Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Audience Is Always Right

(Originally published on my dancer blog here.)

I recognize that as a performer I wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for the audience.  I get booked because the audience doesn't have a mass exodus when I hit the stage.  I love them and respect them, and I try to keep my skill set sharp and expanding so they continue employing me.  This has always held true for me, even when I was more actor than dancer.  I recognize that they are there to be entertained, and that's the contract I agreed to when I agreed to perform for them.

I'm reading Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms.  I can't guarantee that you'll see any prestidigitation from me in the near future, but I am learning more and more about showmanship.  Here's a wonderful selection ripped from the book:

We cannot prevent individuals from jumping to foolish conclusions, nor should we worry much when they do.  However, the audience as a whole is always right.  Once it forms an opinion, the fact that this is completely unfounded is of no consequence whatever.
Let's take a look at this.  "However, the audience as a whole is always right."  There's some talent show on network television where performers get voted off stage within thirty seconds if the audience doesn't like what's being brought to the table.  Sure, a few people may be entertained but the audience as a whole determines the fate of the performer.

And more from the magic man:
 This is a fundamental principle of showmanship.  When we offer to entertain--and convince--an audience and fail to do so, the fault is ours.  If the audience does not like our material, we cannot complain of its taste but must take the blame for choosing unwisely.  If the audience is stupid, we must find ways to be especially clear.  If the audience is inattentive, we must manage to capture and hold attention.  An audience may be difficult, but there is no such thing as a bad audience.  Anyone who performs before an audience has undertaken to please that audience.  If he bores it, he has not lived up to his obligation.
Let me say up front that not every audience is as audibly enthusiastic as a Roman rabble at a bear-baiting show.  Some appreciate things quietly and process internally.  Not every show is a standing ovation show, but that doesn't mean the audience as a whole hated it.

Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, let's look at audiences in the world of live entertainment.  How about the audience protesting what's happening on stage by shifting in their seats?  That creaking is a sort of vote that what's happening on stage is boring.  (The creaking is a horrible and obvious sign of boredom, especially when you're on stage and you hear it happening.)  Unwrapping of candy, texting, shuffling loudly through the program, talking, bathroom breaks by an obvious chunk of your audience -- these are pretty good signs that you're not entertaining them.  I remember seeing Sting in concert in 2000, and a huge chunk of the audience made for the loo when he played his country song.  It wasn't the entire audience, but the amphitheater had obvious patches void of patrons during that song.  If he'd played country the rest of the night, I would've been one of the inevitable mass exodus from the show.  These are signs that the audience isn't being entertained.

I co-directed a show about a year and a half ago when the original director bailed.  I wasn't thrilled to add something non-dance to my schedule, but I'm a decent director and I didn't want the actors to be left in the lurch.  One of the two nights I watched the show with an audience, the entire front row walked out.  In the world of Equity waiver (under 99-seat) theatre, the theaters are so small that it's very noticeable when people leave.  In fact, this group was plotting their escape while the actors were acting their hearts out less than six feet away.  They walked out in the middle of the scene, almost brushing up against the actors as they left.  They also posted a poisonous review on Goldstar.  I can't blame them; the show wasn't amazing and they weren't entertained.  They spent money to see something interesting and we gave them the same low-budget Equity waiver theatre they could get anywhere in LA. (To be honest yet a dick, I wasn't thrilled to go see the show twice and I co-directed. I directed a show the year before and sat in the audience every night I was in town.  While the audience was small, they were always pleased with the show.  There were a few people who saw that show more than once.)

If the audience thinks you're "phoning in" your performance, they're not going to give a shit about how many hours you've rehearsed and how many times you've done it before.  They're not convinced.  If your performance is technically proficient but the audience isn't entertained, you might as well go home and masturbate in your proficiency before a mirror until you're ready to start involving the audience in your performance because right now it's all for yourself.  It's no good blaming your audience.  And here's me being a dick again: it's a real sister baby move to proclaim via social media how your audience sucked and didn't understand how hard you worked.  See my masturbation suggestion if you want to celebrate how hard you worked and not concern yourself with pleasing an audience.

If you're not stuck on masturbating as a performer, look at what Nelms says and consider how you can apply that to your own stage work, whether as an entertainer or an enabler (director, producer, etc.).  If it doesn't cause the reaction you expect from your audience, how can it be modified or improved to get that reaction?

Now get to entertaining the shit out of people!

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