Working In Uncertainty

Pia Zadora's new career

Pia Zadora is perhaps most famous for winning a succession of Golden Raspberry Awards for bad acting, including ‘Worst New Star of the Decade’ in 1990, and for a career that seems to many to have relied heavily on the financial and string-pulling support of her husbands.

However, despite this her shift from acting into a new singing career illustrates the value of near-scientific testing of celebrity performances. If anything, her relative lack of talent makes her success more relevant to most people.

Having struggled with acting and popular music, she chose a new concept, to reappear as a traditional female singer, similar to Barbra Streisand. A new album of music was recorded, ‘Pia and Phil’, featuring old standards with Pia singing and music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

For the stage show one option was to start out with a high profile launch in a high profile venue. However, this couldn't be a test. If it went badly the consequences would be too damaging. Instead, the first show was a one Sunday afternoon in a near-empty theatre in a Chicago suburb. The audience was almost outnumbered by the 40 strong orchestra, but Pia went through the show as if playing to a packed house of loyal fans.

The decision to go for a low profile test site was a good one. The performance was marred by ear-splitting noise levels, confusing transitions between songs, apparently pointless stage movements, and exaggerated gestures by Pia that looked like a parody of other singers rather than her own style. A lot of work was needed if she was to win over the forthcoming audiences at big venues and avoid being destroyed by critics.

With her manager, Tino Barzie, Pia made some changes. The amplification of her voice was adjusted and more realistic stage patter was worked out to help with the transitions between songs. She was made more aware of the size of her gestures and they became more natural.

The result? Critical reviews of her big opening shows in New York and Los Angeles were strongly positive, though with a note of surprise. Pia sold out Carnegie Hall and was congratulated in an interview on ‘Good Morning America’. Despite being a singer far less skilled than Barbra Streisand, Pia Zadora had avoided disaster by patient testing.

Working In Uncertainty observations

We often have to give performances, including sales pitches, flirting, telling jokes, and explaining difficult topics to people, perhaps as a teacher. Very few people can get them right first time so it makes sense to look for opportunities to trial a performance where failure is unimportant. If it's practical, start with the mirror/voice recorder. Move on to testing with a friendly source of feedback. Try your material with people who aren't so friendly but aren't important either. Each time, you need to be able to gather information about what you actually did in your performance, and how others responded.

(Source of information: ‘High Visibility’ by Irving Rein, Philip Kotler, and Martin Stoller, published 1987 by Heinemann Professional Publishing Limited.)

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Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch