Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wake Up Call

The atmosphere before a show starts will vary dramatically by venue. Most impro is pretty audience-interactive, and you really want to encourage them to participate to some extent.

Pub or restaurant venues with meals and beers and tables where friends can see each other and talk will usually be pretty noisy, enthusiastic affairs. When the lights dim and the house music fades, people don't automatically go quiet. The show-starting music and the MC need to be loud and pumping enough to trump the ambient noise and get people's attention.

Theatre venues with plush forward-facing seats and thick noise-sapping curtains and dim lights, with no beers and no food, tend to encourage audience members to be silent, or maybe whisper quietly. That sort of venue just affords a respectful silence. Show-starting music should set the mood for the impro that follows. If you want to encourage interaction, you need some rev-up music to tell them that it's ok to make noise. If you want to encourage a "sit back and enjoy the show" attitude, start with something less flashy.

Dan Beeston from ImproMafia (who also hosts a brilliant podcast for improvisers) opened a recent long form show with a really understated, really great intro. Lights went down, house music went down, I played quietly, medium stage lighting came up, Dan stepped through the curtains and conversed with the audience about the show to come. He got his offers, stepped back through the curtain... the lights went down, the music grew, the curtains opened, lights came up, and the show - the performance - started. For a long-form like that, where the audience really is invited to sit back and just enjoy, that was the perfect intro. It itself wasn't part of the performance, and it didn't distract from the show at all. I'm very used to more energetic intros, and this one caught me by surprise.

It's important to plan with the MC and sort out how to start the show. If the MC is planning a nice building voiceover, and the musician comes in with massive over-the-top music, the voiceover will get lost, and that build will never happen. If you're working with people new to you, or on a show with a new format, getting your cues straight with the MC and the lighting/sound person is important. (I've botched a few recently where I should have known better.)

I've seen some examples of how not to start a show... I went with friends to one of the smaller impro shows in Denver, set in a relaxed theatre with bench seating. Before the show started, the house lights were up, background music playing, like any other show. Then a mature gentleman walks out from back stage on to the main stage area. He starts lecturing to the audience. House lights still up. Interval music still playing. The MC (because that's what we figured out he was) spoke softly for five minutes on the origins of Theatresports, very much like a university lecture. Then a bunch of participants came out and performed some workshop games for about 30 minutes. I think the interval music stopped playing a little bit in to the show. I can't remember if we stayed. That intro did nothing to grab the audience, nothing to make them feel like they'd left the outside world behind to see a production. Watching the show had value for me - it's good to get an extreme example of what not to do.

1 comment:

Dan said...

We spent a few days with an impro legend called Sean Kinley. He mentioned that starting a show with a huge warmup exercise and heaps of energy means that at no point during the evening will the show actually hit that point.

A better plan is to gently build the 'energy arc' of the show up to a climax. If you want a nice quiet platform to be created before turning it all on it's head a brass band and fireworks should not be the first port of call.

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