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The formula for curating a sold-out, feel-good, scalable event, over and over

May 8, 2013

DRC

When my first film, dating rubik’s cube, made with $150 [mostly tape-stock] and with me wearing the hats of videographer, producer, editor, distributor, sound engineer, and lighting-tech, won Best Short Documentary at a film festival months after I started my “Oh shit! I just got fired, what am I going to do?!?” company, the seeds of one of the smartest business decisions I’ve ever made were planted. Simplicity and Content is king. If you provide a good product, people will ignore /forgive oopsies; like a cat walking in and out of a shot or lighting that casts menacing shadows on your subjects. And you’ll be able to enjoy your project as you won’t have spiraled into debt or made impossible promises to realize your dream. The reasons my film was well-received were the topic [who doesn't love a good dating story?] and the cast with their hilarious, insightful, open-book reflections, and the reason I had so much fun with it was that I had nothing to lose and no one to answer to.

My Simplicity and Content realization came front and center on Sunday when I took Mom to the fabulous, you need to go to this next year! Listen To Your Mother (LTYM).

LTYM

Tired of the traditional brunch, Botanic Garden stroll, A Midsummer Night’s Dream matinee, and wanting more than a card and flowers, when I first heard of LTYM, I immediately knew it was the perfect Mother’s Day gift. Even if it was a week early.

LTYM

Seventeen women, let’s say average age of forty, from office manager for an electrical construction company to stay-at-home mom to owner of a boutique ad agency, of the city and the suburbs, of all shapes and hairstyles, of all volumes and patterned-dresses, oh so courageously took the stage one by one to share stories of motherhood. Cracked nipples to farting in Target. Hating the Perfect Mom to miscarriages. Screaming matches with your child to the death of your child. We, the audience, laughed and cried, and most wonderfully, collectively nodded knowingly. There was something for everyone. I’m not a mother, but I can certainly relate to ill-projected disdain for Size Two women and parents whom you love on Tuesday and want to strangle on Wednesday.

While I throughly enjoyed the plethora of entertainment of the afternoon, it was the entrepreneur, not the audience member, in me that was scribbling furiously on the program throughout the ninety-minutes. By the end of the show, as you will often find me, I was drunk on entrepreneurial kool-aid. Because LTYM reinforced and made cohesive the all-over the place musings I’ve had for years on event curation. And really, on life in general.

Reading the founder’s [Ann Imig] note pre-show got the wheels turning -

I created LTYM because I found myself searching for a bigger audience for my voice, and the voices of other mothers online. In 2010, I directed the first LTYM Show in Madison, Wisconsin. When I shared videos of that first performance online, I heard request after request from women wanting to produce LTYM in their own communities. The groundswell was undeniable, inspiring a national expansion–with performances in five cities in 2011, ten in 2012, to this season’s twenty-four city lineup.

She goes on to use words like humbled, movement, phenomenal stories, resound around the world, celebrate.

Those are the exact terms and sentiments I use when elevator-pitching Mac ‘n Cheese Productions (MnC). More importantly, that others use when elevator-pitching MnC. So much so that I had to create a Mac ‘n Cheese World Domination form to keep track of all the outside of Chicago inquires.

You know that feeling you get when someone articulates exactly what’s in your head/journal/heart/dreams? That feeling is what started pin-balling around my insides on Sunday. While I’ve achieved most of my professional goals over my eight years of self-employment, there are two not yet crossed off the list:

  1. Travel for work
  2. Be able to say Yes! to people in San Francisco, Boston, and Birmingham who ask, “Can you bring Mac ‘n Cheese here?!?”

LTYM uses the guaranteed to succeed formula for curating a sold-out, feel-good, scalable event. It’s a formula I’ve been using for years, without realizing it was a formula –

Fill A Hole

+ [Mass Quantities of] Everyday People

+ Universal Topics

+ Emotions

+ No Bells ‘n Whistles

+ ADD-Friendly

+ Spreadsheet-Lover

= Event Success

Fill A Hole

Imig wanted more exposure for herself and her mommy-blogger cohorts. I wanted fun, lasting, face to face, comfortable, economical, meaningful opportunities to meet potential friends, clients, and dates for myself and my “there has to be another option other than bar happy-hour” cohorts; I wanted the summer-camp environment, for adults. Not seeing the solution offered, Imig and I filled the holes in our lives ourselves.

Chances are if you want something that doesn’t exist, others want it too. If you can provide it for them, you catapult into cult-leader status.

[Mass Quantities of] Everyday People

One of the reasons we’re able to fill the 700+ seat Park West with each Fear Experiment [FE], one of my MnC offerings, is that the participants are NOT dancers, improvisers, singers or steppers. For most of them, this is their debut and encore performance. We all have those professional-creative friends who invite us to a show of theirs once a month if not more. There’s no urgency to go as you know there’ll be another chance next month. Not so with the FEers. One night and one night only. That’s how we’re not only able to sell out but to get out of towners from New York, Seattle, Arizona to come see those billed as “bad” performers. The audience is filled with friends and family. Of the 3200+ FE audience members over the years, I would guess that about 13 of them didn’t know someone in the show.

LTYM

So it was at LTYM. The Everyday Woman from your street, your church, your book club butterflying into a storyteller. A kickass storyteller at that. Most will probably not stand before a packed theater again. Knowing this, their cheering sections of loved ones came out in droves and went wild when they took the stage.

Every FE has about forty non-performers. The LTYM I attended had seventeen non-storytellers. Selling out a theater doesn’t seem so insurmountable when each person just needs to sell seven, ten, sixteen tickets. As Obama learned in the 2008 campaign, a lot of people doing a little can take you far.

Universal Topics

Fear Experiment fills voids we’ve all experienced -

  • I am stuck in a rut and need a challenge
  • I want to make more friends, friends who are positive, up for anything, from all walks of life, and open-minded
  • I’m sitting on the sidelines and life is passing me by
  • I’ve always wanted to _____ but never had the guts

When each LTYM woman walked onto the stage, the claps were friendly and supportive; when each woman walked off, the claps were deep, appreciative, thankful. This is because the storytellers not only bared their souls, they did it via situations that’ve touched us all.

There is nothing more powerful than a room full of strangers nodding knowingly, as each is transported back to their own memories yet is never more aware of morphing into a square in the community-quilt sewn together by shared-experience.

Emotions

FE tweet

Get someone to laugh or cry, they’ll remember you. Get them to both laugh and cry, they become a member of the kool-aid drinking cult.

FE3

FE and LTYM audience members laugh and cry. Heart-breaks during a woman’s sharing that she joined FE as part of journey back from alcoholism turned into heart-leaps when the same woman belted out a solo in the Beatles’ Somebody to Love/HelpDuring a story about teenage abortion, the woman across the aisle from me who had just been cracking up at the recounting of a black lesbian trying to adopt, streamed such tears and had such a look of knowing-pain on her face, it was all I could do to not lean over and give her a squeeze.

Standing in front of 700+ radiating support your way or sitting before people being incredibly vulnerable is the most magical, heart-lifting atmosphere of goodness. Because the participants are not professionals and are doing something that admittedly scares them, the audience is rooting for them from before they even step on stage, and you can feel that reverberating throughout the theater.

No Bells ‘n Whistles

I subscribed to this way of thinking from the start not because I thought it was a fantastic idea but because I didn’t have any money for bells and whistles. Blessing in disguise.

There’s something refreshing about shows that don’t have smoke-machines, curtains-pulls, and strobe-lights.

Materials needed for LTYM

  • Mic
  • Podium
  • Printed story for each participant

Materials needed for FE

  • Mics
  • Folding chairs
  • Music

No props, costumes,or set-changes [as FE has grown over the years, we've had some of these things but they're absolutely superflous; the shows would still kill without any of it]. Sometimes less is more. And wonderfully, usually less costs less.

ADD-Friendly

In this day in age of having fourteen tabs open in your browser, popular quick-fire presentation formats like TED and Pecha Kucha, and needing to check your phone constantly, our ability to stay focused for any amount of time is quickly degrading. FE and LTYM address this societal stumble by producing tight, fast-paced shows that leave no room for checking texts.

FE is a 2.5-3 hour show! but no segment is longer than ten-minutes. Stepping, song, video, stepping, talking, song, and so the back and forth goes. Despite its length, audience members often comment on how fast the night is.

Brief intro of each LTYM speaker and a six-ish minute story, x 17. No curtain, no lights-out, no intermission. Quick quick quick.

Spreadsheet-Lover

He/she doesn’t need to actually love spreadsheets [though why wouldn't you?!], the curator just needs to be organized, a good communicator, and efficient. I don’t know Tracey Becker or Melisa Wells, the producers of Chicago’s LTYM, but gauging from the seamless transitions, the well-thought out order of speakers, the quality of the stories in terms of arc, detail, and timing, and the lack of any production downtime or tech-snafus, I would bet that Becker and Wells are organized, good communicators, and efficient.

I majored in English and Sociology. I have no formal business or theater training. Before the first Fear Experiment, in 2010, I had never produced show. When searching for a venue, I pretended I knew what “proscenium” and “marley” meant. The fact that I produce two three-hour, forty+ participant shows a year for an audience of 700+ continually makes me stop and say, “What is my life and how did I get here?!” Well, via a lot of spreadsheets, google docs, and other tools that keep the life of a curator as sane as a curator can be. Besides the thanks from those in the show, the comments that mean the most to me are those from the audience and the venue regarding how professional and smooth FE is. I’m just a girl who likes boxed-wine and flip-flops! I keep thinking someone’s going to arrest me for fraud. But until then, I’ll keep wearing this disguise of Producer, behind the veil of spreadsheets.

PW VIP

If you’re not only professional but also a nice person to collaborate with, so much the better. Sponsors, vendors, and just general people who love you go a loooooong way. Whether it’s volunteer ticket-takers or videographers, or a venue that says thanks with comp’d tickets, reserved seats, and free drinks at a sold-out show, life is made a lot sweeter when folks are on your side. Divas need not apply!

LTYM

And so that’s the formula for event success that became clear to me after all these years, sitting there watching these fabulous LTYM women –

Fill A Hole + [Mass Quantities of] Everyday People + Universal Topics + Emotions + No Bells ‘n Whistles + ADD-Friendly + Spreadsheet-Lover

A bonus addition to the formula - Mommy Bloggers! LTYM was sponsored by BlogHer and many of the storytellers were bloggers. The blogging community in general is tight; the mommy-blogger hemisphere? If there was ever a group that epitomized community… A thumbs-up from them is like an Oprah Book Club seal on the cover of your book. If you can get in the good graces of a large, active, and influential community like Mommy Bloggers, your event will have no problem garnering attention.

A bonus bonus addition to the formula – both LTYM and FE have Do Good components. LTYM donates of portion of ticket proceeds to a non-profit. FE incorporates an under-served community, from students at a low-income elementary school to adults affected by homelessness, into the three-month experience. Besides being awesome due to the helping one another’ness, Doing Good also often opens more doors as far as press, ticket-sales, and sponsorship opportunities.

Mac 'n Cheese Productions | Fear Experiment 3 - The Show

Imig took LTYM to twenty-four cities three years after her baby’s birth. Let’s see where Mac ‘n Cheese and I will end up – LTYM has encouraged me to spread my wings! Sunday’s outing with Mom + the release of my TEDx talk Monday, which has garnered me lots of outside of Chicago attention = okay Universe, I hear you; I’ll stop making lists and start DOING.

**************************************

**Plea to audience members of these types of shows 

Chances are you’re coming to see one person in the show. After your loved one gets his/her time in the spotlight, please don’t leave! I was appalled at Ignite Chicago a month ago when someone’s entire cheering section left after their rockstar was done; the same thing happened on Sunday. People leaving is heartbreaking for the presenters that have yet to spotlight and heartbreaking for curators who’ve spent countless hours sending emails, promoting, pep-talking, editing, taking care of a bazillion little details. Stay for the entire show.

**Of note from the LYTM website

Do I have to be a mother to participate? NO. Write about your mother, write about a grandparent or another person who raised you. Write about your desire or difficulties becoming a mother. Write about single-fatherhood. Whatever you write, as long as it’s your authentic story and a tribute to mothering, it should be appropriate for auditions.”

15 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2013 4:20 PM

    So this is why LTYM works? I just know I am a fan for life.

  2. May 9, 2013 3:53 PM

    I can’t tell you what this was like for me to read. It validated the 90% of the work I do with LTYM that no one ever sees. When things are a little less hectic, I need to read this again and email you. Thank you doesn’t suffice!!

    • May 9, 2013 5:39 PM

      The behind the scenes work is quite the labor of love, right Ann?!

      I can’t believe the amount of details that goes into producing shows like LTYM and FE; when you’re caught up in it, you start to wonder why you do it… and then you get a thank-you note, a hug, a story, and you realize it’s all worth, and you do it again, and again.

      Good luck with the rest of the tour. Not that you need it! Keep up the great work.

  3. May 9, 2013 3:18 PM

    This is brilliant, and it made me cry. I’ve adored LTYM from the beginning and you just beautifully articulated the genius. Good luck with your expansion … I would bet it will be a huge success.

  4. May 9, 2013 9:56 AM

    So, where do I sign up to find out when you DO bring your Fear Experiment to San Francisco? Because I’m pretty sure you will, and I want to be there.
    I’m with you on the feelings that being in the LTYM audience causes; I had them last year, and I’ll be on stage in San Francisco on Sunday night, in the midst of my own LTYM experience.
    It’s an amazing thing for sure.

  5. May 9, 2013 8:59 AM

    I’m so honored! Thanks for attending and for taking the time to actually WRITE about it. Best of luck with your own productions and your dreams for the future.

    • May 9, 2013 10:08 AM

      All your blood, sweat, and tears were well worth it! Congrats on a fab show.

      PS – I don’t know if you curated last year’s, but Nancy Syburg did Fear Experiment with me (improv!). She works at the Montessori school I used to attend in Evanston. She’s the one who told me about LTYM.

  6. May 9, 2013 8:43 AM

    WOW – I loved this post! Melisa and Tracey pour their heart, soul (and parts of their sanity) in to producing this show and it was truly amazing to watch it on Sunday. I hope that Mac & Cheese becomes GLOBAL!

  7. May 9, 2013 8:34 AM

    Oh and for the record? I adore spreadsheets. :)

  8. May 9, 2013 8:19 AM

    Thank you so much for the high compliments, the thoughtfully-written post, and for being in our audience! I appreciate it so much!

    Best of luck to you as you take Mac N’ Cheese BEYOND what you dream today! :)

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