Brad Weston is a professional writer, juggler, and magician. He's also exceedingly generous. As proof, I offer this excellent guest post which he was kind enough to share with our readers. Brad makes his living as a full time variety artist and he has much to share with those in our field. Take the time to read this and you'll gain some valuable insight from a man who knows. Ignore it at your own performance peril!
For more information about Brad Weston and his work check out his website at http://www.bradweston.com
1. Relying Solely on Improvisation
There are a lot of good things to say about improvisation. If used properly, your act will look more alive and more present than without it. If used properly you will really seem as though you are in the room, responding to what is happening in front of you. I believe that it is an essential part of doing a great show. However… if your act relies on improv, then you need to have a lot of support structures in place to make sure that the show doesn’t nose-dive.
Make sure that you know what the show order is. That way you won’t lose your place. If things start to stagnate, or just seem a little too slow, you can pick up the pace and get the show back on track. If you don’t have to think about what is coming next, you will be free to think about all of the other stuff that is going on in the room and in your head. This is not to say that you need to be stuck in the same show order every time. If there is a reason to switch it up during the show, fine. Do it! Then if you get into trouble you can easily put the show back on track.
Sometimes, the audience just isn’t very vocal. Sometimes, frankly, they suck! If you end up with a dead house and your show is totally reliant on improvisation you are sunk. I have heard beginner entertainers say that they needed the audience’s energy to make the show happen. They couldn’t just do the show alone in an empty room. I think that is a sign of laziness. How fun would it be to use the audiences energy if they are a dead audience. This will happen sooner or later and you have to have something to do on stage when it does happen, otherwise your act will bomb so badly that people may talk about it for years to come. Worse still, you might not be able to fill all of your stage time and, therefore, not get paid.
2. Changing Character with each Routine
There are many different kinds of routines. Some are beautiful. Some are sucker gags that require the audience to yell out that you are doing things wrong. Some are more clever in their approach and make the audience think. In each case you have to present these routines differently. However… you still have to be the same performer. If you are pretending to be clumsy to get laughs in one segment of the act, you can’t very well be sophisticated and polished later on when you go to ‘wow’ them. I mean you can. It’s possible to do it and they will sit through it. The problem is that if your personality seems to change, then you will lose the momentum of the rapport that you have worked so hard to build.
Each time a new performer comes onto the stage, there is a ‘get to know me’ phase that happens. It often takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes for the audience to get comfortable with the new performer. If it is the same person, but who has undergone a personality shift, this phase can last much longer because the audience has to work through who you are not before they can learn who you are now. Some people who had felt an attachment with your persona (hopefully this is most of the audience) will actually feel a little betrayed when you change because they lose that character. Also, you are kind of rubbing their nose in the fact that it is all an act. It is, perhaps, the single easiest way to lose an audience.
3. Opening with Audience Participation
When you step onto the stage, they don’t know you yet. They don’t know what you are capable of and what you are like as a person. It’s going to take them a moment to take it all in. Let them look. Start with something that will let them see you in a non threatening way. If you try to get a volunteer onto the stage too soon, you won’t be giving them a chance to meet you.
One of the most important parts about being successful on stage, is to be viewed as the one in control. If you get a member of the audience on stage before you have established this control, you might very well be handing your act over. Seasoned entertainers usually start out doing something more visual and less conversational in the opening, which gets the crowd into the mind set that they are watching a show and not hanging out.
4. Ending with a Volunteer Routine
When the show is over the audience will let you know how much they appreciated the act by the applause they give you. This is a very important moment. I have seen substandard acts work this moment very well. They get the audience clapping and they build the applause until it is nearly deafening. Like I said, in some cases the act wasn’t that great, but what the audience will remember is how much they clapped at the end. They won’t even remember being told to clap, or if you used a ruse to get them to do it, like telling them to clap a rhythm. The just remember the clapping and that’s often how they know if they liked the show or not.
So, if you finish a routine and they start clapping and then you have to get the audience member back to their seat, this is going to cut into this important ‘clapping time’. You can not afford this interruption. One way around this, if your strongest routine involves a volunteer, is to get them off stage just before the end of the trick. If they get applause as they get seated and then you time it right and finish strongly, then you can build on the applause and end with a really solid finish.
5. Using Tired Old Tricks
You would think that this would be obvious, but it seems like originality is often overlooked by new performers. This can be okay if you are performing for very little children who have never seen a magical coloring book before. But there are very few kids who haven’t seen that trick. When you have older kids or adults, forget it! If they think they have seen it before, they are far less likely to take an interest in what you are doing, and far more likely to heckle.
It doesn’t take much originality to use the same methodology of a routine but to change the way it looks. The magic coloring book could easily be made into a check book, or a menu, or a stack of drawings that children gave you after previous shows. Whatever. Whatever suits your personality. The thing is to be creative.
There used to be the principle of nostalgia that was a powerful tool to use on stage. In the olden times (pre-internet), people used to really like to see the same things over and over. “Oh look, Honey, here’s the Chinese Linking Ring routine. I saw this last year.” I think that our culture has grown a LOT more jaded over the past two decades. Deal with it. You have got to take a look at crowd psychology and be ruthlessly honest with yourself about how your stuff is going over. The beautiful thing is that there are so many magic tricks for sale out there, that it is extremely easy to show the audience things they haven’t seen before. Just take a look at what is being done by other performers in your venues in your area and, either avoid them like the plague, or slap a new coat of paint on them.