View Full Version : Tune up your acting crew

Mike Goff
08-04-2011, 02:36 PM
After the MHC bus tour, I was asked by quite a few people about our actors, how we recruit how we train and what we do to maintain the level of intensity. We have had good results with our style of management and I love to write, so I thought that I would share.

It’s human nature to form our leadership styles by emulating people that we admire. We take all of our life’s lessons, pack them into a subconscious, how to guide and do the best that we can with each situation as it presents itself. I often wonder how many haunters actively seek to improve their management skills. How many are even aware that they need to?
When my wife and I started our first haunt in 1998, we were faced with the same issues that all haunters are faced with. We had a few superstar actors that carried the show. Their only downfalls were that they were inconsistent and unreliable. When they were tired, everyone knew it, and you just didn’t know if they were going to show up night to night. We had quite a few actors who just took up space and could easily be replaced by a switch mat, and timer, and of course we had those that just couldn’t do what they were told. In their mind, they were far more qualified to make decisions than I was. A couple years of this nonsense went by when it struck me, I can fix this. I looked back through my own life’s lessons and applied them to the problem at hand. I played sports in high school so I was familiar with the team concept, was a fairly good public speaker and had some experience in teaching. It was my time as a Marine that I found most useful.

The objective: How do you take a group of young people who have little experience in the working world, mold them into a cohesive team, and make each and every one of them perform at 100% for each and every group, no matter how tired they are or how horrible they feel? Do this, while giving them mediocre pay. Is it even possible?

The Navy SEALs have been doing this for years. The Army Green Berets have no shortage of Type A personalities applying for acceptance. If being a part of your team is something special, you too, will have no problems filling the gaps.
Let’s start with the recruitment process. Each year, we set up a booth at our county fair for the sole purpose of hiring new actors. We usually have 4 or 5 positions to fill and will hire around 12 people in order to find the type of people that we are looking for. We typically receive 150 to 200 applications. Once the boss lady and I have concluded who to interview, the grooming process begins. While interviewing prospective actors, I do everything that I can to discourage them from taking the job. I ask them if they have any experience as a haunted house actor, if they say no, I say great, no bad habits to break. I tell them that working a haunt is not for everyone. I tell them that at the beginning of the season, they will be hot, miserable, and sore. At the end of the season, they will be cold, sick, and hoarse. I tell them that I will probably be the most demanding person that they will ever work for in their entire life. I try not to crack a grin when I tell them that if they break their leg in the middle of the night I expect them to splint it up with cornstalks and finish their shift. If, after all of this, they still want to be a part of the Scare Fair crew, I tell them that they have 2 weeks to prove to me that they belong here.

The week before we open, we have orientation. It’s rather informal, more like a cookout. We talk about what I believe will be our strengths and weaknesses this season. We talk about the rules and discuss the prior season. We start to get them into the frame of mind that we are back in the game, and that come Friday night, we are all business. I tell them to remind me of why they are here, and I remind them of how hard they have worked to get us all here. I explain to them that We expect the same level of intensity that they demonstrated the year before, and that the only way to do this is to hit the very first group of customers with everything they have, and to hit every group after that just as hard.
We do everything that We can to teach them about the business of haunting. We keep very little from our staff. This makes them feel like more a part of the team rather than just a hired hand. I also believe that the more that they understand my intent, the better decisions that they will make in my absence.
We spend the first two weeks of the season pushing them. I walk the haunt until I have blisters on my feet. It is critical that they know that they are being watched, when they do a good job, someone is there to pat them on the back. It they need to step it up, I am not shy about it. I look them in the eye and say that’s not going to get it. Each night before we open I tell them what they are doing well and I tell them what they need to work on. The wife and I are constantly telling them that each customer paid 15 dollars for a ticket and they need to get their money’s worth. We always tell them that they need to turn the dial up just a little bit. We continue to tell them this until we are completely blown away with their performance. At that point I take a deep breath and say, you guys are freakin awesome. What I witness each and every season, is a group of young misfits, many of which can’t hold down a regular job and have mastered the art of screwing up, bond together as a family. They work hard, they play hard and their level of performance is nothing short of amazing.
There are a few things to take into consideration. On the surface someone might say that I am a jerk, while that may be true, I think that they have missed the entire point of the story. Young men thrive on competition, and any young girl who is tough enough to work at Scare Fair, gets treated just like the boys do. These guys take an incredible amount of pride in what they do. When a prospective actor has completed his first 2 weeks of employment, I leave it entirely up to the staff, to decide if they are to remain a part of the family. I ask for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. If the staff votes them off of the Island, I don’t even care as to why. They are the ones who have made Scare Fair what it is, and they are the ones who have to work with them. I owe it to my people to ensure that the guy to their left and the guy to their right is just as good as they are. They expect that of me, just like I expect things of them.

Credibility is a huge issue, lead from the front and be consistent. When it’s time to eat, you eat last. Take care of the people who take care of you. When I talk to sponsors, I am always looking for the angle to take care of my actors. On Sunday nights, our pizza sponsor provides pizza for everyone. Pepsi supplies my guys with water, Pepsi, and Mt. Dew all month long. This year, Texas Roadhouse is bringing steak for everyone. My guys know that the other haunts don’t do this, and they feel appreciated. On a humanitarian note, this might be the best meal that some of these kids get all week. We plan cookouts throughout the summer just to stay in touch with everyone.

Are there better actors out there than ours? Probably, but none work harder. Do all that you can with what you have.

08-04-2011, 03:36 PM
Don't forget that there are several good actor trainers (several on these very forums) who can help mold that rag-tag group of kids into lean, mean scaring machines. I use several different exercises to get the actors to work together and bond while making sure they know how to do their jobs to the satisfaction of their boss. I like that you try to get them together several times a year to keep in touch.

Allen H
08-04-2011, 04:02 PM
Great post

Mike Goff
08-04-2011, 04:38 PM
Thanks Allen, I show your Actor training DVD about every other year, and would highly recommend it to everyone.

"Don't be dumb" just buy the DVD

As far as Badger goes, I want to bring you out to train, but my wife is not on board yet. Her nickname is Squeaky. I'll keep working on her, but she is the boss.

08-04-2011, 06:09 PM
Mike, I enjoyed reading your post and can tell that you actually care about your staff. If more haunts would use a system like this it would save alot of headaches as the season progressed. The humanitarian comment hit me hard as I never really thought about it like that. I have a huge heart and try to help people in any way I can so this touched home bud, great job. Brett

08-04-2011, 07:54 PM
As far as Badger goes, I want to bring you out to train, but my wife is not on board yet. Her nickname is Squeaky. I'll keep working on her, but she is the boss.

I would be honored to come up and help your staff. Have 'Squeaky' read my testimonials and she's absolutely free to contact me with any questions she (or you) may have...

08-06-2011, 08:11 AM
Thank you for an informative and engaging read, Mike. Posts like yours are exactly what someone like me who is trying to break into the industry needs, and it already has me thinking about my staff.

Killer Katie
08-06-2011, 08:57 AM
You nailed it, Mike.
Treat your people with respect. Point blank. Treat them well, feed them and reward them.
That alone will get you farther with your actors than most training could ever hope to do.
Once you have them dedicated to you, and know that you care about them, the rest is icing.
Excellent post!
I wish more haunt owners would grasp this concept, instead of using their actors like cattle

08-06-2011, 09:16 AM
Thanks for the post Mike. I had a long discussion the other day with the manager of the haunt I work at, the owner keeps bring back the same screw ups every year because he feels sorry for them. I want to take over the actor training and management for them so they can focus on other things but the owner does not like to give up the reins to easily. I want to do a full blown orientation training and a dry run/media and family night. The manager does not think this will work and the owner may not go for it. I just want to make this haunt the best in the area, bring back old customers and show them something new, instead of OK this happens here, that happens there. I have been busting my hump since Nov 1 of last year doing research on actors, props and everything else. I hate to come down to opening night and hear "OK, wing it."

Mike Goff
08-06-2011, 07:36 PM
I appreciate all of the positive feedback, thanks to all. I hope that everyone got, that we are in fact, pretty demanding of our crew. Like I said, young people thrive on competition, and they get a sense of dignity and pride by meeting the goals that we set for them. There are times when I think that they actually take more pride in the show than I do. I don't even train the new guys anymore. My staff takes them under thier wings and tells them that if you are going to be one of us, you will do things our way. I have actually learned more about how a haunted house should be managed from them than what they have from learned from me. They drive the bus, I just tell them when to turn.

I would caution anyone who would like to try our style of management to move slowly. It has taken us years to get to where we are. Each year we push them just a little harder, and we set goals. This year our goal will be more focused on costumes and accessories than it will on intensity. We are also going to incorporate more theatrics, but we will move slow. I think that if you try to accomplish too much in one season, you are just beating them down.

The rough draft of my post was about 5 pages long, so I really chopped it to make it readable. Something that I should have left in... We don't hire anyone under the age of 18, we prefer 22 to 25 year olds. In most cases, these guys will have filled out applications for employment for several years in a row before they get a shot at working here, so when I tell someone that if they don't do the job to our standards, we will find someone who does, it really carries alot of weight. Our turn over rate is almost nonexistent.
Another perk to having a waiting list for employment is that word gets around about how selective we are in hiring our actors. I think that it really lends some credibility to our show.
I know exactly what you mean when you say that you feel sorry for someone and can't fire them. I have been there many times. My guys all know that they can be voted off of the island at anytime by thier peers. You would be amazed at the sense of urgency that instills in them. I have found that they no longer put me in a position to fire someone. If a Scare Fair actor that has been here for more than one season ceases employment, it is because they joined the army or took on a job that will not allow them to work. In almost every case, they eventually come back to us when thier circumstances have changed.

As far as feeding your people, it's difficult to get money from a sponsor and in the scheme of things the money that you get will be small compared to what you make in your season. It is very easy to get trade. I owe what I have learned about sponsors from taking classes from Cydney Neil and Tattoo.

Thank you for the interest, I believe it in my bones that an acting crew is the show, the haunted house is just a stage.