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Reality

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Apr. 10th, 2012 | 06:34 pm

I said no the first six times.

The seventh year, the seventh season, after an hour-long phone call with William the freelance producer, I think, well, it’s in my mom’s city, and there’s money in it, and this project we’re working on, the one that can’t get booked because nobody’s ever heard of it? It could use some exposure. And I say, “Yes.”

And, with William, I start mapping out the act.

“What the producers really like is the fire trick,” he says. “But bigger. Can you add some aerialists?”

William thinks it’s important it be big. America’s Got Lawsuits (If You Reveal The Outcome Before The Episode Airs) is focusing on group acts this year. I know one fire-dancer, two jugglers, six acrobats and a pole dance team that have done this show. I know fifty more entertainers who will never do this show, who have said no seven times.

I know we’re not going to win.

I know the contract says “Producers of America’s Got Lawsuits reserve the right to determine the winner by any means they choose.” I’ve heard about the holding rooms, about showing up at 7AM in full hair and makeup and waiting in a convention center ballroom full of chairs for twelve hours, for three days, and then being told, “Everyone else, sorry, you won’t be doing your acts in this round, you’ll be flying home tomorrow.”

William has gone through the act with me. We have storyboarded every four seconds and provided a recommended shot list to the director. Everyone in the act has been issued a plane ticket, a room at the Hyatt, and a list of instructions from Aubrey, our perky brunette Production Assistant.

“Remember guys!” chirps Aubrey, “Never look directly into the camera! It ruins the shot!”

I have met the rigger and the pyrotechnician; we have run the full act once and the fire section three times, for the stage manger, the director, and the fire marshal.

And here we are.

The glossy black stage gleams.

The new judge on the left, a shock jock brought in to expand the demographic, wears his sunglasses all the time. The lady in the middle, married to someone famous, smiles supportively. The man on the right twirls the straw in his water bottle. (“Fist bumps only!” said Aubrey, “No handshakes, no hugs!”) He will not drink from anything not handed to him wrapped in a towel, his assistant hovers out of frame with a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Up to this point, we have been guessing what role we will be cast in, how the editors will choose to show us to America. The pre-interview questions—

“Could you say that again, but touch on your street performer background?”

“Could you phrase it something like, ‘This is our big chance?’”

“Just say, ‘We’re here to win’, and make it really big, OK?”

“Can we do that again? One of you glanced at the camera.”

Our guess on the edit is Small Time Big Dreams or Scruffy But Driven.

Before we start the act, the sunglassed judge tells us he thinks street performing is sad and pathetic. We talk about theatricality, about performing for people regardless of their ability to pay, about shows for war orphans in Kosovo. I don’t know if any of that will fit our eventual edit. The lady judge smiles supportively. The straw twirler twirls, and we hold briefly for a new water bottle and a squirt of sanitizer. He’s given a new straw and unwraps it himself, the assistant taking the end of the paper wrapper without touching him.

With a burst of nothing—the sound cue is late—our act begins. The sound kicks in. The singer sings. The aerialists spin in a whirl of colored fabric. The fire-eaters await their cue. And at second number thirty-nine of the act that William has scripted with my complicity, my brain begins evaluating.

What’s that sound? Has something gone wrong?

Fast check. Aerialist Number One, still in the air, her split is beautiful. Aerialist Number Two, his split amazing. Aerialist Number Three is in a flaming aerial hoop. Is she on fire? No. Good.

What’s that sound?

And as I step into position to pass a flame from my tongue to my partner’s tongue and down the line of eight people (second number fifty-nine, midstage close shot) I realize,

That’s booing.

“Hup!” to cue the group and I set my tongue on fire, pass the flame to the right.

Have we ever been…booed before? By a sober person? With a home to go to?

Have we ever been booed by an entire audience?

No, I don’t think we have.

Not in the early years of dirt shows at two-bit medieval faires. Not at new festivals in new countries, navigating foreign social cues. Even the teenage Gypsy boys wanted attention more than to tear us down, and when I learned to say Tumen boot! I love you! in Roma, it stopped them like a switch. Not in the slums of Mumbai, stepping around eddies of trash to crack the whip. Not in Mexico, the freshly-ironed children shyly pressing single pesos and cookies into our hands.

At the eighty-seven second mark (exactly on time, exactly as William and I scripted, wide shot then cut to judges), I am already disconnected, awaiting the verdict I already know. I smile and thank the judges for their feedback. Maybe if we aren’t funny or angry, they will leave us on the cutting room floor. Even when the shock jock judge turns to the crowd, exhorting them first to cheer him and then boo us again, louder, I think only,

Those jeering young men ages 18-25 are certainly his demographic.

Even if I could win a verbal fencing match the edit would make me a Loser. A Bad Loser or a Bitter Loser or an Arrogant Loser Who Had It Coming.

The first exit interview, immediately offstage with a rapper-turned-TV-host, is called the “kiss-n-cry” by most producers. We neither kiss nor cry. I grin directly into the camera and say, “Hey, we’re already professional entertainers and this was just another gig!” and high-five the host.

Edit that like a Loser, motherfuckers.

We bail on the second exit interview, telling Aubrey we’re sorry, but we’re finished. And Aubrey, who is a local, listens shocked when we tell her about the booing and escorts us past five security checkpoints and out of the building. I hope that this lack of footage will help us be no-one, not even a two-second clip in a montage. That the mother called to the stage to be reprimanded for her six-year-old twins’ salacious choreography or the water-skiing squirrel or the girl whose father cuts her hair while blindfolded will be far more fascinating. There is nothing compelling about polite, upbeat professionals.

Later, my mother reclaims her cellphone from the audience security point and tells me that the audience was coached, their cue to boo was the crewman with the white sign in front of stage right. We learn that the audience was seeded with plants, paid to be there, knowing who wins, the locals who lined up for tickets instructed, “If someone next to you jumps up or makes an X, you do it, too!” Knowing that the contest and the voting and the judging is rigged, I don’t know why it surprises me so much that the audience is rigged, too.

America sure does have talent, but that’s not what this show is about. Talent’s not in the 90-second bites boiled into montage clips, not going with the breakdancers “Goin’ to Vegas!”, not listening to the singer stopped at two bad opening notes (this is round three—we were recruited, but that singer waited in line and has twice been told “You’re good enough!”). Talent is back in the driveway where the breakers popped and locked on flattened cardboard boxes. Talent is lip-syncing in its bedroom. Talent is hanging with the adult beginner aerialists back in the gym in Memphis, working out on borrowed equipment, their bodies aging out on borrowed time. Talent is singing with its friends in the car with the stereo up and the windows down.

And that’s the shield that keeps me gracious on mic while the 18-to-25-year-olds jump up and down, howling for our third X. Back at the hotel, showering out hairspray and removing the last of the glitter from my eyes, I wonder just how dumb this mistake will turn out to be, how many Americans this summer will see me and see a Loser. But as I hang up costumes and plan the route to the next gig, and the next gig, and the one after that, I thank the universe that I am up there taking scorn, instead of watching and dishing it out. Even standing up to boos and jeers and the caustic acid of three judges in the twilight of their celebrity—their downward trajectory still a place higher than I will likely ever reach—even that is better than waiting for opportunity to knock, for lightning to strike. Waiting for a life to begin. Waiting for a dream—any dream—to arrive.



If whipchick had taped a popular American reality show last week, she would probably be contractually obligated not to reveal the results. If she wrote about it, she'd change all the names.
 

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Comments {118}

Awful article

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 26th, 2012 05:54 pm (UTC)
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You sound like every bitter want-to-be "artist" who can't understand why they aren't successful. You were given a tremendous opportunity, and it you blew it by performing poorly. Because you did not succeed, you ungraciously place the blame on the show and its producers rather than accepting responsibility.

As for the producers egging you on to actually produce quality television, what do you expect? By choosing to audition on the show, you are in-turn agreeing to provide them with content. Don't begrudge them for wanting to tape interviews with you and making a spectacle of the judging, because without that, you wouldn't be there in the first place.

And if storming off the stage and doing whatever you can to attempt to ruin their footage is "professional", I'd love to see what's unprofessional.

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whipchick

Re: Awful article

from: whipchick
date: Jun. 26th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
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You might check through some of the other comments from artists who have experienced the same situation :)

I wouldn't call appearing on a reality show "successful" or "unsuccessful". It's a gig - you do the best you can, and accept that you have very little control over the situation. I already make a full-time living as a performer, traveling around the world, owning my own home, and not having major financial worries. I employ 8 people as full-time artists and another 30 on a part-time/occasional basis. I love what I do and enough people like it that I get to do it full time; I especially love getting to share it with young people through our outreach program. For me, that's success. Your definition may vary.

If your definition of success is "Wins reality show", then by that means, I've also already succeeded - my partner and I took home $250K from the CBC (Canada) show Dragon's Den; another company member was a coach on MTV Made; we've been the subject of an independent documentary; and we've used our Dragon's Den win to create a large-scale touring show - the same show, ironically, that was recruited to appear on an American reality show. For me, what's odd is the juxtaposition between the thesis of discovering unknown, amateur talent and the practice of recruiting working professionals as contestants.

I absolutely understand that when one signs up for a reality show, one is at the mercy of the producers - that's what making good TV is all about! And to this day, our Canadian fans often remember that we were on Dragon's Den, without remembering that we won. The part that sticks in everyone's head is footage of me crying and being yelled at :) So for me, the victory of appearing on an American reality show was that I kept my composure - that we walked calmly off stage, smiled into the camera, and conversed pleasantly and positively with the host (admittedly, not all depicted in the essay above). Perhaps you'd prefer angry, photogenic tears?

Thanks for weighing in - it would be a boring world if we all agreed :)

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Re: Awful article

from: anonymous
date: Jul. 4th, 2012 02:28 am (UTC)
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Nobody cares about the crappy stuff you did in the past. The reason you were recruited to be on the show is because nobody knows who you are. Don't pretend that it was your everyday gig, because the opportunity for national exposure would be huge for you. Maybe you'd perform to a bigger audience than school children.

The bottom line is you put yourself in a position of being judged, and you were judged to be bad. Whining about the agreed upon situation after the fact and the merits of "reality television" is hypocritical, and posting a thinly-veiled assault on a blog is far from professional (the one quality you seem to value most in yourself).

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whipchick

Re: Awful article

from: whipchick
date: Jul. 4th, 2012 03:17 am (UTC)
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You know, you're right, it's not my "everyday gig" - I've only been featured on national television twice this year, and had one New York Times article - the rest has all been regional exposure. So yeah, I could hardly call it "every day".

Good luck in your future endeavors!

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Heather Sora Sol Iriye

Re: Awful article

from: Heather Sora Sol Iriye
date: Jul. 4th, 2012 03:57 am (UTC)
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By your impassioned responses, it almost feels as if you feel personally assaulted by this story. Would you be willing to speak on why you are so outraged?

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qwinkly

Re: Awful article

from: qwinkly
date: Jul. 8th, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
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Kudos to you, Whipchick ! You were much more gracious than that inflammatory, judgemental, verbally abusive troll deserved.

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Re: Awful article

from: anonymous
date: Jun. 27th, 2012 12:25 am (UTC)
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How much did you get paid to write that?

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Brian Howard

Re: Awful article

from: Brian Howard
date: Jul. 4th, 2012 05:17 am (UTC)
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What is it you do for a living Anonymous?

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Re: Awful article

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 7th, 2012 11:05 pm (UTC)
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I'm not the same Anonymous as the one you're asking, but I'm guessing the answer would be that it's the King of Dead Media.

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