Day five of our six day tour with Steven Mallard's showband, and we hadn't paced ourselves too well. We had a gig coming up that night, and another the following before we headed home -- and we'd barely survived last night's show with basic standards of professionalism.
At least for tonight's gig, the pressure was off, as we weren't expecting a judgmental audience. We were providing entertainment on the closing day of a Myrtle Beach convention for developmentally handicapped adults.
We arrived at the resort and were directed to the ballroom where we were to set up our stage. There was no elevated platform provided, only some tape on the rug to show the dimensions allotted for the band. Playing on the same level as the audience was unusual, but not unheard of -- and inconvenient.
"Hi, thank you so much for coming!" the event planner walked in and greeted us.
She debriefed us on the timeline of events, then gave us a gentle warning: "Our participants just love to be entertained, and are very physically demonstrative with their affection. They will want to touch you, hug you, kiss you, hold your hand -- but they have no concept of personal boundaries and social cues. Engage with them on whatever level you feel comfortable, but don't feel guilty about pushing them away. They need to be constantly reminded how to interact in society so it'll be good reinforcement. And other than that, it should be great, they'll love you no matter what!"
"Thank you for that," our frontman smiled. "We'll do our best."
"Trip counsellors and personal aids will be all over the room, so don't be afraid to ask for help!"
When putting on stage makeup that evening, I had memories of my days as a cast member at Disney World, remembering my colleagues who were "friends" with various Disney characters in the theme parks. They all had war stories of special guests reacting to their makeup and costumes with a little too much adoration, groping and embracing them like you would a doll or an action figure. Perhaps I should tone down my own appearance for tonight's show, I thought.
We stood in our places at the top of the opening set, and Mr. Mallard pressed play on the sequence for "Giving It Up For Your Love". Unlike our usual gigs where people tend to come trickling in, fashionably late at their leisure, the doors swung open and people came flooding into the ballroom -- wheelchairs, aids, oxygen tanks, and all. Like a tsunami the throngs ploughed their way to the stage, and it was like playing Red Rover to keep them from bouncing off the wall behind us.
We'd barely sung a note, and the love and gratitude this audience had for us was overwhelming. They wanted, as the event planner had said, to hug us, hold our hands, dance with us, tell us where they heard that song before, take pictures so they could go home and tell their mothers -- of course, all while we were trying to concentrate on doing our job.
Despite being humbled by their unpretentious love, we had a very urgent crowd control problem to solve. We needed to get them off the stage, where we had literally hundreds of chords plugging our microphones into the PA, patched lights, and extra power strips coming out of the wall. Combined with wheelchairs and walking sticks, this was a safety hazard, first and foremost. But secondly, and almost as important, we had literally thousands of dollars of equipment that, if damaged, would put the entire band out of work until, by some miracle, Mr. Mallard got a loan to replace it. This whole thing could've been avoided if the band had been playing on an elevated platform.
The frontline vocalists were the only people not tied down by wires plugged into something, nor busy protecting expensive instruments, so by default, it was our job to clear the stage of people that didn't belong. So much for choreography -- which no one would be able to see through the hordes anyway. We grabbed guests by the hand to lead them into the audience, and they'd turn and smile at us with surprised delight.
"Come on, it's not safe for you on the stage. Too many wires!" we'd tell them between vocal lines. "Tell all your friends to stay off the stage! We're counting on you!"
As we attempted to drop them off and go back to save more folks, they clasped our hands more tightly, and tried to pull us back to them for more dancing.
"Sorry, I have to go help your friends now! They're on stage and it's not safe!"
Finally we reclaimed our territory, and the three vocalists formed a barricade up front, keeping people on the dance floor. Steven Mallard's forehead stopped sweating with anxiety over his equipment, and we began to enjoy the performance.
These people were bottomless wells of joy, and never sat down once. They waved and smiled and clapped, and mimicked our choreography, and swooned over what they believed to be our evident celebrity. It was too much fun.
Towards the end of the night, Mr. Mallard called the "Y.M.C.A.", as he normally does at that point in the show. I glanced at my fellow vocalists -- should we do the usual go-into-the-audience routine? We nodded yes. Should we bring the Village People costume pieces to put on volunteers and bring them onto the stage? We shook our heads no.
So off we went into the sea of adoring fans. During the glory choruses at the end, we began holding our mics up to people's faces so they could respond after we sang, "It's fun to stay at the --"
The bit was going well, and as they realized what was going on, more people crowded around to join in. This was their chance to not only hug the stars, but to sing!
We heard all versions of the response: some people could fit in all four syllables, some people couldn't decide which octave to sing in, some people didn't know how the song went at all. It didn't matter -- they were laughing and partying it up, so we kept going.
I held my mic up to one middle-aged gentleman, with a profound mental handicap, in a wheelchair. We could see he'd worked persistently hard to make it to that spot on the dance floor all night, and now this was his moment to shine! I sang, "It's fun to stay at the--"
When I aimed the mic two inches from his mouth, he sucked in a huge breath, and bellowed out at the top of his lungs, from the bottom of his diaphragm:
Everyone in the band convulsed in unison. His screeching wail on the letter 'Y' blasted like thunder through our in-ear monitor system into our skulls, out the instrument monitor wedges, and blared full-force over the main speakers.
The entire room paused for an instant. The only thing that continued was the sequence of the tune. Overly bright, cheap-sounding midi instruments maintained the song over a claptrack.
Our audience forgot about it as quickly as it happened, and continued partying. The band took longer to come to, as the echos of his guttural tones throbbed in our eardrums. The angry glares of my colleagues snapped accusingly in my direction, where I stood frozen in time, in position after snatching the mic away from the gentleman's face. I was as stunned by that squall as anyone.
One by one, my bandmates put together what had happened, and one by one we fell apart into fits of laughter. Even Mr. Mallard, who's gut reaction is to throw a tantrum -- though I was following his instructions given to me to execute his show -- saw the innocent hilarity in this situation and finished the tune in uncontrollable stitches.
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