Keetin Marchi, a 32-year-old who works in TV production in Los Angeles, says watching Survivor as a kid with her family was something of a ritual. She loved the show so much that when she was 13 she applied—without telling her parents—for a spot on a Survivor-like reality show for teens called Endurance that ran from 2002 to 2008. Marchi was cast and had a “great experience.” But her involvement in the show would really pay off nearly a decade later, when she was a senior at Indiana University and preparing to graduate with a degree in film and video production. Marchi had no job lined up and no concrete plan for what was next, until she reconnected with a fellow Endurance alum over dinner.
“I asked, ‘What have you been doing these past couple years?’ And she said she had been working on Survivor,” Marchi told me. “I was like, ‘Shut up, no way. That’s the coolest thing ever.’ I asked her if she could get me a job, and she said probably not because she was just a Dream Teamer, which is kind of the lowest entry level of people who work on the show.”
The Survivor Dream Team is a group of a dozen or so people, usually in their early 20s, who work across any number of production departments, act as stand-ins for contestants in overhead helicopter shots or when setting up cameras angles for challenges and lighting at “tribal council.” Most importantly, they test run all the Survivor challenges before the contestants take them on. Their job is to make sure the challenges are safe, grueling but possible, and free of any shortcuts or loopholes a contestant might exploit.
But, Marchi said, her friend did give her an email address, as well as a physical address, and encouraged her to apply.
The email address belonged to John Kirhoffer, the person credited as the genius behind the ever-evolving Survivor challenges. Kirhoffer, who did end up hiring Marchi in 2011 to be a part of the Dream Team, has been the subject of several profiles and stories about Survivor. The Dream Teamers, though, rarely speak to the press.
In a recent phone call, Marchi, who was part of the Dream Team for several seasons and then continued to work for Survivor as an occasional wardrobe assistant, talked to me about her Dream Team application, including the urn she mailed to CBS headquarters, the dreaded slide puzzles, what the contestants smell like, and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Some friends and I have been watching a lot of Survivor recently and we’ve become kind of enamored with Dream Team concept. The idea of getting paid to travel to exotic locations to play games and run around obstacle courses all day is, especially in these times, just obscenely tantalizing. How closely does this fantasy of the job match with the reality?
It matches pretty closely. The biggest thing I say, whenever somebody talks to me about wanting to do Dream Team—I’ll get LinkedIn or Instagram messages about it—is that it’s so much fun, but it’s so much work. We’re working six to seven days a week. Usually, we get one day off a week, during the season. And it’s 12-plus-hour days, you’re outside all day, rain or shine. I have memories of literally scooping poop in a kalabaw field in the Philippines in the pouring down rain, because they built the challenge in this field and the poop needed to be cleared so that the contestants didn’t run through poop. You know, it’s definitely not glamorous, but I loved every minute of it.
I’ve read a little bit about how hard it is to become a Dream Team member, as there’s obviously so much interest. I’ve gathered that many Dream Teamers had personal or family connections that helped them get hired. I read in a Reality Blurred post that you submitted a video application that you edited yourself. Could you describe that?
Me being a little film student nerd [I] thought, I’m going to film myself on green screen. I watched a ton of old seasons of Survivor and basically edited it to look like I was being interviewed for the job by Jeff Probst at tribal council. The other thing that I did, because I’m also an arts and crafts nerd, is I printed my resume and my cover letter on aged paper and put it in an urn with my name on it. I filled it with sand and seashells and bound it all in leather. All my sorority sisters thought I was crazy because this was during finals and I was just working on this Survivor application even though all I had was an email and an address to go off of.
So, I sent it all in. A couple of weeks later, I got an email back, and it was just a few lines, with some typos. It said something along the lines of, “Wow, talk about impressed. You have my attention.” I thought it was fake. I thought somebody else got my application, and was making fun of me, because it was from a different email than the email I had sent my stuff. I was like, Oh, my God, I spent so much money and time on this damn application. And so I called my friend [who gave me the original email address] and asked if John had two emails. She told me that he did and that it was this other email address, and I just fell on the floor and started crying.
How long did it take to get the offer?
I think after that it was maybe a month, but as soon as I got the job offer, it was within two weeks that we were flying out to Samoa. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize it was a paid job. I thought it was like an unpaid internship. And when I found out it was paid I got so excited.
Do you remember how much it pays?
It wasn’t much. I honestly could not remember, I think I made like five grand over the summer? I don’t remember. But you know they’re feeding you, they’re paying for your lodging. Again, I would have done it for free. I remember I walked across the graduation stage on a Saturday, drove back home that week, and I was literally on a plane to Samoa a week after I got my diploma.
Do you still have the application video you sent in for Survivor?
I could probably find it. Last I checked, John Kirhoffer kept my application and he had it in his office, kind of as an example of the level of application you need to submit, especially if you don’t have any connections to people on the show. A lot of Dream Teamers were like family members or boyfriends or girlfriends of other people who work on the crew. I think now it’s gotten a lot more open to other people applying and less about who you know.
[Ed. note: Marchi couldn’t find the video but she did turn up this photo of the physical application she mailed to Kirhoffer.]
OK, so then you were on the way to Samoa for Season 23, Survivor: South Pacific. That was a good season! It had Coach, Cochrane, Sophie, of course; there was the early merge; there were some wild challenges. What stood out to you?
I was a huge Ozzy fan. I remember one time we were getting ready for a challenge, and Jeff and the producers were talking. I was just overhearing them and they’re saying, Oh, what did we used to call Ozzy on his old season? They’re all trying to remember, and I just kind of leaned over and said, “The fish.” And they’re like, That’s right! So like Jeff and everybody, they called me and this other guy that was on the Dream Team the super fans, because we just had this wealth of knowledge from having watched all the seasons and being so dedicated to it.
Do you remember your first challenge?
Yes. I remember the first time Jeff Probst came out for rehearsals and—okay, Jeff, he’s big on sun protection. Unless he’s on camera he has a big hat on and has an umbrella, because, I mean, the guy’s got to take care of the skin, you know!
But I had not met him yet. And I was so excited to meet him and everybody knew how excited I was to meet him. And he gives the umbrella over, says, “Survivors ready,” raises his hand, and go. I remember I didn’t even think my feet could move because I was just thinking, Is this really happening? Did Jeff Probst just say “Survivors, ready, go”? So that that was kind of I think my first challenge, just being so starstruck and excited I couldn’t move.
What did that first challenge consist of, if you can remember?
I believe the first challenge that we did was the opening challenge. I don’t think I tested the part that Ozzy and Coach did when they came in if that was it…
I think that was the one where they climbed the pole to get the wooden turtle? [Ed. note: The first challenge consisted of scaling a 12-foot pole to retrieve a wooden turtle, climbing down, digging themselves under a log, and then solving a puzzle using the turtle.]
KM: Oh I did test that one! I remember I climbed the pole, but I was so scared of heights. And they put me against this guy who was really good at climbing. I climbed the pole and was just too scared to jump down. He was already way ahead so I let him have it because I wasn’t going to break my leg on challenge one.
Were you running through challenges every day?
Just about. A day would either consist of a rehearsal or a test block because they do a couple runs of a challenge before they have the contestants do them. And then we sometimes would get to go to the shoots of the different challenges.
So you got to actually watch the challenges as they happened?
Sometimes, not all the challenges. It just depends on like how many people they need to go out and help. But yeah, so when I did get to go, I loved it.
But when we weren’t doing challenges we were working in art mostly, so we actually were building the challenges and painting them. I got lucky enough to make some of the immunity necklaces and the hidden immunity necklaces because I knew how to do certain braids. I have one that they let me keep because I had made a couple of these hidden immunity idols. As much as they kind of laughed at me for being this little nerdy super fan, a few of the employees there really embraced it and let me do cool things they knew I would appreciate.
I read in an interview that John Kirhoffer said that the scariest challenge for him to watch happen was called Spit It Out, in which contestants are strapped to a spinning wheel that dunks them in water on each rotation. They have to suck water in their mouth when submerged and then spit it into a tube in order to release a ball that allows them to move on to the next phase of the challenge. Did you ever test this challenge? What was the scariest challenge you’ve done—I guess any with heights qualify?
I didn’t do Spit It Out challenge but I did do the the waterslide. I remember walking up to it the first time and it literally just looked like a straight down drop. It’s our job to test it, and we’re all looking at each other. But the waterslide was so much fun. The other one that was scary was for Season 24, Survivor: One World. It was the one where one of the contestants broke her arm, it was the opening challenge. It was one of those really cool, big challenges, and at the very beginning of it, we had to jump on to this net, but it was a high jump. There are safety guys who tell us how to properly jump on this thing to not hurt ourselves, but the competitor in me is always just going to go for it. So that one was kind of scary, just anything with heights for me.
I really loved the challenges like Schmergen Brawl and the ones where you had to wrestle things from each other. Those are really fun. Because it’s like, when else in life do you get to just totally go at somebody?
The way Survivor combines different types of challenges, especially physically demanding ones and mentally taxing ones, is really creative. Were there any challenges where you were good at one part but struggled with another?
Yeah, I think I’m not good at slide puzzles. So anytime there was a slide puzzle at the end of it, I was like Oh, no. But also just kudos to John Kirhoffer that it’s going on Seasons 41 and 42 and the challenges still don’t get old.
But yeah, I hated things with a ton of sand. Like if you had to go underneath something, you’d get scratches and sand in places that you should never have sand. The digging ones were very annoying.
Is there a specific Survivor puzzle master who heads up creation of the puzzles?
There’s an amazing team of people. Also Dream Team members are encouraged to pitch ideas if they have them. For challenges too, John is open to hearing what your ideas are.
I watched this short video Jeff Probst made about the Dream Team in 2007, during Season 15, Survivor: China. Jeff said a big motivator for Dream Teamers in challenges is a prize of beer. Was that true for your experience?
That was true for my experience. There is a bar we as Dream Teamers could go to but we’d have to open our own tab, so winning beer was a big deal to us. Sometimes I would ask if I could trade my beer prize for a prop from the show or something. A couple of other super fans would ask to play for things like that, too. There was one challenge where it was three of us super fans left and that’s what was up for grabs. I don’t know if it was like an old flag or some type of prop, or old buff. Once I was able to get a Heroes vs. Villains visor, and I still wear it to this day, because it’s like my prize swag.
When the Dream Team tested challenges, how often were they tweaked?
It just depended on the challenge. If it was a repeat challenge, it usually didn’t need to get tweaked. But a lot of times the location would change things, you know, it was in the water and now it’s on land, or tweaking stuff to make sure the cameras could capture everything. When I did it, the challenges weren’t tweaked a ton honestly unless, for example, the Dream Teamers figured out an easy way to beat it. There’s a couple challenges where I think it was supposed to be really hard and then the Dreamers could just carry somebody over something and ruin the fun of the challenge. So in that case, they’d put it in the rules that they can’t do that, or they’ll change it so that they’re unable to do it, if that makes sense.
Were there any challenges that ever had to be cut entirely?
No, I don’t think so. Not in my experience. That’s part of Survivor, it’s a reality show. If they mess up, if somebody falls down, they have to stop a challenge or whatever, they’ll show it on the episode.
Has Jeff ever tested a challenge himself?
Yes, he has. I mean, I don’t know if he’s done it recently because I haven’t been on location recently, but he would. He was never scared to dive in or check something, especially if it was new.
I think I know the answer to this, but is there any interaction between cast and crew during filming of the show?
Only certain crew members are actually allowed to interact with the cast. They stink…
I definitely did wonder how bad they smelled.
They smell terrible. But yeah, to protect the integrity of the experience for the contestants, it’s really important that if you’re a crew member that doesn’t need to be interacting with a contestant that you don’t. It’s mainly just the producers and the ADs that will interact with them. And even their interactions are pretty limited. But yeah as a Dream Teamer, you don’t interact with contestants.
Keetin, it was delightful to speak with you. I feel like if Jeff Probst ever stops hosting the show, they should give you a shot.
I would love to. God, I would love to host Survivor. But honestly as a fan of the show, I think if and when Jeff is ever ready to hang up his hat, Survivor should be done, at least for a while.