Spellbound at the magic kingdom

by Bonnie Wu

Tom Vazzana, senior show director
Hong Kong Disneyland
Photo: Edde Ngan

Show-stopper demonstrates a flair for creativity

Entertaining large audiences is a challenge senior show director Tom Vazzana tackles on a daily basis. As the creator of live performances and seasonal events at Hong Kong Disneyland, his success lies in the ability to capture and enthral the attention of the transient crowds.

The latest example of Mr Vazzana's showmanship is Haunted Halloween, a month-long event that features a stream of attractions and peripheral entertainment aimed at consistently engaging and amusing visitors.

"Crowd-pleasing entertainment begins with carefully defining your target audience and understanding cultural nuances," says Mr Vazzana, who moved from the US to join the Hong Kong Disneyland team in 2005. He observes that Chinese audiences are particularly drawn to flamboyant spectacles and concludes that subtlety is not always the best way to catch their attention.

He adds that putting a show together is an art in itself: "It requires vision, inspirational storytelling techniques and the ability to translate stories into superb showmanship," he explains.

Mr Vazzana's passion for the arts has always directed his career path. He began as a scriptwriter and stage director in the pulsating art hub of New York City, where he mingled with accomplished directors and playwrights. When Disney Parks and Resorts in the US decided to expand their offer of live theatrical shows, Mr Vazzana saw an opportunity for his career to flourish both creatively and commercially.

Culture shock

Close attention to cultural preferences is part of Mr Vazzana's fundamental work philosophy. Relocating to Hong Kong has been a cultural awakening for Mr Vazzana, who had no prior work experience outside the US. "Local culture has a huge impact on my work. A show can go horribly wrong if cultural elements are neglected and I've always tried to adapt my shows to the preferences of my spectators," he says. "For my Hong Kong shows, I am always thinking of big ideas and I make my themes interesting right at the front gate." He notes also that different events attract specific audiences: "For instance, Chinese New Year draws in large numbers of mainland tourists, while Halloween is especially popular among local young adults."

Twice as large as last year's, Haunted Halloween features two haunted house — "Demon Jungle" and "Main Street Haunted Hotel", as well as the much anticipated "Glow in the Park Halloween Parade". Along with the main attractions that are unique to Hong Kong Disneyland, Mr Vazzana cleverly employed secondary visual and auditory cues to boost the Halloween buzz, since peripheral details help keep the theme alive and offer a more complete experience for visitors.

"I measure success through the audience's reactions, so I account for the spectator's perspective at every step of the production process," he says.

He notes however that a winning show requires greater attention to detail and a personal touch to create one-of-a-kind experiences. In a bid to engage his Halloween audience, Mr Vazzana got creative with spooky tactics — killing the street lights at night, fogging up trails and hiring actors as menacing pumpkin men, zombies and pirates. "By pumping up the fear factor and making it more interactive, we offer the entertainment value that Hong Kong youth seek. It's fresh, fun and has just the right amount of fright in the mix," he expands.

Creative obsession

Mr Vazzana has a knack for storytelling, which is both a passion and the key to his career success. "It's how I fit into this job role," he says.

His current role involves creating stories, writing scripts and communicating his vision to a large team which he also supervises, including production heavyweights such as those in charge of art direction, lighting, costume design and musical score.

"We all need to be on the same page in order to work productively and subsequently roll out a successful show," Mr Vazzana explains. "This is where storytelling becomes important. A good idea must be able to inspire everyone in the team. It's useless if you have a clever idea but cannot articulate your vision effectively."

Reflecting on other traits that he attributes to his success, Mr Vazzana stresses the importance of trust. "These large-scale projects are all about teamwork and it requires a huge dose of confidence in your colleagues." He nurtures trust by communicating clearly to avoid misunderstandings and ensures the entire team works toward a mutual goal — to deliver exceptional entertainment to the audience.

While creativity is imperative, it must be tempered with practical sensibilities. Ideas are worthy only if they can materialise after considering realistic constraints, such as space and budget. Mr Vazzana says, "I may want a live whale to be carried down a parade, but I would probably need to settle for one made out of papier-maché."


Taken from Career Times 24 October 2008, p. C4
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