The Proverbial Third Character

Today’s Time.com features a brief interview with Kristin Chenoweth, the brilliant Tony and Emmy-award winning actress known for her roles in Broadway’s You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and Wicked and TV’s The West Wing and Glee.

When asked how TV compared with performing on stage, Chenoweth notes: “There’s nothing like the live theater, nothing. It’s a very raw place to be. If there’s a false moment on stage, you can tell. Immediately. The third character in a piece is the audience, so the show is never the same. And that’s my favorite part of it. People ask, ‘How do you do the same show eight times a week?’ and I say, ‘I don’t, because the audience is always different.’”

My improv troupe, DMG had a weird show at The Comedy Spot in Ballston on Friday (Thanks to Mark Carroll of The Lodge, you can watch the video here!). The show was not weird bad, not weird good… just weird different. We practically walked away from the performance collectively going, “Well, that was… uh… different.”

Because we’re all really just insecure teenagers inside, we immediately Monday-morning-quarterbacked the hell out our performance. It wasn’t a bad show necessarily; we just ended up doing something we had never done before as a troupe. In classic group mind, we all somehow made a subconscious choice to slow the pacing of scenes. Instead of going for the punchline-y jokes, we patiently built scenes from the inside out: no gimmicky games, no weird non sequitirs… just good old-fashioned character-based scenework.

Which was great for us, but maybe a little too weird for the audience.

After all, when cold audiences (i.e., non-fans and non-stalkers) go see a “comedy” show, they probably expect to be LMAO at one clever zinger after another. Instead, last Friday, our audience was treated to a dramatic cautionary tale about an alcoholic, womanizing pilot, Fred the Problem Solver, and cannibalism.

I’ve performed in front of audiences that have welcomed us with open arms, giggling and laughing at the slightest twitch of the face or the simplest play on words. I’ve also performed in front of audiences—both artistic and corporate—that have not gone with me on my proposed journey and instead stared at me with dagger eyes that made me wonder if I’m even good enough to be on stage in the first place.

The notion of acknowledging and incorporating audience needs into a show is a bit jarring for me as a performer and teacher.

It’s hard to gauge how “well” you’re doing from inside the show when all you have to go on is audience feedback. Some schools of improv advocate that you shouldn’t even be performing for your audience—that the best and most honest shows are the ones where all the players just goof off and perform for each other. I can attest to the unspeakable joy that results from a cast of players just having fun on stage and discovering the world they’re building collectively. After all, that is what improv is all about.

But at the same time, I know after working with so many different types of audiences in my career as a facilitator that you have to be able to “read” the audience and craft the delivery of your message accordingly to ensure maximum impact. It’s like doing an instantaneous formative evaluation as part of a presentation or performance. The fiscally responsible part of me also agrees, especially if I’m performing in front of a paying audience. I’d feel bad if my audiences don’t get at least their money’s worth.

There’s a happy medium, I think, to preserving the fun of performances from inside the show and at the same time being flexible enough to “accommodate” the needs of the audience. Have fun from the inside (i.e., quit worrying about what the audience will think is funny) but use audience feedback (e.g., laughter, giggling, silence) as cues to steer a show. That way, the resulting product is a performance that’s collectively built by the players on stage and by the audience. And when an audience is fully invested in the characters, they’re much more likely to accept the fact that you’re refusing to eat your best friend when you’re stranded on a desert island because she’s too sinewy.

I’m with Chenoweth. I believe that the audience is very much part of the show. But sometimes, when you hear silence after throwing out line after line after line, you can’t help but wonder if your alcoholic, womanizing pilot should be doing something a little more… well, funny.

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One thought on “The Proverbial Third Character

  1. Archie, thanks for posting this! FIST’s audience voting suddenly snapped the audience toward the foreground for me. And since more of my non-improv friends are coming to shows, I’m starting to see a gap at times between what fellow improv folk find good improv and what general audiences enjoy. It’s been tough to figure out how to balance two goals that I think are both valid: find truth in scenes *and* engage and entertain the audience. Fundamentally, I buy the notion that if we go for truth then the audience entertainment and engagement will follow, but I’ve also seen it not pan out that way. And I really like this new (at least new to me) notion of the audience as a third character–framing it in a way that neither ignores the audience nor overly privileges them.

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