How to Gracefully Keep a Program Running On Time

by Members of the Producers & Organizers SIG

Here’s a question that appeared on the PRO SIG listserv.

Our Tellabration Problem

We have our tellers audition their stories, and plan the timing of our program accordingly. But last year, two of the stories really grew between the audition and Tellabration. Plus an emcee took lots of time too. So Tellabration ran late by 30 minutes (2.5 hours instead of 2).

This year, we are particularly marketing to senior citizens and are specifically having our event 2-4 Sunday afternoon so they can be home by dark. So we definitely do not want this year’s event to run late.

We know we can ask this year’s emcee, first, for an estimate of how long each intro will be, and second, to be mindful of the time.

We know we can plan for, say, 20% growth in the length of the stories.

We know we can have a time keeper with a warning sign for 3 minutes to go, and another for 1 minute to go.

But all these things, especially the last, seem to be taking away from the joy and artistic nature of the event.

Are there any things you do that have worked to keep programs running on time?

Answers from members of PRO SIG:

Make sure that the last two tellers in the line-up have MORE than one story (a shorter one) ready to tell. They will be the ones who have to “punt” at the end to bring it in on time. In theory it’s not “fair” that some tellers lose their time because others aren’t so good at paying attention. But building trust with the audience is vital, isn’t it? And over time, tellers get a reputation among their peers as being an “on-time” teller or being insensitive…

First, I question the assumption that letting a teller know where he or she is at in terms of time detracts for the joy and artistry. I’m never happier performing than when there is a big, readable clock to help me stay on time without needing to look at my watch — and action which breaks my connection to the audience in a way that looking at a clock on a back wall or in a front row seat doesn’t. If anything, it allows me to relax into the story more — I can play with the audience and still have the info I need to bring it in on time.

Joy and artistry are not incompatible with taking care of the audience and respecting the other performers. Problem solving how to keep to time limits is just good sense. If you don’t like using a human timer, have a clock the tellers can see easily AND know when they are supposed to stop keeps them in charge without having someone in the front trying to flag the teller’s attention.

One cabaret uses a big digital clock that counts up from 00:00, starts when the person steps on stage so any intro they have to the story is visibly part of their time, and restarts at 00:00 for each performer. It is behind the audience’s heads and is LED so it is easy to see from stage. If performers each have 12 minutes, they can see where they are at timewise all the way through the story and gauge accordingly. It’s not a countdown timer with a beat-the-clock aura to it. It also lets the tellers know how far over they are getting. Someone might know they have just a minute left and can get it in at 13 minutes which is way better than going 25. Counting down to zero doesn’t allow for that.

Having a digital timer that counts up from 00:00 also solves the problem of tellers in an olio format needing to do math right when they hit the stage: e.g. if I start at 7:37 and I have 15 minutes then I need to end at 7:52. Doing that sort of calculation in my head just as I hit the stage does take my focus away a bit in a way that just being able see a timer doesn’t.

Here’s another idea to consider. Have a dress rehearsal — a full run through of the show a few days early. Use whatever lighting and timing options you’ve decided on. It lets you, the emcee and the tellers work out any kinks. It let’s them get comfortable with how the timing is being done and frames it as just one more tool to make the performance better – like learning to use a microphone well. I used to hear the argument a lot that using a microphone interfered with the ‘intimacy’ between teller and audience. It may interfere with the teller’s perception of intimacy but only enhances intimacy for the audience. It’s a darn sight better than having audience members straining to hear and tellers losing the full range of booming voice to whisper that a microphone makes possible.

Every teller will have his or her preferences and comfort levels with different methods. You could have both a digital timer and a person who can signal available and you can give each teller a choice — same as do you want a stand microphone or a body mic — again you frame it as another tool to make the artistry better not to squelch creativity. When using a human timer, it may be helpful to give a signal at the halfway point in a teller’s time. If a teller gets that signal and knows they are only a quarter way into the story with half the time gone, it allows for making adjustments with less panic than a 3-minute warning as a first signal.

Whenever I am working on a new story or one I haven’t told in a long time, I always figure out a way to be able to see a clock. Timing a story at home just isn’t the same thing as how long it will be with an audience responding. The funnier a story is, the more time having an audience adds to it. Ask your tellers to take audience reaction into account when they are timing their stories. If it is 10 minutes at home, it will be longer with an audience. You can also do some of that math from the auditions.

The simplest solution is to have fewer tellers. If you usually have 8, have 6. If usually 6, try 4 or 5. Without changing the time limits. In essence plan a show to run from 2:00 – 3:30 or 3:45 even with that 20% growth allowance. Plan for erring on the short side–audiences rarely complain about something ending 15 minutes early. If you want, you can even have a plan with the emcee for if the show runs really short to do a final button story if it ends way too early, which my guess will never happen. And having fewer tellers doesn’t automatically mean don’t use a timing method.

I especially like a large, readable (for older eyes it needs to be large and lit) clock behind the audience. A person giving hand signals is useless for me.

One time I warned performers and emcee (me) alike that the tech would signal from the booth as time was winding down (the usual Fringe method) AND dimmed as time was up and turned off at 1 minute over. This happened to one of my performers who to this day still hates me because of it.

I personally have no sense of time and when performing always bring a large clock with me to every performance. Many presenters seem to think that my lack of ability to tell how long I have been on stage with out a watch or access to a clock is unprofessional. Most of the professional performing world thinks that having a watch on is sign of an amateur – I personally can’t pull off the wrist sneak the way I have seen many others do it.

But for me it’s biological and related to my ability to be in the NOW of the story. I would love a big LED clock – that counts down – what a load off my mind instead of having to constantly remember when I have to end by… that time – – wait or was it that time. I write it on the back of my hand. For real –

As a performer I want to be with the audience – I personally am so focused on them that I rarely notice the techie in the back frantically waving the one minute signal. (I am to wrapped up in the big finale.)

When we organize our events locally I bring an analog clock. I will hunt a around for a LCD battery powered count up clock.

When I am emceeing, my role is not only to introduce storytellers but also to welcome the audience, take care of housekeeping, marketing plugs and thank-yous. It is to be both gracious host and the minder of the time. My basic philosophy is no introduction should be longer than 1 minute. To put it bluntly – say the minimum, shut up and get the performer on stage!!! I might comment on the last story, then give the audience a name and some small transitional information to the next performer but I want and need get out of the way ASAP.

Someone mentioned having the tech guy dim or shut off the lights, I’ve told performers that if they run over the Emcee (whether myself or someone else) will come on stage and stand next to them at the 2 minute mark and at 5 minutes will put their arm around their shoulders, thank them and begin the introduction of the next performer, then walk them off stage. That’s a brutal and embarrassing moment, but it does tend to get tellers focused on getting the story done especially if the emcee carries out the “threat”.

For a 2 hour evening’s performance I might have 3 tellers who each get a half-hour. I give the emcee a slot for telling a story for about 15 minutes and leave the other 15 minutes un-programmed for welcome, introductions, miscellaneous, and for teller over-flow should a teller get a bit carried away. I’ve found that some tellers (myself included) don’t always have a “spot on” timing for their stories. Depending on audiences and reactions, timing can fluctuate…

Also, if there is a very specific reason for needing to end at a particular time (getting the seniors out of there at a comfortable time) making sure each teller knows in advance is one of the key things you are focusing on for this year can help a lot. I’ve found that performers when told the particulars tend to be understanding and accommodating. They become part of the solution. If they aren’t, then you know not to use them again another year.

There was a teller who ran 15 minutes over her time-slot one year. I didn’t ask her back for about 4 years. When she finally asked me last year about performing again, I told her that I’d like her to — but that since her running over had required the next teller to have half the time she had planned on, I’d been leery of asking her back. I wanted to be sure each teller got the full amount of time to tell the story she’d planned on. She apologized, assured me that she would be vigilant…and she was.

I do not hold rehearsals with our tellers, but we do meet. Just a bit of a sit down, usually in the hour before the performance. While most of our tellers know, or know of, their fellow artists, it is still useful to talk. We exchange what information there is about story selection. I talk some about the necessity of seeing this as a collective enterprise, not an audition opportunity. I also review the time limits very carefully while we are together. . Yes, I do mention that when someone exceeds the time limit it works a hardship on the next guy, and if it is the last teller, it works a hardship on the audience. I agree that the dire warning signs can be a little off-putting, especially if seen by the audience, but it makes for a more secure artist, really. While our events are opportunities for art and artist building, we owe our final allegiance to those that came to listen.

The important part is this: there is something about hearing the same thing at the same time that is really effective. Perhaps it encourages storytellers to personalize the instructions and prohibitions. I’m not sure, but I know that when I hold this meeting, things work well and when I have not, things have not gone as well.

In the past, I have had problems with the emcees taking too long with introductions and then other times when storytellers have taken more than their allotted time.

This year I was very frustrated when our Saturday night Finale seemed to go on forever. Due to circumstances beyond our control the evening started late and then one storyteller went from a 15 minute story to a 25+ minute story. Needless to say, it was a very long evening. Rather than having an audience that felt the evening was too short, I heard comments (particularly from the older crowd) that it was a very long evening. So, rather than leaving on a positive high note, I am now worried that we will lose some of the audience next year if they remember how long the stories were rather than the stories themselves. As a producer, I went from thinking about a wonderful evening of storytelling to worrying about the late evening.

I don’t know about anyone else’s experience, but have found some/many storytellers will change their story when they get on stage. Many times when they do this the change affects their timing. Once this happens there seems to be a domino effect and the schedule flies out the window. Has anyone really tried the emcee on stage or diming the lights? Our Saturday night performance is in a performing arts center and that approach seems a little drastic.

Storytellers are always given 2-3 printed festival guidelines prior to their arrival which lists number and length of each session. We have 2 meetings to discuss the Friday and Saturday night programs and I specifically discuss the timelines and the reason why these timelines were set. Three years ago I placed a large clock on stage clearly visible for the storytellers and this did improve the timing.

However, this year someone commented that just having the clock there did not remind them when they started so they didn’t know when to stop. I had been thinking about placing a person in the front row with time cards, but really like the idea of the LED clock that starts counting up with the beginning of the story. For me, it might be worth a try. Thanks for that suggestion.


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