Don’t hate the Audience…

December 23, 2008 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I performed my solo format DRIBBLE FUNK  last night and the audience was not into it. It wasn’t that they were not into my performance, particularly, but they were not really into the whole show. It’s not that they were really quiet with that awkard shuffling that is sometimes heard, and one didn’t see the glow of someone’s phone shining up into their faces while they texted (I will politely step away from addressing this last piece of deplorable behavior here, because it needs a full ranting post of its own someday). This audience was flat out uninterested and actively ignoring the improv onstage. 

The show was called the Big Sexy Rock & Roll and Improv Festival. Groups from LA, NYC and Austin converged on Dallas. There was one Dallas group (THE VICTIMS… which I used to perform with). I was called in – last minute – to fill in for a half hour slot that a French lounge singer had dropped out of. I got to the Ozona Bar’s backroom and the program was running about 1/2 hour behind. A band was on stage playing comedy songs. The audience didn’t seem to be paying too much attention. The room had over 200 people in it. The improvisers were huddled standing on one side of the room. The organizer came up and thanked me for coming. There was a sketch act next, then me. The sketch act went rough. Still the audience was not listening. In fact, the conversations from the tables often were louder  than the acts on stage. It was like a lounge act in a casino next to a row of slots. Like the performers were there incidentally, and not the reason for everyone being gathered there in the first place. Basically, it was a horrible room for performing improv.

Here’s what I observed both through my own experience of being on stage as well as watching my fellow actors handle the situation.

First off, it should be established that I’m performing solo improv. What this means is, essentially, the audience is my co-conspirator. They supply the fodder (suggestions) and the energy and I speak directly to them. It should be noted, that in this sort of performance, that combines storytelling and character dialogue (is it still dialogue if it is one guy performing all the characters?), the audience is in on it. I’m not on display to be observed, I’m literally bringing them along with me in my little made-up journey. In a way, it is a very direct sort of performance, in that the audience is activated. They are part of the performance: participants as well as observers of the performance.

It should also be noted I am performing comedy. Comedy is the easiest form to gauge as a performer whether your performance is effective or not (i.e. it is making a genuine connection). In very stark terms, you know: they laugh if it is funny and don’t if it is not. This is just a barameter, though. Sometimes it really is funny even if the audience doesn’t laugh. After all, the audience is a mass, and therefore follows the laws of the masses ( which in the theatre has it’s own rules: crowds laugh easier if the house is darkened and the stage is illuminated, there must be 10+ people in the audience to instigate “contagious” laughter, and a slew of other ones…). 

I have performed longform improv many times, in groups and solo, and people have laughed and laughed, so barring some weird anomolies (i.e. I’m having a horribly off-night), we can safetly assume my performance will be effectively funny.

So, when a performer expects one reaction (laughter) and gets another (silence or, in this case, complete disinterest) several things happen:

1.) the first response of most performers is to try a bit harder. This is similar to when a person simply speaks slower and louder if they think they are not being understood, such as when giving directions. In acting, it often shows up as pumping the piece with a little more energy, or increasing volume. the thought is, fundamentally, “What’s going on here? This is not what I was expecting from the audience.”

2.) Next, the performer starts to question themselves and their performance. Maybe they made wrong choices? Are they doing something technically different today that they did not do the last time they performed (i.e. too loud, too soft, etc.)? In essence, the thought is “It must be me. It must be something I’m doing/not doing that is preventing the connection, and therefore the reaction I expect.”

3.) Often, the third step is an unfortunate Fuck You to the audience. Much like a little kid lashing out in spite when they don’t get their way, a performer will turn on the audience in a subtle, but apparent, way. The performer will become antagonistic when it is clear the audience is not going to give them the response the performer was expecting. The thought is “I’m working my ass off up here for you, so if you don’t like it, fuck you. In fact, you aren’t even worthy enough anymore for me to do my best for. Here take this watered-down fuck-you version of my performance.”

This last step is a self-defeating one. It is futile in that the audience is not going to get on the side of a performer who is openly hostile to them. At the same time, the performer is going to be hostile because the audience seemly refuses to get on his or her side.

Years of improv have taught me not to go down the road of step three. The best bet is just do your job, deliver a performance that you, the performer, can be proud of, and try again with the next audience. Audiences are like blind dates. There is always a relationship, usually brief, and sometimes it is not all that rewarding for one or both parties.

Tonight, I went through step one and then downshifted into step two. I did not resort to step three. The audience, regrettably, did not get the most dynamic, energetic Dribble Funk performance I’ve ever done, but they did get a clear, solid performance. And they could take from that whatever they wanted. I felt kinda Zen about it.

The improvisers in my fellow acts that same night ran the gamit. Some said “fuck it” almost immediately and gave sub-par performances to their “unworthy” audience (I call this zombie-ing through or phoning it in). Some were confused and saddened when they came off stage, wondering still, what was so wrong tonight? Some thought of it as a challenge (“I will succeed where you have failed”) after the performers who came off stage before them didn’t hit it out of the park.

All in all, it threw into perspective that oft-talked about, but seldom experienced aspect of theatre, and certainly improvisation: real unexpectedness. The bottom line is: Don’t take anything out on the audience. You, the performer, can not control them and you certainly can’t demand from them. You can only do your job and try not to lose them…

~ Brad

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