heckling. When I saw June Carter open for Johnny Cash in 1997, some of the Johnny-fans-come-lately in the audience brutally heckled June during her set. "Shut your trap, bring Johnny out!" I can only assume they had no clue who she was. "Stop talking!" they'd yell during her stories. It was embarrassing and painful to witness.

My husband would like me to add that he bought a Sha Na Na live record when he was a kid in the '70s. He just about wore it out playing it at top volume…except for one instance of the f-word, which he had to skip over to avoid his parents' attention.