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
Smattering is a really good thing when it comes to audiences and it comes in two forms:  Laughing and Clapping.

a). 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.

b). Laughing
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.

SILENCE
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.

a). Restlessness
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.

COUGHING
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.

11 Comments

  1. Never thought about these things before, David. I don’t like it when audiences make noise. Coughing is rude. You don’t tell us how to engage an audience, though. You only tell us how to figure out what they’re doing.

  2. Anne!
    These tips can be used to interpret the temperature and temperament of any audience anywhere the world over!
    Creating the right audience reaction is not usually an innate talent. It has to be studied, learned, and taught in order to correctly tap into the universal rhythms of storytelling.

  3. I think implied in the article is in a way advice on how to get good reaction – when you hear the coughs coming at you, respond by changing in the direction that seems appropriate to what has been getting better reactions. Comedian Eddie Izzard starts off his comedy tour one way and the recorded standup comedy is something totally different because it is at the end of the tour by which point he has shaped the material based on all of the audiences previous reactions.

  4. That’s a good point, Gordon. Performers and creators must always be changing and working on the work. Not all audiences are the same, but many times what works with one audience will work with another. There’s a saying — “Funny is funny” — and once you find out what’s funny you always know when the laughs will appear.

  5. Awesome tips, David!
    Keeping the audience engaged is the main thing, the interest level has to be very high because it’s always fleeting…
    There is a tendency for an amateur to get engrossed in his/her own performance, staying alert about the audience is extremely necessary.

  6. Hi David!
    I would say the nature and intent of the performance as well as the audience plays a big role in this. Sometimes, for a performer it makes sense to go with whatever seems to draw the claps in. Then again, it can take days before we as individuals from the audience begin to appreciate a performance fully.

  7. Yes, Dananjay, the greatest of live performance is the danger of failing or finding great success. There’s no guarantee that what worked yesterday will work today even if you’re using the same script and saying the same lines. That’s what makes it all so rightful and real. There is no greater human testimony to the human spirit than a live performance in front of a live audience. Magic happens. Worlds collide.