If you’ve ever appeared before a live audience — or if you’ve created something that was presented to a live audience for you — you are well aware of the symbiotic power between performer and audience and you have learned to immediately recognize the subtle clues an audience provides to tell you if they’re with you or not. Getting them with you is hard; keeping them with you is harder.
Some people believe a live audience is antithetical to the purpose of the performer — where meaning is more important than message — but that is not true.
Audiences, by their very being there in front of you, are always hoping for meaning over message and they are not gnomes with crossed arms waiting for you to entertain them.
To create a fair dyad between audience and performer that is genuine and not forced, you must begin to be able to read the clues from an audience because that will help provide immediate feedback on their state as a whole.
Remember — an audience is a unique entity of individuals with shared values and memes — but that does not mean every audience is identical or predictable. You will soon learn there are universal clues to reading the temperature of an audience.
Smattering is a really good thing when it comes to audiences and it comes in two forms: Laughing and Clapping.
I said “clapping” instead of “applause” because there is a big difference between the two. Clapping is spontaneous and can be shared or ignited in pockets of the audience. A smattering of clapping means isolated organisms in the audience are audibly with you and are responding without provocation. Applause is, in its essence, a forced behavior and a mannered formality required in the performer/audience dyad. A quick clapping here and there is a marker for the success of the performance.
Laughter that smatters is also a keener indicator of the effectiveness of the performance than a rolling, roaring, belly shaker because it also demonstrates individuality within the core. One great laughter smatterer can infect another smatter of laughter and that sort of ingenious and infecting glee is how a predictable, roaring, full-applause laughter is built in an anarchic audience.
Audiences are always making noise. They’re unwrapping cellophane candies. They’re shushing the kid kicking the backs of their chairs. They’re shifting around in their seats to get a better view or uncompromised angle for listening.
You want an audience to make a little bit of noise because it means they’re still there and alive and moving. An audience that has zero human response is an audience that is restlessly drifting away from you and heading directly into daydreaming and active nap taking. If your audience is always silent, you must find a way to wake them up!
b). Communal Quiet
However, when an audience quietly breathes in unison in order to create a shared silence for an expected surprise, or a tender moment, or a whiz-bang cathartic release — that is the best kind of silence you can create because it unites the group and binds the individual to the tethered morality of the instant community.
The evil twin opposite of Smattering is Coughing. If your audience begins to have “Those That Cough” — especially during your punch lines or quiet moments — get used to the news you have already lost the group because of the persuasion of the single cougher.
a). Evil Twin One
Nothing good comes from a single cougher, let alone a hacking cacophony from the disinterested whole.
b). Evil Twin Two
Coughing indicates boredom — never illness — and once you get pockets of coughing, your performance is doomed unless you find a fast way to regain the audience’s trust and attention. In order to fight the coughers, performers tend to become louder, faster and funnier, and that unholy triad leads to an immediate and predictable disintegration of intention as the performance withers under the intuitive power of the disinterested, bored, throat and the sleepy, hacking, cough.
THE POWER IN FRONT OF YOU
Reading the live audience in front of you — and knowing how to create an effective smattering — is a talent that takes training and time to hone. There are rhythms of the universal human existence that are best revealed through storytelling and directed experience. You can irreparably damage people if the process isn’t done right. The line between tragedy and catharsis is razor thin.
Understanding how to encourage the right kind of silence, and learning how to prevent the ruinous cough, is the lifelong mission of the performer and creator.
When the threshold of viability between audience and performance becomes a reliable and responsible dyad — you have a hit on your hands! — and everyone wins in the dynamic, live, exchange of ideas and emotions that can unite countries and divide common enemies.