Sometimes when I perform my shows, I encounter a disturbing element in my audience that has become a personal pet peeve of mine. I mean it really gets to me. Coughers. The people who, at moments of silence in my show, cough incessantly. I wonder, are they all sick? It happens at corporate shows, cruise ships and even at loud trade shows. I’m going to drop my guard in this blog and be very vulnerable with you. Is that okay? This is not a soap box for me to stand on and preach, but rather to admit some weaknesses and relate. I may be over analyzing here, but it has caused me to examine the importance of knowing my audience. As no two audiences are the same, it is almost impossible for an actor or a magician to access the peculiar nature of the people in those seats, until he has been in front of them for at least a few minutes.
Nevertheless, there are signposts which must be realized. Children, for example are more “knowing” than most adults, except for the very little ones. They have unadulterated minds and look for simple explanations, which are generally the right ones. This was really brought home to me a few years ago, I performed the same tricks on consecutive evenings in front of a scientific society and for the juniors of a church. The members of the former were easy prey. I would listen to them after the show and it was fascinating to hear. They attributed my effects to psychology, mirrors, reflected light and all sorts of apparatus. However at the church the youngsters were alarmingly to the point. I mean they would shout out such things as, ‘Turn your hand over’ and ‘what about the bit of thread’ and ‘let’s see the other side of the lid’. As much as this disturbed me on an ego level, how right they were! Hence the need with children to be unsuspicious and absolutely resolute in every move you make. On no account – whether acting, playing or doing a trick – should there be any playing down to children. Treat them as adults. I think they can appreciate a Shakespearian play, if it is well acted and presented; and similarly they will not be inattentive or ‘see through a trick’ if it is done with the right amount of finesse.
Dealing with adults is a different matter all together. Without going into a diatribe about the lack of “soul” in the U.S. today, and how I believe it died when the computer age took over. Just look at the average adult today. They’re staring at an object in their hand and snickering. They’re seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing. So they’re speaking nothing. And these are the beings that sit before us with arms folded, saying, “Okay entertain me”.
Time and place have a considerable effect on an audience. Every music hall performer knows that a ‘turn’ after the interval (and a visit to the bar) finds people in a better mood. Monday is a more deadly day than late on a Friday evening, when alert store owners, used to dealing with all sorts of contingencies, are out for amusement. A Vegas hotel audience, with waiters hovering about to serve drinks, has not the concentration of a more formal gathering and is a nightmare for the average mentalist. I think the hotel audience needs something direct and readily visualized. In my opinion mentalists are incomprehensibly naive if they offer any large size audience bits of paper and small objects taken from or shown to the few people in the front rows. With the rising popularity of mentalism I see this mistake all the time. To know your audience, you must try to take as many of them into account as possible.
Once you’re “on” be quick to sense the spirit of the people in front of you. All sorts of things may have influenced them in general – the previous performers, the venue, the news of the day, the theater or the locality. On the last point, it’s very dangerous to dogmatize, but audiences in New Jersey, Boston and Chicago are quite different from those in L.A. Phoenix and Las Vegas. Both groups are very wide awake; but the last three are more pliable and ready to laugh – or cry.
In getting to know your audience, particularly watch how the pace of your performance is affecting them. This is something I find so few young performers do. Having an awareness on how your words and gestures are affecting them is critical. Are they with you or not? It’s too easy to go slow or too fast. Both can be equally monotonous. Variety of pace is the keynote all good stage work.
Watch your own personality as well. If you are appearing before a specific organization, give some thought to their specific brand of humor. Women, for example, typically hate crude jokes against them. An all male audience, contrary to popular belief, does not like dirt, and always regards the performer who employs it as a second rater. An audience of office workers is quite different from an audience of factory-hands. It is not a matter of assumed superiority, but of relaxation. The average software developer, for example, deals all day with a screen of black and white, typing in code. She is ready for color in front of her eyes and ears. The factory worker wants a change from the clang of his machinery, and appreciates homely humor and simple melody – and even an occasional, uninvolved mental shaking up.
So back to my pet peeve of coughing. One of the best indications of an audience’s reactions is their coughing! Once when I was waiting backstage to perform for The Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, prominent comedian and actress Carol Burnett, told me that she always listens before she goes on to that stage and is “alive” to it throughout her performance. She is thus able to make dramatic pauses so that her speech “jumps” in just before or after the coughers. I then watched in amazement as she went on stage and did just that. Most coughing is unnecessary and is merely a nervous habit. The experienced actor, speaker or magician can – by careful timing of speech(with occasional repetition)- use it and even stifle it. In times of emotion and riveted interest, an audience does not cough!