Audience Participation – Own It!

What’s the most important part of our acts? The Audience! Yes, the audience… They are the most important as without an audience we don’t have an act, really – as what’s the point if you are just going to perform for yourself in front of a mirror? And everything about burlesque screams audience participation – from the whooping and encouraging cheers in the audience to an audience member popping a balloon – and even right up to an audience member taking part in an act… You want to bring them right into your space – and here’s how… 

What is audience participation? 

Audience participation is involving an audience in your act. You are not performing at them, you are connecting with them. Connecting is very important, especially in burlesque, cabaret and comedy. Connecting is inviting your audience to watch you, to join your party, to be involved. And in these times of social media, where everyone feels involved in everyone’s lives, connecting and being involved are a top priority.

In other forms of theatre – such as ballet,, contemporary dance, or serious drama pieces, the forth wall must not be breached. The action is very much contained on a stage. You are watching living pictures and stories – that don’t actually involve you – unfold. Like watching a big TV screen, only live. Burlesque and cabaret are different. From the very roots of these forms (Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome) audience participation is encouraged.

Essential connecting is eye contact, but other ways to invite the audience into your act can include leaving the stage to go into the audience and rub someone’s head with your glove, talking to the audience – YES, I did say that! Just because we move on stage to music doesn’t make us suddenly mute, and the audience love it when you vocalise, which can be anything from you whooping yourself or shouting, ‘c’mon!’ to saying ‘hello’ to someone from the stage, to full on sentences and commands. It can simply be climbing on a chair and doing some moves up there (if you have to kick someone off it, so much the better!), and it can be pulling a volunteer up on to the stage.

Whilst working as an actor at The London Dungeon (yes, I served over 4 years – 2 of which I ran the actors company), I really honed audience participation… I learned ‘that’ look in the eye that says, ‘Don’t pick on me’ and that all too eager, ‘Do pick on me, it’s my moment to shine!’ As an actor at that attraction, you are often on the level with the public and that level of interaction is crucial to their experience. From eye contact to just walking among them, sometimes this is enough to ‘involve’ your audience in what you do. I loved to experiment to see what I could make them do – from creeping around the Jack The Ripper set on tiptoe to making them ‘demonstrate’ their crime in the court set, it was all good fun! I also wrote shows such as the Torture show, where a member of public is chosen to have the implement ‘tested’ on them. The key to this is to spot your ‘victim’ as soon as you can – before you’ve even asked for a volunteer, you have it in mind who you are going to choose – and we’ll cover this point later.

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You are in command! 

Before we get into the various ways an audience can be invited into your act, let’s just get one thing straight… YOU are in command. You are always in command and you have to be in command. The minute you’ve let that command slip and the audience take over, well, it’s curtains. literally. An audience member won’t know the boundaries and what constitutes ‘how far’ to go on stage. An audience member doesn’t know your act, doesn’t know your music or how much time you’ve allowed for that ‘move’. They probably won’t be aware of what constitutes professional behavior on a stage… And even heckling at a show – an audience member sometimes isn’t aware of how far they have gone, which is when the compare needs to own that situation – not necessarily with an insult or put down that might inflame the situation, but control can also be moving on and not acknowledging the heckles.

Eye contact

Essential connecting is eye contact – especially if you are stripping. You need the audience to feel like you enjoy them being there, and if you don’t invite them to watch, they will feel like voyeurs (and it will all be a bit awkward and like Ricky Fitts in American Beauty). Make sure you hit all areas of the room… And more importantly do it all you can. If your back is turned, look over your shoulder with a cheeky wink… If you are taking off a glove, since when did you have to look at the glove to know how to take it off – or worse, look at the floor? Look at your audience! They bloody love it!

Whooping is encouraged

Yes, the compare has probably warmed up the audience and got them to whoop for you. but if you want them to whoop more, ask them to!

Singling them out as part of your act… 

Yes, they love this! Pointing out an audience member and smiling, pointing and blowing a kiss – or as I do in my Victoria’s Secret act, pointing at them and basically calling them ‘lewd’ or telling them they are disgusting is all part of the fun. Looking directly at someone and taking off a glove ‘for them’ is something they will love!

Popping a balloon or being involved in a bit of costume choreography

Again, some more direct ways of connecting is getting the audience member to follow your instruction. and this is where it gets more necessary to ‘control’ your audience and choose wisely – we’ll go into more detail about choosing in a bit, but there’s a couple of golden rules to know here. First, know your act inside out – if an audience member needs to pop a balloon in a certain amount of time, allow for that time. Also be prepared for an exchange of instructions! You may go up to someone with a pin and a winning smile, holding the balloon to be popped, but be prepared for a few moments of, ‘What is it this performer wants me to do?’ and a bit of looking around at their mates for reassurance… A simple command of ‘Pop!’ will help, but be prepared to pop it yourself and get back on stage in time for the rest of your choreography!

Inviting audience members on to stage as part of your act

Yes! Get them upon stage! They love it! Their friends love it, too! I always always say, if you have to use a dummy/cardboard cut out or ‘pretend human’ on stage, why bother with carrying the extra prop. It’s totally unnecessary and looks shit, to be frank. Use a real person. Less to carry, looks more professional and you will look uber confident. So what are the ways you can get them on to the stage? You can invite them up to sit in the chair and dance ‘for them’ (but remember, you must face the actual audience and dance for the audience, whilst giving your victim occasional acknowledgement), they could be your victim or partner in crime, you could ask them to hold something for you, they could even be a character in your act – as in Diva Hollywood’s fabulous Ruthless Love act, where a member of the audience is the hangman. A quick word of warning, make sure you are fully insured through PLI if you intend to do this, make your commands strong and ensure they are able to get on and off the stage safely. Oooh, and if they insist on bringing their pint to the stage (which they probably will, like a wet safety blankie) take it off them and pass it back to their friends. No one wants a pint kicked over on stage, glass smashes or wants their volunteer swigging casually when they are supposed to be helping you!

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Choosing The Right Participant… 
No one wants to spend half their act persuading someone in the audience to be involved… You will run out of music and they will feel awkward! So here’s a few pointers to choosing the right person…
That look in the eye… Very important. The more you do it, the more you will know! There’s a certain look that says, ‘NO!’ it’s a bit like the looking away look, only looking right at you. Do not pick this person. Similarly, there’s a look in the eye that says, ‘Pick me!! PICK MEEEE!!!!’ which is a bit too over-keen. You definitely don’t want to pick anyone who is over keen because they will not be listening to your instructions, they will be trying to upstage you (this IS THEIR MOMENT TO SHINE!!!) and they might even be totally ignoring you whilst they take some selfies – or worse, live stream themselves on stage grinning like a fool while you try and get control of the situation. You will know the right person by the look in their eyes. It will be somewhere in between these above.
Asking for volunteers – Yes! Ask for volunteers – but mostly choosing from those who have volunteered can attract the wrong kind of volunteers. Here’s a tip – before you ask, choose someone in your head. You might have a sneaky look as the audience were entering the theatre if they’re going to play a big part in your act, you might have a chance to scope the crowd from the wings or from their behavior from the show so far (this is a good ‘chooser’ as someone who has been shouting out or attracting attention is not going to be good for your act) or you might only have a chance to scan the audience as soon as you hit the stage. This is when you choose, so when you ask for volunteers, you still pick your chosen one, whether or not they’ve volunteered.
Vet your volunteer if someone else has chosen them for you… Often a compare, show producer or fellow performer might have chosen a volunteer for you… Always make sure you choose one yourself. Only you will know what is needed for your act, and if someone has just chosen someone, they might not know the requirements of your act and above all, you need to feel safe and in control and know that it’s someone you can work with. Here’s a bit of an unfortunate situation I found myself in: A lot of my ‘participants’ are ladies, i like using ladies, ladies are safe for me! Once a compare chose a man – who was a bit too touchy feely and wanted to get more involved… NO! Learn from my mistake and choose your own.
AVOID IF THEY… are obviously drunk! They will not be in control, you will not be in control and it will make for a massive mess on the stage. It will probably not be safe either, from someone stumbling onto the stage, to the risk of them falling off – never mind what you intended to do with them.
Have a vetting test… 
If you are inviting someone on to the stage to play a ‘complicated role’ in your act (read: anywhere south of just sitting on a chair) have a vetting test in place as part of your act. You might pick a few victims (sorry, meant volunteers) and get them to flex their muscles, or get them to read something – could be a handwritten statement by yourself that is some kind of oath or promise, it could be a few push ups, it could be a few shimmies – just something that fits into your act and fits with your act so you can assess which will be willing, able to follow instruction, be entertaining and enjoyable all round. It’s a better way of telling someone to sit down as they are no good!
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Golden Rules…
  • Eye contact. Eye contact. Eye contact.
  • You can always control audience participation – that is the key… Own them and own your act.
  • Point, single people out (but make sure there’s someone actually there – those stage lights can be blinding!)
  • You CAN talk, shout, vocalise. You don’t need to be mute.
  • know your act so you know how much time to allow for audience participation. Build it in to your choreography.
  • If someone doesn’t do what you want them to, just be more forceful with it!
  • If someone doesn’t want to take part, quickly move on – you don’t need to get into any kind of discussion or persuasion. Move on. QUICK.
  • Strong, clear instructions if you are inviting anyone on stage.
  • Asking for volunteers attracts the wrong volunteer – those who might want more attention than you, so choose before you ask.
  • If the volunteer isn’t doing what you ask, don’t be afraid to really assert yourself – or tell them to sit down and get a new volunteer!
  • If you are a compare NEVER EVER give an audience member your mic. If you are asking for a response, ask them, they say off mic and you can then edit if you need to through the mic. Giving direct access to a massive mouthpiece sometimes attracts the wrong response!
 A final tip on audience participation
Never insult or be rude to your helper, never publicly put down an audience member and step away from a ‘situation’ that might escalate. This is the quickest way to lose fans and create a cringe-worthy performance. No one wants to see a total car-crash of an act where a performer belittles their helper and it turned into a nasty and awkward situation where tempers are frayed. It will not get the audience on your side, you will just look like an unprofessional idiot.
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