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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Putting the Audience at Ease

I love hard improv, the kind that makes most people’s head hurt. I adore rhyming, fast-paced, game-filled scenes with a high technical difficulty rating. Oftentimes, this means short form improv. One thing I like about short form is the duality of the audience’s pleasure. They get to enjoy the scene and are also able to appreciate the skill of the performer executing the game. It is very satisfying to watch people do things they are good at.  

In order to gain an audience's trust you need to help them relax. Watching improv can be nerve wracking. A great way of easing this nervous energy is showcasing that you are a competent performer. To put it simply have to do something well. Or more specifically, you need the crowd to witness you doing something impressive. In good short form shows this happens easily. The troupe hits the nuances of the game; the audience appreciates it.  

But in long form improvisation, we often hide the improv mechanisms and ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, like in traditional theatre. We don’t tend to break the fourth wall as often. When improv is completely organic and seamless it can be pleasant to watch, but I fear that the audience can be left out. Chances are, they haven’t taken a few years of improv classes and don’t understand all the sweet moves and edits you’re doing onstage. They want to understand the joke.  

So how do we engage audiences without losing any of the magic of long form improv? When I perform, I turn to my real life. Let’s forget improv for a moment. In the real world I’m good at rhyming, cooking and bar-tending. I love travel, science and Shakespeare. If I can create an improv scene which includes some of my passions, I can give the audience that duality of enjoyment.  For example, I am a proficient freestyle rapper. If I throw that into an improv scene audiences tend to be impressed. It’s got nothing to do with how good of an improviser I am. It’s a parallel skill. But it can satisfy an audience. And if I apply improv on top of this skill, even more so. It’s like landing a combo in a video game. Freestyle rap plus good storytelling plus Yes And… is worth way more than any of those things on their own.   

If you are an actual gymnast an audience would lose their mind if you could keep a scene going while doing cartwheels. If you are a top notch singer and can belt out a beautiful made up song you can wow the crowd. Anytime you can make a big promise and deliver on it, the audience will feel safe, comfortable and ready to laugh.  

Here’s my challenge to you: next show take a calculated risk. Pull back the curtain and do something that you love, that you're good at, that you think the audience will enjoy.  

Chances are you’re racking your brain right now thinking what skills could I showcase onstage? If you don’t have any immediate answers, ask your friends. Or, the solution might be to take a class. And I’m not just talking about comedy workshops. Take singing lessons. Learn a language. Or at very learn a skill that is outside of your comfort zone like clowning, Shakespeare or solo improv.  

If the audience sees you doing one thing well, they will assume you do many things well. Trust is born. And the sooner you win it the better your show will be.  

Do you have something you do to spice up your improv shows and challenge yourself as an artist? Have you seen someone do something like this onstage before? Please share your experiences below. I love the dialogue!

3 comments:

  1. This is spot on Mat! Well written dude. The reverse is true in the music scene. Lots of musicians don't know how to entertain the crowd between songs and it creates that uncomfortable "oh god please start making music so we can all relax again.."

    It breaks the trance... keeping the crowd entertained between songs using improv, humor, stories, etc builds trust on a deeper level than the music and I believe that's what creates that magical, other worldly performance.

    Keep writing bro. Inspiring and practical. Fuck yaaa

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  2. Braden, there is really something to be said about the trance aspect in all performing arts. The audience wants to come, get lost in some art and forget about everything else for a while. That's why they bought the ticket. And I think a lot of the time artists themselves can get in the way due to insecurity. If the audience is there, they believe in you. As an artist all you have to do is prove them right. Easier said than done sometimes! But when you're onstage every person in the room wants you to kill it. Realizing that changed my career. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Hey Mat, This is great. I just stumbled across your blog and this resonates. I too love to freestyle, and sometimes feel a bit cheap for throwing it in. But this reframe is a good reminder that paying in some of that currency to earn trust from an audience is a sound investment.

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