by Tony Toledo, Sharing the Fire 2016 Workshop Presenter
As an EMCEE you are like the oil in your engine. You barely know it’s there, but if it wasn’t, nothing would work.
Being a great storyteller and being a great EMCEE are two different skill sets. As a storyteller you are focused on sharing your tale. As an EMCEE you are focused on making sure artists and audience have fun.
Every Wednesday for seven years I EMCEE’d Speak Up Spoken Word Open Mic in Lynn, MA at the Walnut Street Coffee Cafe. The idea for Speak Up came from Don White. In his heart he knew Lynn, especially Lynn, needed a spoken word open mic. A friend told me that driving from Beverly to Lynn was just too far for her. She wanted me to move the Open Mic to Salem or Beverly. In response to this Don White told me, “You don’t shine your flashlight at the sun. You shine it in the dark where it’ll do the most good.” (Lynn has a bit of a reputation, “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. You don’t come out the way you come in.”) That little flashlight tale is one I have shared from the stage as EMCEE at Speak Up when there was a lull between open mic-ers.
As an EMCEE you are required to put your own ego in check. Every thing you do must be in service of your audience and your performers. When a woman shared at Speak Up a poem she had written about her friend who was murdered two years ago, I thanked her for the courage to share, for remembering her friend. Then, as the EMCEE, I told a quick joke. I always have a pocket full of quick jokes I can lay on the crowd. That’s necessary to clear the air for the next person up. If I didn’t do that, that person up next could be thinking, “I was going to talk about my new puppy. How can I follow a dead man?” Hosting an Open Mic means always being open to whatever is said, and responding well.
It still amazes me that at Speak Up high school girls, middle-aged men, black folks, straight women, gay men, storytellers, poets, comedians, people with no hair and people with pony tails, all listen to each other. And we learn from each other. That learning comes in no small measure from the support and encouragement of the EMCEE and the crowd.
As EMCEE I set up the microphones early in the evening. I also keep an eye out for new people coming in for the first time. I always welcome them and ask if they want to sign up. One woman said “no” two times. I had a hunch she wanted to speak but was nervous. The third time I asked her, she said it was now or never. She got up and said, “Every Friday I take my mother grocery shopping at Stop and Shop. And every Friday my mother says, “That’s where you were born, right there in the tomatoes.” (Lynn Hospital was torn down and a grocery store put in its place.) When she finished speaking she was surprised she hadn’t died. She was more surprised that everybody loved what she had to say.
As EMCEE I am a firm believer in giving each person an introduction and then thanking each person for sharing when they’re done. I know most of the folks who sign up to speak so I can riff on what I’ve heard them talk about before in their introduction. If I don’t know the person they still need to get an intro of equal length. For that person I might say, “I am so glad to introduce Kim tonight. Did you know she has the biggest collection of Number Two Pencils in New England? She has 786 yellow ones, 35 green ones, and one purple one that she used to write the words that she is going to share tonight. Please welcome Kim!” I always end with the person’s name and always clap. That way the audience knows to clap, the speaker takes the stage in a wave of energy, and they’re off! At first some of the people listening thought that everything I said was true. They soon got used to me pulling their leg. That’s just my personal take on it.
As an EMCEE you have to decide what works best for you and your audiences and your artist. How I EMCEE is just one path among thousands. If the path feels good to you travel on it. Or find you own path.
As an EMCEE you have to watch the time, put out fires, be the face of the event, love people, react on the fly, adjust the PA, move the mic for a short person, move it back for the 6′ 2′” guy, give a heart-felt intro and a warm thank-you. At Sharing the Fire you will get hands on practice being an EMCEE if you attend my EMCEE workshop. There will also be homemade (by me) fudge. Bribery still has a place in this day and age.
Tony Toledo EMCEE’d Speak Up Spoken Word Open Mic for seven years; he EMCEE’d the Derby Stage at the Mass Poetry Festival for the last 4 years, as well as EMCEEing the Student Day of Poetry and the Olio at Sharing the Fire. Tony has made his living as a storyteller for the last 26 years. No one is more amazed than him that the bank lent him the money to buy his massive one tenth of an acre estate. From his storytelling income no less. KR Glickman asked Tony to marry her. He was smart enough to say yes.
Want to learn how to be an EMCEE? Or just be entertained by one? On Sunday, April 3 at Sharing the Fire 2016, Tony Toledo will be presenting his workshop “How to Be a Good EMCEE.” Learn more about Sharing the Fire (LINK TO https://lanes.org/storytelling-conference/sharing-the-fire/) and register today! (LINK TO https://lanes.org/storytelling-conference/registration/)
Learn more about Tony at tonytoledo.com
Have EMCEEing tips or tales you’d like to share? Leave a comment.