You have this money, and you want to spend it wisely, because this outside performer is going to represent the library and your department, and you want to make such a good impression. And you want the audience to have such a wonderful time that they'll be asking when the next one is. Yet, at times, it's a crap shoot to what you'll get. I've learned over the years that there are some things you can do to help yourself out when booking performers, when dealing with performers, and when they (knock on wood don't show up).
BEFORE BOOKING YOUR PERFORMERS
Do Your Homework
It sounds like a no-brainer, but I have heard horror stories from some librarians who have said, oh this performer was so AWFUL! and when I ask about what steps they took to learn about them before booking them, there weren't any- they just fit the price. *bangs head* First step is to take a look at the performers website; see if the website is current, and see what reviews they have. Remember that they aren't going to post any negative ones, but you can scan and see if there are any from libraries around you. If the website isn't current, or if the reviews are sparse or from certain locations over and over (churches or small libraries when you're a huge library with a large crowd) they may not be the performer for you.
Phone a Friend (or Three)
Call around to your network of librarians, and ask specifically about the performer. Have they had them, what did they charge, how did they go over with the crowd? Where they on time, where there any issues? If you don't know anyone (fix this right away if that is the case) get on one of the local or national discussion lists and ask for local librarians who have had this performer to contact you off-list.
Attend Performer Showcases
In my area (and I bet in other areas as well), there are numerous performer showcases presented in the fall and spring. Think of it like conference exhibits for performers in your area. Those that choose to have a booth, and can also perform during exhibition session. Librarians are invited to attend and talk to performers, gather information, sign up for emails, and can get discounts if you book shows during the showcase.
Making a List, and Checking It Twice
It may sound silly, but just as I keep notes of what programs do well and what don't in my library, I keep track of what performers do well and don't do well at my library. I keep a copy of the contract in there, so I know historically what we've paid for the performer and what their terms were, including set-up requirements, so I know if something changes drastically from year to year. If someone was a HUGE hit with my kids, I make notes so that we can be sure to book them again. If they were iffy, then that goes in there as well. If they were rude to staff, or unprofessional, that goes in there as well. I don't share my notes on their websites- they're all internal- but I do use them to pick and choose who to have back year after year.
WHEN DEALING WITH PERFORMERS
Make them Feel at Home
Even though they are providing you a service, you want to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Make sure that they know where they're going, and if possible save them a space close to where they need to unload (especially if they have heavy equipment or animals). This can be as easy as propping up cones, or having a staff member park in the closest spot, and then move when the performer shows up. Always have the room cleared of people during set-up so they have time to prepare and breathe. And I always offer bottles of water.
Make Sure You Advertise What You Paid For
It's a weird thing, but sometimes it happens- you think you've paid for Sparkles the Show Dog, but you read the contract and you're getting Chuckles the Clown. Make sure that you read the contract throughout, and that you've got the room set-up how it needs to be. Your advertisements and flyers should also be clear and direct: if the program is for ages 8 and up, it should say ages 8 and up. While you and I may think it's OK for Sparkles or Chuckles to be entertaining baby brother who's 5 or 6, there may be insurance reasons that we don't know about. Having the whole family show up, and then having to turn them away is a PR nightmare you don't need.
Make Sure You Know Your Codes
Often times during special performances we can get more than our usual crowds. Make sure that you and your staff know the amount of people that your performance room can hold, and that you have a plan in place if your crowd is approaching that number. It's worse to have to turn some people away than to have a huge fine from the Fire Department for exceeding room occupancy. Make up tickets equal to the number that the room can hold, and make sure that everyone takes a ticket- that includes itty bitty newborn baby sister, too. Once the tickets are gone, that's it- no more can attend. Make that policy firm, and explain it to all staff members so that they can explain it to late comers. Hold all strollers in a separate area (not the hallway), and make sure that the walkways are clear and the exit doors as well. If something does happen (a pulled fire alarm or a sudden storm pops up) you need to be able to clear the room quickly.
Getting To Know You
Performers always like to be introduced by the library staff, and love to have their website, etc. plugged at the beginning and end. As long as they're not actively saying, HERE, HIRE ME FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY, I have never seen a problem with this. I always talk to my performers for a bit while they're unloading, and write down a short introduction on an index card- that way I have my lines in front of my kids.
Always Stay in the Room
I have always marveled at librarians who would tell me they would leave their performers to the crowd and come back about 10 minutes before the scheduled closing. I could never do that; in my head, it's like, WHAT IF MY KIDS EAT THE PERFORMER? WHAT IF SOMETHING CATCHES ON FIRE? WHAT IF THEY TIE HIM UP AND START PLAYING LORD OF THE FLIES OR HUNGER GAMES?!?!?!?!?! (extreme but what can I say, you have yet to meet my kids) Always, always, stay in the room with your performer- they may be new and exciting and awesome, but the crowd knows YOU and you are the one with authority. If someone is acting up (whether it's a kid or a talkative adult in the back or heaven forbid the PERFORMER) YOU are the one that will have to step in. Besides, you need to take awesome pictures that work with your photo policy to show off the awesome program you put together, so you can get more money for awesome programs.
WHEN THE WORST HAPPENS
They Don't Show Up
I have had a performer twice in my twelve years of being in charge of programs not show up. One called ahead of time (car wreck) and another showed up the next day. Both times I had to scramble and put together a program that would work with the crowd I had- I personally didn't feel that I could just go up and announce to the crowd that Hey, guess what, no performer, so sorry, BYE! If by 20 minutes before a performance I don't have a performer, I start making alternate arrangements *just in case* something would happen. I'm extremely lucky in that all the systems I've ever worked with purchase an umbrella movie license, and we have a wide range of movies in both my library and in my home (personal) collection. I'm less than 30 minutes away (round trip) from where I work currently, so I can pull a new movie from either the library or my collection, and pair it with what I call hodge podge crafts- meaning leftover craft kits from other programs, or letting kids go wild with paper plates, chennille stems and crayons. If you're paranoid like me, always keep a movie in your back pocket, along with some easy craft ideas just in case.
I've had unprofessional employees, but I've lucked out with unprofessional performers. Any confrontation is a risk, and you really need to think about how to handle the situation. How bad is it and how worse will you make the situation by stepping up? If the presentation is horrible or the presenter completely inappropriate, can you cut off the program early and professionally, without the situation getting worse? Can you send a staff member out to someone higher than you so that you'll have back-up if things get out of hand? You have to weigh all the factors- for that one performance can weigh heavily on the minds of the patrons that came that day, and all the apologizes in the world may not bring them back again. Cutting off a performer may be your only option.
What tricks with performers do you have? Share in the comments!