Philadelphia native has an Olympics secret to keep

Evan Schiff will be part of the Olympics' opening ceremony.
Evan Schiff will be part of the Olympics' opening ceremony.
Posted: July 27, 2012

In today's social-media world, how do you get 60,000 guests to sit through a dress rehearsal for one of the year's largest and most anticipated performances without revealing any secrets?

For Danny Boyle, the answer was simple: Start your own social-media campaign.

That campaign was to become part of Philly native Evan Schiff's life.

Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, has been directing Friday's opening ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in London. At Monday's dress rehearsal, the first in front of a live audience, Boyle appealed to guests' sense of pride and asked them to "save the surprise."

For Schiff, the secrecy around the opening ceremony became a matter of daily living. Schiff, who has lived in London for the last four years, was searching for tickets to Olympics events last year when he saw a notice for open performance auditions. In October, he auditioned for the opening ceremony, becoming one of thousands to volunteer to perform. After another round of auditions, he was notified in late January that he had passed and was welcomed as a volunteer performer.

In March, the work - and the secrecy - began. Rehearsals began to take up Schiff's weekends, and he had contractually agreed to keep quiet about the details.

"It's one of those things, when you get involved, you're like, 'Oh, cool, opening ceremony,' " Schiff said from London. "But it's been a good 20 hours a week . . . and you can only miss two practices. . . . It's been intense."

Welcoming the audience, Boyle implored guests to keep the details of the ceremony under wraps, and "#savethesurprise" was emblazoned on large screens throughout the Olympic stadium. According to news reports, Boyle knew that the ease of modern communications would make it unlikely that people would keep the secrets of the ceremony - but the audience appears largely to have listened.

As the #savethesurprise hashtag began to trend first regionally and then globally on Twitter, audience members gleefully lauded the performances without giving away details, and took the opportunity to tease photos of the advance crowd and the stadium.

Not everyone wanted to follow along, but the few who did leak information quickly found themselves the target of criticism. "Unbelievable the number of people who can't #savethesurprise and are happy to tweet a photo. The clue is in the hashtag!" tweeted Chris Notton.

Fellow tweeter Taryn Kirby agreed: "To anyone who leaked it, you are a disgrace."

As part of the opening performance, Schiff is to go onstage at 9 p.m. Friday in London (4 p.m. Philadelphia time) as one of a group of 120 performers that is itself part of a larger crowd of more than 1,000. For the next 15 minutes, a billion pairs of eyes will be on Schiff and his fellow volunteers.

Using incredible preceded by an indelicate adverb, Schiff also said that performing for an advance guest crowd was "really cool." But only a few can actually see what is going on right now.

Until Friday, family, friends, and even his girlfriend will have to wait.

"It doesn't really do it justice to try and explain it to people, or read it in papers over here that have all the spoilers," Schiff said. "It's like describing a movie: It's much better if people can see it. . . . When the show, after six months of practice, was finally put together in front of fans, it was fantastic. I think it would be a disservice to tell people about it beforehand."

Schiff was careful not to reveal details, and he said the volunteers had heard the "save the surprise" campaign for months. He did say that he would be dressed the same as the other performers, including grown-out facial hair, and that there would be no way to distinguish him from the others.

His family in the States, holding viewing parties Friday, may not be able to pick him out of the crowd. "I'm not riding a cow or the . . . end of the donkey or something," Schiff said. Nor is he dressed in a pink tutu. "The only really chance is if the camera passes by my face."

After their 15 minutes, Schiff and the other performing volunteers will be sent out of the stadium; space is at a premium, and reserving seats for them would not have been possible. Schiff will have to watch his performance at a nearby pub, where he and his friends have made plans to watch a recording.

Still, he said, the sacrifice is worth it.

"I'm definitely getting a bit more nostalgic about it, realizing what an opportunity it is," Schiff said. "It's been six months. . . . I'm definitely looking forward to it, but I'll be sad when it's over."

Contact Jonathan Lai at 215-854-5289 or, or follow on Twitter at @elaijuh.

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