Back in the day, companies and corporations were known for having special parties and events for prized clients and prospective customers. But Chuck Santoro and the creators of Proscenium have taken these meetings to a whole new level. By incorporating set designs, choreography, and pushing limits of space and lighting, Santoro has given an entirely new meaning to "the company picnic." Join me for this Spotlight Interview to learn how Santoro went from being an FAO Schwarz toy soldier doorman, to becoming the partner of a groundbreaking New York event planning agency, while keeping his integrity and sense of play alive and viable.
Damon L. Jacobs: Let's start by talking about your company “Proscenium.” What does that name mean?
Chuck Santoro: When were coming up with names for the company we didn’t want it to be about us, about our individual names. We wanted it to be about what we do. We went through so many different names, no one was happy. Then one morning I pitched the idea of “Proscenium” to my business partners. It was the first name everyone liked; four of us even knew what it meant. One didn’t but he liked it anyway because of the way it sounded. A “proscenium” is actually the arch on the stage that separates the action between the audience and the actors. Like Radio City Music Hall, that big arch, is an example.
We produce live events. We work with clients in all different sectors, from financial, to aeronautics, to pharmaceuticals, and we do live events for an internal company audience. People ask, “Oh, you do weddings?” No, not those kinds of events. What we do best is a big business meeting with a message that focuses on the brand. We talk about what the brand does, and how we are translating the brand into a live spectacle for an internal audience. For example, I have done events for T-Mobile internal manager meetings. And I have launched many drugs for pharmaceuticals. Every client is so different; you get to learn all about what makes them tick from a brand perspective. For T-Mobile, I’ve used magenta is so many ways, the challenge is how you bring that alive in a meeting? Seeing it as a static image is one thing, but we are bringing it to life. How does it smell? I always ask, “What is the flower? What would it wear?”
Damon L. Jacobs: So it’s almost like you are producing a Broadway play for a corporate meeting?
Chuck Santoro: It really is. That’s why the theater background comes in handy for a lot of us. You are taking the audience on a journey that has a beginning, middle and an end. I always start at the end of the meeting. What do we want our clients to feel at the end of the meeting? And you think about that at the end of the play. How do you want your audience to feel about your characters at the end of the play? In this case the “characters” are the CFO's and all these executives. You want it to be one clear message. I story board the meeting to figure out who are the players as much as I can. Who is saying what at what times? And how are we supporting them? My scenic designers are often Broadway designers. Lighting designers, choreographers, they are all theater trained. It’s great because I get to work with my friends, take them out of the theater, and say, “Come work with me at Boeing for awhile,” and they'll do it.
Damon L. Jacobs: How has Proscenium been part of the LGBT Community?
Chuck Santoro: That’s been one of the most exciting things for me. It may be a stereotype that creative people are gay people, but we are creative! We haven’t done an event specifically focused on the LGBT Community. Not that I wouldn’t, it would be great. I was able to be part of launching an HIV drug, and I think the client was very satisfied because I was reaching out to certain organizations that they hadn’t thought about, and that may have been different if they went with someone who wasn’t a member of this community.
For us it’s been more about partnering with other organizations in the Chamber. I have been working with Gonzalo Araya (L7z Group) on the digital solutions and our live events. Then Neil Cerbone does corporate trainings. So if you put the three of us together - we are a united front that can go in and offer services. I can do the meeting, Neil can do the training, Gonzalo can enhance engagement through digital and we collaborate as alliance partners serving the clients. I had no idea who these people were before joining The Chamber. This is a huge advantage to being part of The Chamber.
Damon L. Jacobs: How does one go from being the Nation’s “Toy Boy” to the Creative Director of Proscenium?
Chuck Santoro: My first job in New York was the toy soldier at FAO Schwarz who opened the doors. It was supposed to be a one day gig; I got it because I literally filled the suit. It turned into being asked to come back the next Wednesday. In six years I went from toy soldier to executive of the company.
I was featured on Z100’s morning show as a spokesperson for FAO Schwartz. I was only supposed to be on once. Elvis Duran introduced me by saying, “Chuck the Toy Boy is coming on.” He said it, and it stuck. Once I did the show, people called in and asked when I was coming back. They asked me to come back the next week, and I did it for nearly four years between Thanksgiving through Christmas. When I left FAO I didn’t think I would be doing that anymore. But then an agent contacted me and asked if I wanted to do this again. It fit with my background, with my story, how I started as a toy soldier, and how I kind of lived the Tom Hanks “Big” story. So I still do it on the side. It’s fun.
Damon L. Jacobs: It seems you built your career on growing opportunities from small one-day jobs.
Chuck Santoro: It’s funny; I’m actually going back to my college as a “distinguished alumnus.” I’m going to be talking about taking opportunities when the road you travel isn’t traditional. I was a theater major, now I’m a creative director of my own company. A lot of that is about being really open to those opportunities. You can have a plan, but sometimes going off the path is more interesting. You may not know what you want; you may not know it even exists. When I was younger I didn’t know this creative world existed, I was just focused on acting. But I think my acting background has made me such a better creative director for what I am doing now.
And I think a lot of this is about cultivating relationships. The relationships along the way, wherever they are, can lead to something else. They open doors when you are open. I’m one of those people who has friends from all times in my life. I stay in touch. One helps lead to the other. I have used my own network in creating one thing to the other. That's part of it, and not being so rigid about sticking to one path.
Damon L. Jacobs: Proscenium is known for thinking outside the box. Does that come naturally for you?
Chuck Santoro: I think so. I try not to limit myself creatively. I think it goes back to my youth and playing with Star Wars figures. With Star Wars I would take the figures and create something outside the movie. It wasn’t like a right or wrong thing, it was just unstructured. As Chuck the Toy Boy, and just as me, I’m big with open-ended play. What I like is that there is no right or wrong. I’m a big believer in that. I’m the same way with Lego's and building. That's what I say to kids - you can read the instructions to build something specific, or you can just do something on your own. Try not to limit yourself.
It can be hard in this business. My producer may say, “No, no, too expensive, can’t do it.” But sometimes you just have to push people, and I think it’s that way in life in general. You have to ask or you don’t know. I’m not pushy, but I’m assertive in what I think is the right way to do an event. I always put myself in the audience and ask from their perspective what they want to see. New York events are very different. New Yorkers have seen everything. I want to give them something that is cool, that hasn’t been done before.
Damon L. Jacobs: What advice might you give to someone who is joining The Chamber and starting out in their own business?
Chuck Santoro: Be targeted in a way. Know what skill sets would compliment your offering, and seek them out. Reach out to them. You can find ways to partner so that it is mutually beneficial. We are stronger together. Don’t be afraid to reach out, and strengthen our community through relationships.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist who helps couples and individuals learn to improve communication, create and rebuild trust, cope with grief and loss, health issues, stress management, depression, addiction, ageism, bullying trauma, and caretaking fatigue. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To schedule a counseling visit or speaking engagement, call 347-227-7707, or email at Shouldless@gmail.com. An initial complimentary consultation is offered to NGLCCNY members, or people who are referred by NGLCCNY members.