Shock and Awe
There are times as an exhibit production manager that legitimate problems threaten to derail a show, and quick thinking with a good Plan B is critical to keeping your program on track. But then there are times where the obstacles you must overcome are so absurd that you can only stand there slack-jawed, wondering what in the world some people are thinking.
Take, for example, the time we were trying to set up an exhibit at Unix Expo for a client that specialized in fault-tolerant computers. I was working then as a production manager for Creative Visuals, an exhibit-production company, and we had devised a brilliant display and new in-booth presentation to illustrate how information technology (IT) professionals are always in the hot seat when computers behave badly, and how our client’s products would help them out of it.
To that end, we created an imposing and very realistic looking electric chair, complete with copper plates, leather straps, a head piece with electrode-type knobs on it, and an ominously oversized electrical cable trailing out the back. This beast of a chair was a work of art crafted in our own shop, and though it was actually a cobbled-together prop that used things like spark plugs and a large stainless steel bowl, we impressed ourselves with how great it looked.
The shtick during the show was set to go like this: When the presentation started, the chair would be covered with a drape at center stage, and our speaker would call up one of those audience members who invariably lurk in the back, saying we had saved a special seat just for him or her. The presenter would whip off the cover and seat the volunteer, buckling his or her ankles, wrists, and chest, and plop the bowl on the volunteer’s head. The rest of the presentation played off the theme of innocence or guilt for the IT person in the chair regarding how he or she handled the company’s computer problems.
Our bit concluded with a phone ringing on stage, and someone supposedly on the other end telling the presenter to “give him the juice.” The speaker would then reach behind the chair and pull out a juice box for the volunteer, and the show would end. It was a fun idea, and we expected it to be a huge draw for the exhibit.
The day before the show opened, our team was on the loading dock at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center screwing together our chair. As the last screws were turned and the big, fake cord was attached, along came a fire marshal who had been loitering amid the load-in crews.
“Whose is this?” he wanted to know, gesturing toward the chair. I told him it was ours, and added that it was just a prop for our presentation. He eyeballed it for a moment, and then said the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard: “This looks dangerous. I’m not letting it in there.” I stared at him with a disbelieving grin, thinking he can’t possibly be serious.
“It’s just a prop,” I said incredulously, showing him the bowl and the end of the cable, which didn’t even have a plug on it. He was unmoved. I tried to reason with him some more, as in, “Really? Do you really think we’re planning to electrocute people?”
But his mind was made up. He was obviously a man wandering around looking to assert his authority. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his decision was final. Our chair was on the chopping block, and no matter how absurd it was, this guy had the power to demolish our entire plan — because without the chair, we had no presentation.
Needless to say, I was sweating bullets. But before I could completely dehydrate, the fire marshal offered one caveat: He would allow the chair inside if a union electrician inspected it and certified it was safe. And with that ray of hope I was off, racing for the show-services desk. We were already behind schedule and needed to do rehearsals before the client’s presentation preview later that day, so I needed to get this nonsense taken care of pronto.
But finding a union electrician who is not busy on move-in day is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Show services tried but couldn’t roust one, so I spent the next 90 minutes scouring the place myself without luck. Nobody will let you just “borrow” an electrician during setup, especially when the reason you need one makes you sound insane: “Well, you see, I’ve got this electric chair with a salad bowl outside, and, uh ...”
I finally snagged an electrician when one showed up to help install our exhibit, and as we walked to the loading dock, I tried to tell him the story of what I needed him to do and why. Of course, I failed miserably because the story did not make sense no matter how I told it. Who on earth would ever bring a real electric chair to a trade show?
Outside, the fire marshal was still lurking, keeping his eye on our death machine to make sure we didn’t bring it inside the venue. The electrician took one look at it and started to laugh — big, knee-slapping guffaws that went on far longer than the fire marshal probably appreciated. Trying to pull together a straight face, the electrician nodded seriously at the fire marshal and pronounced the contraption harmless. Then he laughed some more.
“Are we good to go?” I asked the fire marshal, but, incredibly, he was still unconvinced.
“Are you sure this doesn’t present any danger?” he asked the electrician, who was by then wiping his eyes.
Resolutely, the electrician explained that there was no way to hook up any part of the prop to electricity, and as such, it was perfectly safe to use. With that, the fire marshal turned and stalked away, and we scrambled to move our chair onto the stage in our booth and get back on schedule.
In the end, our presentation was enormously successful — audiences loved the bit, and we didn’t electrocute anyone, which just seemed like smart marketing. I’m sure it made the fire marshal happy, too, though I still don’t know what would make him believe we’d fry somebody in our booth. Then again, I don’t know what kind of trade shows he goes to either. All I do know is that our prop designers got an A+ that day, and as such, at future trade shows we waited to assemble the chair until after the pieces arrived in our exhibit. That way, if a suspicious fire marshal came around, at least we would have the contraption set up where it belonged, and hopefully an electrician would be nearby to make the process of laughing in the fire marshal’s face a little quicker.
— Dave Egan, head writer, Writers Direct Group, Los Angeles