• What's New in Event Entertainment

    FROM THE Winter 2016 ISSUE
  • What's New in Event Entertainment

    FROM THE Winter 2016 ISSUE
  • What's New in Event Entertainment

    FROM THE Winter 2016 ISSUE
  • What's New in Event Entertainment

    FROM THE Winter 2016 ISSUE

Shingin the spotlight on the talents of a performer not only adds an element of entertainment to an event, it creates a shared experience for your guests that encourages camaraderie and inspires individuals to connect with their own potential for greatness. All eyes may be on the stage, but the four performers profiled here insist that it’s the audience that steals the show every time.

Live Event Painting

Upon noticing Kimberly Harvey standing behind a French easel with a palette of oil paints, brush in hand, with observant eyes taking in the scene unfolding around her, guests attending the special events that she captures on canvas often approach her to ask what exactly she’s doing.

At this point she’s a natural at live event painting—depicting a memorable moment in real time to create a long-lasting masterpiece. But three years ago when a friend first asked her to paint her daughter’s wedding, the idea was also new to Harvey. Her initial response was, “You want me to what?” Now she’s on her second easel, having worn out the first one after about 50 live painting sessions.

Harvey, who lives in Deemston, took her first oil painting class at age 10 and is an elementary school art teacher, but she’d never thought about approaching painting as a performance in this way. Now she has it down to an art. She begins with a conversation with her client about the guests, scenery and activities they’d most like to appear in the finished painting. “Usually whoever hires me knows specifically what they want,” she says. Her canvas offers more flexibility than a photograph in that Harvey can paint a Christmas tree near the stage when it’s actually set up in the back of the room at a corporate holiday celebration.

On the day of the event she arrives early to paint the backdrop, then throughout the event she paints the mingling, dancing and smiles of the evening. Harvey takes photographs of those important elements she discussed with her client so that she can perfect the painting at home and add a personal touch. The final work of art is delivered to her client framed and ready to be displayed.

The vibrancy of oil paints is ideal for capturing the liveliness of a special event, and Harvey’s talent often captures the attention of attendees. “People will come up and talk to me while I’m painting, and they’ll ask me questions,” Harvey says. “It’s almost like I’m teaching them about art in the process. I’ve met a lot of great people doing this.” She’s noticed that guests especially intent on being included in her painting will stand near her during cocktail receptions.

While Harvey interacts with the curious attendees throughout the evening, her focus is on capturing the moments happening around her. “The canvas is about the event, it’s not about me,” she says. In addition to the advance conversations with her client about how they’d like the painting to look, “the environment and the activity within the venue helps produce what happens on canvas,” she says.

Painting the scenes that become cherished memories in her clients’ lives is rewarding not only because of the gratitude she receives, but because it’s made art an even more important part of her life. “I just like the opportunity to paint,” Harvey says. “Before I started this I was too busy living life, doing everyday things and not forcing myself to find the time, and now I just love to paint.”

Do you ever get stage fright? How do you handle it?

Harvey says she sometimes gets nervous if a venue is “uptight” when she arrives. “I just walk in and I start praying and going through the actions. Then, before I know it the event’s done and I’m walking out thinking, ‘that was easy.’”

How do you recover from a mishap? 

"Oils are very forgiving. I noticed that I must have been very nervous when I first started doing this and I made people a lot smaller than they needed to be, so when I got home I just made them a little bit taller. Now I’m a lot more relaxed in what I’m doing.”

A Reminder to Planners

Harvey brings a 3-foot-by-3- foot rug to protect the floor under her easel, and while she can paint from anywhere, being positioned with a clear view of the room lets her see the action from every angle. “It’s a lot of fun when you have the freedom to be part of the event and paint people in.”

Magician, Mentalist, Corporate Entertainer and Keynote Speaker

For years, Denny Corby thought he would eventually run his family’s business, which just so happens to be the paper supply company in Scranton that’s featured in the opening credits of television’s The Office. “From age 16, I started doing every job possible,” Corby says. “I stripped and waxed floors, cleaned bathrooms, drove box trucks, picked up orders, messed up orders—I’ve done everything possible.”

After graduating from college he started working in sales at the paper company, but he soon found out that this corporate role just wasn’t his style. “It was an uphill struggle from the get-go,” he says. His father could sense that his son wasn’t happy in the position, so he encouraged him to pursue the magic that had captured his passion since the age of 8, and Corby started a business of his own. “Two years later I’m self-sufficient and traveling the world working with Fortune 500 companies,” he says.

His ability to seemingly read audience members’ minds and pull off magical illusions has been honed by years of practice and hanging out with his decades-older-than-him best friends at the local magic shop. With such a strong foundation in his craft, he’s able to focus on making his clients’ vision a reality. “Now magic is just something I bring to the table,” Corby says. “It’s all about my clients, and giving them 110 percent of what they want—whatever that might be.”

In preparing for a performance, he talks with his client and does his own research to learn about the company’s culture and what the goal is for the meeting, conference or event in which he’ll be performing. Corby has a collection of performance options that include socializing and charming the crowd during receptions, emceeing an event with intros and transitions that energize and unite a program, a full-stage performance with customized routines or team-building workshops where participants are each taught a step in a routine and have to work together to sequence them and pull off an illusion. Communication and teamwork are two of the most common messages that clients choose to emphasize, but whatever the theme, Corby can work magic with it. “It’s a customized show; it’s not just a boiler plate,” he says.

To create that shared experience, Corby forgoes props like saws and magic hats and instead performs a more organic routine that uses things he finds in the audience, like books handed out during a conference (he’ll open the book and pinpoint the word an attendee is thinking of) or dollar bills from audience members’ pockets (he turns them into hundred dollar bills—a trick that also turns the crowd into an alert and eagerto- participate audience). He also references hallmarks of the company’s culture or industry that he’s researched before the show to draw in the crowd. “I’d rather fill the stage with personality and use the audience as my props,” he says.

Corby has found show business to be “about 10 percent show and 90 percent business.” He regularly attends networking events throughout the Northeast U.S., makes cold calls, creates customized video proposals and absorbs the business advice of every book and podcast that crosses his path. Developing a clientfocused business model has been the magic behind his success. And for those who believe there’s no such thing as magic, Corby insists that, “in a dorky, really cool way, yes, there is.” It’s the effect that a captivating performance can have on a crowd. “For that period of time that I’m on stage, those people are not worried about anything else,” he says. “They’re not worried about bills, work, home—they’re just engaged in what’s happening on stage.”

Do you ever get stage fright? How do you handle it?

“It’s about two minutes prior to a show that it starts to hit. It’s natural, and I love that feeling. I do my thing—I listen to my music and I shake myself out like a boxer does, and once the intro hits there’s no backing out.”

How do you recover from a mishap?

That’s what separates the professional from the amateur. Especially in a magic show, the audience really doesn’t know how the trick is supposed to end. I’ve made mistakes on stage, but a professional will still keep going on with the trick and make it seem like nothing really happened.” 

A Reminder to Planners

Book early, and think about what’s important in an entertainer besides the fee. “Don’t worry just about price, because if you’re just worried about price, you’re not going to get the best entertainment for your event.”

Mystery’s Most Wanted

To pull off a perfect crime, a criminal executes his lawlessness with such cleverness and precision that there are practically zero traces of evidence left behind for investigators to solve the case. When performing one of its original murder mystery dinner theater productions, the cast of Mystery’s Most Wanted leaves its fingerprints all over the place, wielding calling cards of engaging improvisation and audience involvement to perform a perfect show.

In founding Mystery’s Most Wanted in 1995, Randy Oliva masterminded a new kind of dinner theater that put the spotlight on the audience. The Chicago native arrived in Pittsburgh in 1992 after working the theater scene in New York City for five years. Murder mystery shows were becoming popular at the time, and Oliva joined a company that did dinner theater while also waiting tables at Spaghetti Warehouse. His employer there asked him if he could create murder mystery experience for the restaurant, and he knew exactly how to differentiate the experience. “I wanted the show to focus more on improv with the audience, and I wanted it to be more interactive,” Oliva says. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were part of the script, and that’s where I really think we’re different.”

More than 20 years after the first show (which sold out), Mystery’s Most Wanted now includes 15 actors with two casts running at all times, and a third running during the holiday season. They perform from a repertoire of 24 original scripts at theaters in the Pittsburgh area and around the region at corporate and social events—and the 1920s mobster show that started it all is still a crowd-pleaser. A sampling of titles includes “It’s One, Two, Three Strikes—You’re Dead!” “Mobsters, Molls, and Marinara,” “It’s Murder, Charlie Brown’” and “Star Trek: Set Phasers to Murder.”

With so many themes, Mystery’s Most Wanted can customize a show to accomplish a client’s goal—and most of the time that’s “to get away and have some fun,” Oliva says. He and the cast also find ways to work in customized jokes from information he learns in preparation for the show. “We might throw some jabs in there about their competitor. I love to see the looks on [the crowd’s] faces when they realize how much we know about their company,” Oliva says. The shows also connect attendees as a team-building activity with time for mingling to uncover clues around the room, and then making each table work together to figure out who the murderer was.

The troupe’s style features many opportunities to engage with the audience, whether in assigning them a character role or bantering back and forth in one of the many improv segments built into the script. The shows are designed with a sense of humor, but some of the most comedic moments come from audience cameos—for instance, when the hero in the crowd forgets his cue to shoot off his cap gun, or when a damsel in distress began to flirtatiously run her hands through the hair of an audience member and accidentally pulled off his toupee. (Oliva says that the gentleman who lost his hairpiece was actually relieved to have the truth revealed after 25 years of wearing it.) “It’s sort of like their 15 minutes of fame where they get to present themselves in front of their family or friends,” Oliva says. The reactions and interactions of the crowd make each show different from the last. “I think that’s what keeps it interesting for us as performers is that we never know what we’re walking into,” Oliva says.

The unpredictability of where a performance will go each time requires an actor who is ready for anything. “I work with 15 of the most talented people I’ve ever met,” Oliva says of his cast. “There’s nothing but energy from them to make it so great. They continue to add new things to shows we’ve done for years.”

Do you ever get stage fright? How do you handle it?

“I think any actor still gets stage fright. At the start of these shows I never know what the reaction of the audience is going to be.” Oliva says he takes deep breaths and sends a wish that “everyone has a good time to the powers that be.”

How do you recover from a mishap?

Inspired by the style of The Carol Burnett Show, the cast “makes the most of” a forgotten line or a prop that breaks in the middle of a scene. “We won’t break character, but we make a joke about it. We’ve had shows where the improv goes on for three minutes, and then we come back and say, ‘Okay, where are we at in the show?’ The audience just eats that up.”

A Reminder to Planners

“We’re very flexible and we go with their schedule … we make it shorter, or add a song to make it longer. This is your event, and it’s about you.”

Aerialist with AirPlay! Entertainment and juggler with The Give & Take Jugglers

Allison Watman has a different perspective than most when it comes to special events— one that’s approximately 19 feet above the room. From this elevated angle, she performs aerials on a trapeze or suspended from silky fabrics that hang from the ceiling while delighting the crowd below.

“It’s just an amazing feeling seeing everyone from above and connecting with the audience … it kind of stirs up a feeling of wonder from these adults who maybe don’t see these extraordinary things every day,” Watman says. “The great thing about circus is that it showcases what the human body is capable of, and as human beings our bodies can do so much.”

As they watch the beauty, grace and daring moves of an aerialist, it can be inspiring for attendees to be reminded of the possibilities of their own potential. That’s just how Watman felt the first time she experienced the art form working at a circus camp when she was 21, where she was hired to teach juggling, a skill her father taught her at age 8. She began trying the aerials that were going on around her, and by the end of the summer she was teaching the basics to the children attending the camp. But the real revelation came after the summer was over. “My entire life I never considered myself an athlete—I hated running. I was very into theater and singing, but never was an athlete,” Watman says. “But after that summer, I could do two pull-ups, and that was very exciting to me. It made me feel so strong and powerful, and it was how I started to get to know my body and what it was capable of.”

Now she performs professionally as an aerialist with AirPlay! Entertainment, and also as a juggler with The Give & Take Jugglers, both based in Philadelphia. Aerial performances are accomplished with either a portable aluminum rig, or by rigging directly from the ceiling. An advance site tour of the venue is done to confirm that there’s ample space vertically and horizontally for safety and movement, and AirPlay! provides almost everything else necessary for the performance. Watman’s repertoire allows for full customization depending on the theme and vision a client has for the event. The music, costuming and energy of a routine can exude everything from a playful sultriness to a sophisticated elegance. In a center-stage performance, Watman performs a five-minute routine featuring a series of daring, eye-catching moves that draw gasps from the audience. She can also perform an array of ambient aerials that add to the atmosphere of an event as she slowly flows through graceful poses or pours champagne for guests from above. The ambient style requires a lot of stamina, as aerialists can be in the air for 15 to 20 minutes.

“I think about it as one cohesive dance instead of a series of tricks,” Watman says. “You’re telling a story through this art form, not just showing off this list of tricks that you know.” As she performs, Watman seeks eye contact and connection with the audience, and adapts her style to their reactions. “You definitely think about eliciting the emotions that you want to get across, whether it’s awe or surprise or inspiration,” she says. “Every time I do a routine, it’s slightly different because the audience is slightly different, and they’re giving me different feedback.”

Do you ever get stage fright? How do you handle it?

“When I started off doing juggling shows … I would get really nervous, and it’s bad because your hands shake, so for a while I really had to deal with stage fright. When you’re in the air there are big mistakes that you can make, but it’s less likely than dropping a ball. I’ve gotten over it now because I’ve performed so much, but I just think mantras to myself, like, ‘We’re just here to have fun, let’s just make people smile.’” She’s also heard that bananas are rumored to help with stage fright: “I don’t know if it’s true, but I really like bananas.”

How do you recover from a mishap? 

When I disappoint myself during a show, it’s hard for me to get over it until the next show when I can redeem myself and remind myself that I know what I’m doing. From the audience perspective, they might not even notice or they might think it’s part of the act. As long as I don’t make a big deal about it, the audience probably doesn’t even know.”

A Reminder to Planners

In addition to being cognizant of the space requirements for circus performances, keep in mind that there are a wide variety of options for different types of performances. “Also, it’s a very physical thing, and it takes a lot of energy and fitness. Sometimes people say that they want a contortionist for three hours, but it’s so physical that they can do it for 10 minutes, and then they need a really long break before they can do it again.”

Because many of our colleagues are caffeinated enough during these stressful months, why not gift them a gentler, kinder holiday beverage? Tea Forté, a company based in Maynard, MA, offers handcrafted tea blends that are served at some of the finest hotels across the U.S. and Canada. Their Warming Joy 2021 holiday collection features a combination of black, green and herbal teas, including seasonal favorites like raspberry ganache, sweet orange spice, cherry marzipan, harvest apple spice and winter chai.


Chances are, you won’t know you’re living through history until it’s too late. It’s already happening. A chain reaction has been set in motion and the ground has begun to slide beneath your feet.

This past year has been a whirlwind to say the least. As a global pandemic sent the world reeling, planners were left grasping for footholds as the event industry was brought to a standstill, and many of the most fundamental elements of live meetings and events were cast in a new light.


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