A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#12 Ladies and gentlemen, could you please welcome…
First published in Trad and Now magazine, August 2008
A former housemate of mine would often look askance at me whenever I mentioned the concept of masters of ceremonies (MCs) at folk festivals. More used to the rock, pop and dance festivals, to her the thought of having someone bob up between acts to announce and back-announce the talent was novel.
I offered the opinion that if you’re at a major rock festival, you’re probably not likely to need much more prompting about the next act further than someone off-stage mumbling, ‘Give it up for Crowded House!’ or ‘Let’s hear it, folks, for Silverchair!’
(It is of course at this point the writer pauses while certain readers look up and ask aloud: “Who or what is Silverchair?”)
Folk festivals are slightly different, bringing together as they do, a mix of soloists, duos, bands, choirs, and poets from the local region, interstate and abroad. While a program can give a sketchy outline, and while some artists may be extremely well-known, it’s not always the case that an audience fronts up to a performance where the artist truly does need no introduction.
Added to that, there is the festival goer who pays little or no heed to the program and just drifts around from venue to venue, taking pot luck or Russian Roulette on whatever they stumble upon. For them, it helps to have some idea of what’s going on, and maybe a little geographical and background information.
To inform and illuminate, to recall for that possible CD purchase, and to recommend to friends and confederates back at the session bar or camp-site. “You just gots to see [insert new discovery here]’.
I spoke to a few people who’ve been MCs, variously for many and few years, to get a feel for the motivations and interests that prompt one to pick up a mic to promote the talents of others.
Russell Hannah has been on the job for over 25 years.
I’m sorry; I’ll read that again.
Russell Hannah has had the job of MC-ing for over 25 years. Russell is part of the furniture at the Illawarra Folk Club and festival. It was here that he started MC-ing, mostly because, as he freely offers, he can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t play a musical instrument. But being a union representative at the local TAFE meant he was used to getting up and speaking to people.
‘In fact, being an MC sometimes feels like teaching a class!’ Russell said.
Russell’s very big on emphasising that the artist is the most important part of the equation for an MC to consider. That may sound self-evident, but you might be surprised how many times that simple fact is forgotten.
‘I always ask what they want their MC to say. Mostly they’re pretty laid-back about it all.’
We chat for a while about some of the lessons from ‘MCs 101’ that are important to follow: always mention when the act’s appearing again, say if they’ve got CDs to sell and where those are available. This last point is important as different festivals have different rules about sales of CDs from the side of the stage, and one that springs to mind will only allow sales through the official CD shop.
Depending on what sort of schedule the artist’s had, they might need a gentle reminder too. ‘Where are we again this week?!’
Russell doesn’t mind having a couple of schooners before getting on stage (of course, if that’s allowed by the relevant festival), and like many seasoned MCs, he loves it when people yell out from the audience.
‘That’s OK,’ says Russell, to any taunts or heckles. ‘I’ ve got the mic!’
I spoke to a lesser experienced MC who worked two years running at a regional NSW festival. Her motivation was that she wanted to be a volunteer but wanted to do something that would keep her around the artists. What better way to do that than to be on and beside/behind the stage?
She learnt a very handy lesson early on; as a general rule you leave the artist to themselves before they go on stage. Everyone is different, of course, but many artists will want to get in the right frame of mind before a performance, so reading their body language is vital before bowling up to them and instigating a chat about what they’d like mentioned by way of introduction.
At a large festival this year I watched as a national pop artist went into something of a protective bubble backstage for about 30-40 minutes before taking the stage, to the point where even the other members of the band stayed away from them. The pre-show spell was literally only broken within about 30 seconds of their going on.
Conversely, at the same festival, a very famous national star of stage and small/large screen spent the pre-set time hanging out with the volunteers backstage, cracking them up with an MA15+-rated version of a hilarious story from the previous night that he later tidied up and recounted in a PG version on stage.
Underpinning and directing the schedule of MCs at festivals is usually the task of a hard-working, and occasionally harried, MC convenor or coordinator. Rose Broe from the Woodford Folk Festival came to the role of coordinator by stealth about 14 years ago when she was asked to help someone out in the role, which at the time she reluctantly agreed to. When the other party left the scene, it was then up to Rose to take on the role on her own.
“It took a while to get into the job, and I’ve been honing and tweaking it since then,” says Rose. ‘It’s getting better and better, but it’s also getting bigger and bigger!’
Rose has a large team of MCs and the group necessarily changes from year to year. The job of putting together the roster is an on and off, part-time job for two to three months, and then three weeks full-time leading up to the festival that starts on Boxing Day.
‘Putting the roster together is like making a patchwork quilt!’
Rose says that the role of MC coordinator is an exercise in trust. ‘You have people you don’t know from Jackie and you have to trust that they’re going to turn up. It usually goes well with perhaps one minor disaster each year.’
‘I’m always learning a lot about people and commitment, and working with a big team.’
I asked Rose for her most memorable moment from her time as coordinator and she needed little hesitation: ‘Early on, I was getting ready for the Boxing Day MCs’ briefing when a huge storm hit. It was so big it nearly blew my whole tent away. Everything was completely saturated and papers were blowing everywhere. But I just ran around after them, gathered them up and got it back together!’
The show must go on.
Thank you for being a great reader. If you could straighten the page on your way out and take your rubbish with you, that would be grand. Enjoy the rest of your festival, I mean, magazine.