Mark “Swany” Swanhart Of The Masked Singer On The Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Live Event
… Third, I like to make my shows a bit of a rollercoaster ride. There are highs and there are lows, but you don’t see them coming. I want people to stay on the edge of their seats, and not know what is coming next. If the audience figures out your twists and turns, you’ve already lost them.
I had the pleasure to talk to Mark “Swany” Swanhart. Mark has over 25 years of experience in the entertainment industry as a Writer, Director, Choreographer and Producer. Swany’s creative work spans over live stage, events, film and television. He has written, choreographed and directed such shows as The Dancing With The Stars Tour, Americas Got Talent Tour, Bachelor Live On Stage, The Judd’s “Girls Night Out”, Together Live with Glennon Doyle, The Maks and Val Tours, Masked Singer Tour (Spring 2022) and Simone Biles Gold Over America Tour (Fall 2021) . His creative vision has brought to life shows for Celine Dion, Cirque Du Soleil, Disney, Paramount Studios, Fox Studios, NFL Super Bowl Live and NFL On Location Experiences, The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, Danny Elfman and Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme to name a few. As a Co-Executive and/or Creative Producer Swany’s credits include NBC’s Little Big Shots, NBC’s Bring the Funny, CBS’ The World’s Best, ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent, Syco Entertainment’s The X Factor and most recently FOX’s Game of Talents.
Mark, thanks so much for joining us on this interview series. Our readers would love to know more about your background and how you grew up. Can you share with us a little bit of your origin story and what led you to your career?
I grew up outside of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in a small steel and coal mining town. Oddly enough, my Dad, who was a coal miner for 42 years, suggested that I start dance classes to help me progress in sports as well. So I began with ballet classes and fell in love with them. From there, it expanded to me wanting to dance full time, so I attended college for dance. During college, I was a part of the Hubbard Street Dance Company and did concert dances with them on a national tour.
After that, I moved out to Los Angeles and got my first choreographic job with Baz Luhrmann, who has worked on Moulin Rouge and most recently, the new Elvis movie. I choreographed his Broadway show La Bohéme and from there have been blessed to work on events for Celine Dion, Dancing with the Stars, Simone Biles, LL Cool J, and The Rolling Stones to name a few. Now, I am working as the executive producer of television shows such as The Masked Singer, Little Big Shots, Bring the Funny, and America’s Big Deal.
Can you tell our readers how you ended up being a part of The Masked Singer?
My producing partner Guy Phillips and I did a couple of shows together including The Bachelor Live on Stage. We started looking at The Masked Singer and thought it was going to be a great opportunity, even though we didn’t know at first how we were going to take it on the road. It felt as though once you revealed the celebrities, it would be hard to go to the next city with the same crew, but we found a way around that. We talked with Fox about our concept, and how we wanted to take it on tour and they were all for it. We started this project about 4 years ago, and right as we were getting ready to start the tour, COVID shut everything and we had to push it back even longer.
It has been said that our greatest teachers are the mistakes that we make. Can you share with us a mistake you’ve made during your career and what you learned from that?
Growing up in dance and being from a coal-mining town, as you can imagine I was bullied quite a bit. I was the only boy in those types of classes, and the way that my peers made fun of me, made me feel as though I didn’t have a voice. That stuck with me for a long time and when I moved out to Los Angeles, I still felt as though my voice did not matter.
It took me a while, but I finally realized that I do have a voice and I needed to be honest with myself about my insecurities. Even to this day, I sometimes walk on set feeling a little insecure, but I’ve learned over time that the feeling that I get can be turned into a good thing if I intertwine it into the creative aspects of my career in a healthy way. I am now able to question that worry, figure out why I am feeling that way, and work on whatever is it until it feels right to me.
As you know, The Masked Singer has become a cultural phenomenon. For our readers who might not be aware, can you tell us the history of where it comes from and how it was brought to the U.S.?
The show began in South Korea and was part of an international music reality game show franchise called The King of Mask Singer. Another producer, Izzie Pick Ibarra, saw it and thought it would be a very successful show in the United States. I’m sure the people that the show was originally pitched to thought that she was crazy, but in the end, it was such a great idea to bring over to the U.S. because people love it.
Why do you think The Masked Singer has been so successful?
I believe this is because it’s so fun. After the last few years, I think people needed a zany show like that, so they are getting into it. From the judges to the various characters on the show, and the big celebrity reveals, it has something for everyone. My parents told me that my neighbor from back home who is 84, never misses an episode because she loves it so much. Their other neighbor whose family includes a 7-year-old girl is also a devoted fan of the show. I think it’s unique in the sense that it can bring us all together, no matter your age.
Mark, you are a successful producer of live events, which I imagine can be very difficult. From your experience, what are the five most important aspects or strategies to running a successful live event?
First off, you have to find what parts you enjoy and are good at and hire out for everything else. I enjoy the aspect of writing the show and working on the entire storyline from start to finish. It’s pretty interesting to think about how it’s all going to start, where the story will lead and how the entire process will come together. You also have to be honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are. As for myself, I am not great at costumes, so I hired someone who helps in that area, and she’s been a lifesaver for me.
Second, I believe too many creators get in their own way and only think about what they might want from the show. Instead, you need to place yourself in the shoes of the person who is going to be watching. If someone is going to be at a live event, they want an experience, not the same thing they would see if they were watching it at home. I like to go around to various seats in the venue and see how different parts of the show look from that angle to make sure it fits my vision. We do run-throughs and I want to see how it looks from this view when the curtain goes up, where our host, Natasha comes in from, etc. These are all very important parts to me because I want to experience what the person in those seats is going to feel watching the show and make sure it’s a good time for them as well.
Third, I like to make my shows a bit of a rollercoaster ride. There are highs and there are lows, but you don’t see them coming. I want people to stay on the edge of their seats, and not know what is coming next. If the audience figures out your twists and turns, you’ve already lost them.
Next, I want to keep my audience curious. No matter what you’re doing, we all get sucked into the mental checklist of our day or what we need to do tomorrow, even during a live event. I try to keep things engaging and interesting so you can focus on being in the moment, instead of worrying about everything else you need to get done once the show is over.
Finally, never underestimate your audience and what they can absorb. I want people to come to my shows and take something different away from them, no matter how many shows they have been to. I think of it as watching a great movie. You can’t just watch it once, you have to watch it several times and go back and see it from a different perspective. Bringing this to my shows lets the audience decide what they want to focus on for every event, which again, keeps the curiosity alive.
Mark, due to the role you play, you are a person of enormous influence. If you would inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest group of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can inspire.
That for me would be bringing hope to those that face anxiety and depression. This is not something I talk about a lot, but my grandfather and my uncle both took their lives at 48 years old. Because this is a matter that is near and dear to my heart, I wrote a script around the subject and have made it a goal of mine to help people who might feel the same way my grandfather and uncle likely did. I want to show people who are feeling this way, that there is someone out there who cares about them.
When I came out to Los Angeles, I had a couple of projects in mind, including a movie called Moving America, which is based on the same theme of helping people. As of right now, that movie has not been made, but I did end up working with Simone Biles on a project called Gold Over America which talked about the aspects of mental health and the fierce world of competition. I loved working with her because it allowed me to be a part of something I thought was important while showcasing that even athletes and people of esteem have rough days and have learned how to lean into those incidents, all while the spotlight is on you.
I also try to bring that same energy to The Masked Singer. I tell our performers “you never know who is going to be there. It could be 100 people, it could be 1,500, some of those might have even saved up all year just to be here, so let’s give them the best 90-minute show they’ve ever seen!” I truly want anything that I work on to be special for people and to give them something that not only makes them think, but maybe they even realize that no matter what you are going through, even for a moment, that life is worthwhile.
Thank you for these fantastic insights.