Backstage to the Future

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Kevin Ritchie

Celine Dion is getting carried away. “I couldn’t have done this without my husband Rene, my lover Rene, my manager Rene!” she drones on, apparently overjoyed at the metal dildo shaped statuette she’s just snatched from the hands of her co-host. She doesn’t realize she’s supposed to be presenting a TARA award, not accepting one.

First-year radio and television arts student Ross Hull is apologetic. He’s standing next to her on the podium in the Rogers Communications Centre’s Studio A. “We really do respect your work and stuff,” he says, flashing her a smile.

“This is crazeee! I came all the way from L.A.! I leave my baby at home! Zut alors!”

He gently explains that the Television and Radio Achievement Awards honour the year-end projects of students in Ryerson’s radio and television arts program. Celine seems to not understand so Hull segues into the list of nominees.

Kerry Connelly drops her Celine façade and congratulates Hull for handling her mock-celebrity tangent and faux French-Canadian accent. His audition is almost over.

In the dimly lit control room above the studio, Mike Girgis, the producer of this year’s TARA awards, stares at Hull on the monitor and nods approvingly.

With 16 years of acting experience under his belt—including a stint on cult Saturday morning show Student Bodies—Hull seems totally at ease with the mic in his hand. He never takes his eyes off the camera and has a sort of relaxed Matthew Broderick likability that seems to pacify the catty actors the producers brought in to help select hosts.

“He’s fresh,” says Christian, the first-name-only TARA audition consultant. “Put a jacket on him,” the consultant adds suddenly—as if he’s somehow trying to prolong Hull’s audition. “I think it would be interesting to see what these people look like with with a jacket.”

Hull is one of 22 students auditioning in early January to host the TARAs. Girgis, producer David Swan and director Ian Gadsby want to see if Hull and his fellow hopefuls can think fast on their feet, improvise and keep their cool if an over-enthusiastic celebrite—such as Celine—gets a little too carried away.

There’s a lot at stake at this year’s TARAs. The 11 fourth-year RTA students on the executive committee have been particularly ambitious in elevating the 23-year-old event to a whole new level. All fourth-year RTA students must complete a 300-hour practicum project, but the TARA awards are designed as an additional reward for their efforts. Whichever group of students takes control of producing the TARAs cannot win any awards, a disincentive that this year’s group has decided to work around by going all out on the preparations. This year’s show is a two-hour extravaganza that will transform the Rogers Communications Centre into a huge sound stage on April 12, and will be broadcast on Rogers Cable on May 5 and on CFMT on Aug. 14. There’s a $100,000 budget, five sets, eights hosts, a crew of 30 volunteers, a live internet broadcast, an ice sculpture performance and an outdoor tent party—called CHUM Virtual City—complete with four themed bars and a MuchMusic dance floor courtesy of the show’s title sponsor, CHUM Limited.

Securing the Rogers Communications Centre in mid-November was half the work. For two-and-a-half months, the committee was making plans without the green light to see the building. Girigs says they needed to get permission from everyone who works there: students, faculty, physical plant and security. TARA 2001: Time Warp will take over the first two floors of Rogers with sets dressed up to look like different decades—the multi-room design is similar to this year’s MuchMusic Video Awards. The second-floor postproduction office will see more booty than the editing suite chairs, as a 1970s disco lounge is built in front of it. Studio A will be converted into a 1950s-era candy store and 1960s go-go lounge. The Eaton Lecture Theatre will be an exclusive VIP lounge and the east hallway of the first floor, outside Spirit Live, will become the Monte Carlo grand hotel set. The polyester costumes won’t be the only thing giving the audience a bizarre head-trip—students who  have been bitched out for bringing water to class in Studio A will be happy to learn the room has a liquor license for the show.

The executive committee that plans the show consists of 11 members: Mike Girgis and David Swan, both producers, Ian Gadsby, director, Graham Lindsey, interactive producer, Jeff Findlay, technical director, Kerry Connelly, artistic director, Cara Lewis-Watts, set designer, Josh Shiaman, creative production manager, Jason Agnew, assistant production manager, Erin Jandciu, marketing and promotions co-ordinator, and Josie Dye talent co-ordinator.

“The most annoying part [of producing an awards show] is trying to create something that’s not so stagnant,” says Girgis, who dreamed up the project last year with fellow fourth-year students. Girgis, Swan, Gadsby, Findlay, Shiaman and Lindsey are also using the show to launch 4th Wall Media, a company they started that provides on-line content for Atlantic Records and rock band Big Wreck. “[This year’s TARAs] is really unique. The interactivity, the audience participation—I hope people see the value of it,” says Girgis.

“Interactivity” was the buzzword for this year’s RTA practicums—the word was included in 70 per cent of the pitches fourth-years gave their profs, up from 50 per cent last year. The TARAs’ interactivity is created by five different ways to see the awards show. Graham Lindsey spends about 40 hours a week working on the TARAs, co-ordinating all those platforms from his bedroom at International Living and Learning Centre.

“I’m pretty much the loney of the group,” he says. “But it’s the only place I’m comfortable working.”

His computer holds 1,301 files on 170 megabytes for the TARAs alone. He runs the Web site, which is updated weekly and will broadcast the show live on April 12. He had to design the graphics and scrolling text for the show’s broadcast on Rogers Digital Choice TV. Lindsey will also be responsible for broadcasting the show from Spirit Live on We TV, Microsoft’s computer-less internet service, and on handheld Blackberry Personal Digital Assistants, two-way pagers that connect to the Internet. PDAs are extremely important to the presenters, who will be relying on them—instead of envelopes containing the winners’ names—to announce the victors. For those who aren’t presenting, Lindsey will update the PDAs throughout the show with quick info on who’s won an award and if we’re lucky, who’s wearing what.

The host announcement party on Jan. 29 marked the end of the audition process. Kerry Connelly, artistic director and resident Celine Dion impersonator, has organized the shindig at the 604 restaurant on King Street to hype the show. As artistic director, Connelly has to make sure the show has a consistent look. That means getting sponsorships for makeup and costumes, as well as arranging the choreography for the show’s opening Rocky Horror Picture Show themed dance sequence.

The 604 is awash in the usual red, sexy, mood lighting, with some twinkling lights strung up around the bar. By 9:30 p.m., the prospective hosts have yet to how up. Recognizable co-ed and crowd pleasing tunes from Twisted Sister, The Ramones, Bjork and Dexy’s Midnight Runners reverberate off the partygoer’s hair follicles. Connelly will be able to relax some more with her vodka cranberry when the hosts actually show up.

Building the hype and giving the hosts recognition by throwing them a party is not only essential to remind her and her TARA cronies that they have social lives—it demonstrates their faith in the people who will ultimately make or break the show.

“In the end, talent prevails. It doesn’t matter if something technical goes wrong,” she says. “The talent is our guide through this and with a show of this magnitude, that’s entirely possible.”

Fourth-year RTA student Kelly Shouldice, who will be confirmed as a host tonight, reminisces with scriptwriter Jason Agnew about a TARAs promo video she starred in—Agnew hosed her down with a fire-extinguisher in a washroom in Rogers. He had to spend an hour and a half cleaning the mess. But he shrugs off the notion of horrible side effects: “She’s still here, isn’t she?”

Twenty-two people sent in tapes and auditioned for the host jobs. The audition process figured into the show’s interactive component. The tapes were posted on the Web site, where hundreds of students voted for their favourites. The night of the party, the tapes are played on a large video screen at the back of the club. Some people chose to sing, strip or have phone sex on their tapes. Ultimately, it was the impression the actors made in the live audition that determined their fate.

The hosts trickle in eventually, and by 10:30 p.m. the place is packed. MuchMusic VJ George Stroumboulopoulos arrives to help give out door prizes. TARA talent coordinator Josie Dye—also one of the youngest radio producers in Ontario—announces the roster of winners. Among them: Celine-charmer Hull and Jennifer Pratt, who has worked on the Junos and Genie award shows; classical pianist Emanda Richards; one-time dating game prize Shouldice, TARA scriptwriter Agnew; ballroom-dancing expert Matt Campagna and Marilyn Monroe impersonator Lisa Fitzpatrick.

A month and a half later, the party is long over and work has resumed. The hosts have been assigned to their sets and are meeting weekly to work with a choreographer on the opening dance number set to The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Time Warp. Connelly and marketing co-ordinator Erin Jandciu have secured Cargo Cosmetics, Le Chateau and Northbound Leather as sponsors for the hosts’ ensembles.

But with just under a month to go, Josie Dye is faced with a possible talent problem. She has 20 celebrities booked for the show, including CBC personality Pamela Wallin, Thea Andrews from TSN’s Guys TV, talk show host Mike Bullard and MuchMusic VJ Ed the Sock. She needs to get five more before the show and has to get them quickly to avoid last-minute changes to the script. But she might lose her biggest score.

“Let’s talk about a more serious issue,” Connelly says to producer David Swan and Dye at one of the executives’ weekly Monday afternoon meetings in the RTA office board room in Rogers. “Colin Mochrie—what are his commitments to the Canadian Comedy Awards?”

The Canadian Comedy Awards might be happening on the same night as the TARAs. Dye can’t get confirmation from Mochrie’s agent and if this is the case, Dye will lose her biggest celebrity and any other television comedians who would be appropriate to replace him. A-list names can help boost the show’s industry street cred, not to mention ticket sales.

Faced with the loss of Mochrie, Connelly, Swan and Gadsby brainstorm backups. “There ain’t enough A-list here,” Connelly says. “What about Ray Liotta?” Liotta is in town shooting a movie, but Dye says film stars are nearly impossible to get because when they’re shooting, they don’t do promotional gigs.
Celebrities are like snowflakes—no two are alike. The trick is knowing the appropriate person to deal with. Dye’s morning producer gig at Mix 99.9 FM gives her an in with music industry-types, but it’s all a matter of convincing the celebrity to give a little bit back by supporting a student event.
Sponsors such as CHUM and YTV also want to send talent to support their specialty channels. MuchMusic, CityTV and SPace have people coming out, but Ziggy from Bravo has backed out and Dye has to fill the spot. Bullard requires an advance copy of his script and so does Ed the Sock–so the sock can totally rewrite it.

“What about Snake from Degrassi?” Swan suggests, half-serious.

Not big enough.
What about Atom Egoyan?
He’ll be hard to get if he’s filming, Dye says.

But then again, his number is in the phone book. Luba Goy?

The comedy awards might be a problem.
In exasperation, Dye says, “Okay, I’m inviting Kurt Browning to the show!” She gets on her cell phone and leaves the room.

When Dye comes back in, she has good news: The comedy awards are the day before the TARAs. The potential talent crisis has resolved itself.


Stress setting in


In the last weeks before the show, stress has hit the executives. They still have to fine tune the details: deciding where they can and can’t hang things in Rogers; putting together gift baskets Cargo makeup and HMV gift certificates for the celebrity presenters. Co-ordinating meeting times around all the hosts’ work and school schedules has made for a few incomplete dance rehearsals. This awards show is a full-time job, but everyone still has to juggle homework, exams and time work.  

Dye will do a lot of networking over the next three weeks to get a full roster of celebs. She’s been pulling long days. She wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to produce the morning show for Mix 99.9. Five hours later, she begins working on the TARAs and doesn’t stop until her bedtime, 10 p.m. In an attempt to maintain her social life, she naps from 7 to 11 p.m. on Friday nights so she can go out.

The TARAs are the last thing Connelly thinks about before she falls asleep and the first thing on her mind when she wakes up. She dreams about paperwork and ripped costumes. The show has become her full-time job, obliterating her social life and throwing a significant monkey wrench into her ability to churn out school work. She has an English essay due two days before the show and no, she hasn’t started it yet.

The ideas Connelly pours into Time Warp are what will help shape the TARAs of future generations. She’s been a part of established events, but cultivating this awards show from scratch is more  rewarding. “You have a much stronger sense of having a piece of something that’s yours,” she says. “When you have a new idea, you have to start fresh and sell it.”

It’s Wednesday, March 21—two day after the talent crisis was averted. Gabsy, Dye and scriptwriter Jason Adnew sit in a circle of chairs in Studio C in Rogers with a few of the hosts, to discuss their first impressions of the script.

Hull and Pratt, who will host the show from the atrium, will be dressed by Northbound Leather as leather-clad time travellers who will guide the folks at home through the trippy time warp. The final line of the script doesn’t sit well with either of them. There’s some tension in the room as she hosts voice their concerns. Gabsby, Dye and Agnew are silent, considering.

The line in question: “Just think, in 10 years, you can be one of these so-called Canadian celebrities that can present one of these awards.” Hull and Pratt suggest moving the word “so-called” before the word “awards.” Hull says he doesn’t feel comfortable insulting the cavalcade of stars.
“I think we need to end it on a lighter note,” Pratt says. “It’s very abrupt.”
Gadsby says he likes the suggestion.

“There’s a way to approach it,” Hull says of the script meeting. “You do have an attachment to whatever you create. I think the writer knows what works and doesn’t work. We just have to fine tune it and make it more natural.”

Ten days later, the full cast meets for a script read-through and dance rehearsal in Studio A in Rogers. Gadsby and Connelly want to make sure the hosts know how to hold the mic when presenting awards with celebrities and how to cut off long acceptance speeches. For the demonstration, Connelly once again puts on her celebrity stand-in hat and reads the part of Mark Daly, the voice of CityTV. The hosts of practice standing with the mic and handing it over to the presenter while crew members practice framing the shot. Once the winner is read from the Blackberry, Connelly tells the host to take the mic. “We don’t want a Julia Roberts 10-minute thank you speech,” she says. “If we have to cut them off, you pull the mic back.”
Gadsby also asks the hosts not to hold on to the microphone wire with one hand and point the mic and the presenter with other. “It’s Bob Barker-esque and it looks terrible.”

Ten days before showtime, Dye has booked enough talent but she still has to be on guard for last-minute cancellations. MuchMusic VJ George Stroumboulopoulos just found out he’s going to Orlando, Florida, next week but he’s flying back on April 12, which means he’ll have to  make  a mad dash to get to the TARAs on time. If he doesn’t make it, Dye has to slot in someone else and the script has to be revised. They have a contingency plan: an Emmy award-winning scriptwriter will be on standby the night of the show.

Dye has already had one cancellation: Melanie Doane. She will be in L.A. the day of the show. The TARA producers have told Dye she has to replace Doane with another singer by Monday.

So while Dye is busy finding another musical guest, the executive committee is busy with rehearsals and last-minute details. Sometime this week, props  need to be picked up, the sets will be set up, and most importantly, the nominees will be judged.

The moment of truth is going to be broadcast live on the Web for all to see—a nerve wracking pay-off for all the work the executive has done. Will everything from the interactive features to the hosts’ performances go smoothly?  Will the $20 ticket-paying crowd at Rogers appreciate the setting? Will the party go well? Will their ambitions carry them into a new future for the TARAs as a major media event, or like Icarus will they fly too high on wings of wax and crash to the earth?

On April 12, we’ll all find out.

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