The dos and don'ts of working with celebrities
In our celebrity-obsessed culture, well-known individuals can take on a powerful mystique that seems to lift them above ordinary humans. So how can you, a mere mortal, interact successfully with these creatures when your livelihood depends on it?
For answers, Live at IU talked to two faculty members in Indiana University Bloomington's Arts Administration program: Christopher Hunt, whose five decades in the field include serving as a festival director, artists' manager, opera critic and television producer in Australia, Europe and North America; and Doug Booher, director of the IU Auditorium in Bloomington. They shared their top dos and don'ts for working with celebrities in a performance, press or hospitality setting.
Do put yourself in their shoes.
Set aside the glitz and glamour for a moment, and imagine what it's like to hardly ever be at home. Whether constantly on the move from city to city, or spending months at a time on a set, it's not easy for anyone to be away from family, friends and the comforts of home for the better part of the year, Hunt said.
"The glamour is only there for a couple of hours," he said. "There are 22 more hours in the day in which it's damn hard."
Booher referred to the oft-maligned "technical rider" included with an artist's contract, which may specify amenities like food and drink in addition to equipment considerations.
"Until people spend some time with folks who are on the road, it seems like some of those requests are ridiculous. But when I go home and make a sandwich I like mayonnaise instead of Miracle Whip. It's not really that much to ask to provide some of the things that you and I take for granted because we have it all waiting for us at home," he said.
Being on the road is enough to drive many people out of the industry, Hunt said.
"I remember well when I was still quite a young agent and I was managing a lot of young singers who were making their debuts in major opera houses around Europe. Forty percent dropped out after two or three years of that life, not because their voices were lost but because every four weeks they were going to a new place and performing for a new audience they needed to win over. It's a nightmare life," he said.
Give celebrities a break and try to make them as comfortable as possible, Hunt advised.
"If some of these artists sometimes get difficult, a little hoity-toity, I don't blame them. It's amazing that more people don't get like that," he said.
Don't take their time for granted.
"The No. 1 thing that we avoid is committing the artist or celebrity to any kind of meet-and-greet or other kind of responsibility publicly," Booher said. "This can be a difficult decision when someone who is important to the community wants to meet the artist, but we always need to get the offer from the celebrity first."
The IU Auditorium also has a staff policy of refraining from asking for autographs or photographs with visiting performers.
"That's something that we never do here -- it's kind of the professional code -- you don't ask for autographs, you don't ask for photos and that kind of thing," he said.
Booher said artists know their fans are interested in autographs and photos, so you can count on them to offer if they are willing to provide them.
Do make available what your town has to offer.
The upside of being on tour is getting to see lots of great cities, Booher said, so he tries to make sure visiting performers have the opportunity to enjoy some of the highlights of the Bloomington area.
"We get requests for the opportunity to check out a basketball game if we're in season -- visitors love to go to Assembly Hall and see the Hoosiers play. Also, in the fall, people like to go out and get a chance to look at the landscape and see the leaves as they change colors. And really just the opportunity to be on a college campus and be among our students, sitting in Starbucks at the Union and watching the students come and go, is probably one of the things that we hear visitors enjoy the most often," Booher said.
Don't assume an informal relationship.
"When I welcome Bill Cosby for the first time, it's Mr. Cosby, just to show respect," Booher said. "Most often, it's good to err on the side of formality. People are not often offended if you are more formal than you should be."
Do compliment their performance.
Performing artists experience the constant tension of having to prove themselves on stage, Hunt said: "From one performance to the next, your career's on the line." To help ease their anxiety, he places a priority on complimenting artists immediately following their performances.
"There is only one thing one can say after a performance, and that's 'Wonderful.' Later, the next day, sure, you can talk about things that could be implemented next time around. But right after the performance, you can't even hint that something can be improved. What artists need is congratulations and reassurance. They haven't come down off that pinnacle of intensity," he said.
Do prepare yourself by brushing up on the artist's field.
"I think it's actually rather important to know enough to talk to them at least with the right vocabulary," Hunt said. "You don't want to use phrases or attitudes that they find trivial or ignorant. Equally, they don't expect the same deep technical understanding that they have, so it's also a good idea not to appear to think you know too much. There's a happy medium."
Don't be too hard on yourself if you get a bit tongue-tied around people you truly admire, he said.
"Occasionally there are, one must admit, people of such distinction, whose intellect is so apparent, that it is difficult to know how to talk to them without feeling like a fool," he said. "Better to get away to commonplace subjects."
Don't get stuck on the topic of the celebrity's career.
"Personally I try to make it so I don't speak a lot about what they do unless they really want to talk about it, apart from complementing the performance and thanking them for sharing with our audience," Booher said. "Nearly all the people we interact with are really everyday people. They are interested in talking about politics or news. Celebrities that we encounter often don't want to talk about their celebrity or reason for their celebrity. People often appreciate that we treat them like a guest but not like a figure of worship."
Hunt said it is okay to talk about some of the things you may know about an individual from press coverage, such as their hobbies or pets.
"I've always found that artists in particular really like you to have read a lot about them," Hunt said. "It proves they are celebrities indeed. Because most of them are never quite sure."
Don't go on and on about other celebrities.
"One big mistake is to be enormously enthusiastic about other artists of the same type," Hunt said. "You can never be sure which they really like. They get very touchy on that topic. The artist can get really, really offended. It's wiser to stay clear of talking about other artists unless you know the preferences of the people you are talking to."
Do take their word for it.
Jeff Nelsen, hornist with international performance group Canadian Brass and a professor in the IU Jacobs School of Music, said that while he enjoys being asked to autograph his CDs, he always prefers to be treated like the ordinary person he is.
"You're only famous to the people who have heard of you," he said. "I do enjoy the extra 'power' my inspirational words might carry to someone who thinks I'm famous. But just because I'm great at the horn does not in itself mean I'm a special person in any other way. The way I see it, we all have relatively the same tremendous amount of ignorance, so that keeps room for modesty in everyone. We're all sharing the planet; we're all equals."