'I'm not there to get autographs': Inside the wacky world of seat filling at the Junos

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'I'm not there to get autographs': Inside the wacky world of seat filling at the Junos

As soon as Alessia Cara leaves her seat and sets foot on stage to perform at the Junos in Ottawa this Sunday, someone will have swooped in and sat down in the chair she left.

The same thing happens if a musician has to get up to go to the washroom or if they mount the stage to accept an award. All eyes will be on them, while for the 1,500 seat-filling volunteers, it's a key moment to make the mammoth Canadian Tire Centre look packed for TV cameras.

Freda Lynds, the audience producer for the show, makes sure there's never an empty seat in sight.

"Every seat here is my world," she said during a rehearsal on Friday. "I do everything, from the seating map to where everyone is going to sit, to when they are going to be removed from their seat, so I can have somebody put in their seat 'cause we're live on camera and empty seats don't look good."

For Lynds, the night of the show is "organized chaos." She stands in the middle of the stadium with two headsets on, shifting her head from side-to-side making sure all the seats are filled. She started booking seat fillers for this year's show a few months ago.

Anyone can volunteer for the gig, but not everyone is going to end up sitting beside the stars. For high-profile seats which could very well show up on camera, Lynds relies on a group of about a 150 "seasoned pros," who fly in from all over Canada to fill seats.

"These are people that have done many, many award shows for me over the years. Everything from the Gemini Awards to the Juno Awards, every Canadian awards show you can imagine," she said. "When Justin Trudeau gets out of his seat on Sunday, I'll be putting one of those people in there."

Dressing 'just a little bit sharper'

Pete Szekely, a self-declared "veteran" seat filler from Ottawa, is hoping to score one of those coveted seats. Though Sunday marks just his second time seat filling at the Junos, he said he's got it figured out.

"You really have to be patient ... you may not even see the concert possibly, if all the seats are full. If all the seats sell out, you may end up somewhere just in line in the holding area," he said. "I know what I'm doing. I think I've got this thing down."

Back at the 2012 Junos in Ottawa, when Szekely first volunteered, he was up in "the boonies" and had to squint to see the stage.

This year, he's got a plan to get closer to the action — he's showing up early and is dressing up "just a little bit sharper," probably wearing a black suit jacket, a red shirt and a fedora "for a little pizzazz."

"Nothing too crazy," he said. "It's gotta be tasty."

'Nerve-racking and annoying'

Szekely takes the job seriously. Though he's a diehard Sarah McLachlan fan (she's performing at the show and is being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame), he won't make a peep if he is placed next to her, unless she starts talking to him.

"I'm there performing a certain service. I'm not there to get autographs. You don't want to be a distraction to anybody."

It's easy to get overwhelmed. And the pressure's been too much for some past seat fillers.

Sarah Wade also volunteered as a seat filler with a group of friends during the Junos in 2012 and ended up walking out on the job before the show was over.

"We had no patience for it. We weren't given much detail," she said, adding she won't be back for this year's show. She said she waited for hours and didn't really get to see any of the show.

"It felt like a herd of cows. It just got nerve-racking and annoying."

Lynds, the audience director, admits the show can be stressful. But she said anyone can do the job if they just have fun and play it cool. 

"We always tell them to be very friendly when people come back to their seats. Just smile, say hi, don't be scared. They're real people too. Just say hi and make your way to the next empty seat."