Why an Audience Is So Important for Your Performance: Now’s a Good Time to Take a Deeper look at Your Relationship with Your Audiences

August 16, 2020 | By

Article #8 in this running series.

“I’ve learned how special the audience is, the feeling that you get from people being right in front of you, becoming part of your act. You hear every word, cough, and sneeze. They tell you if they’re amused or moved by your interpretation and how they perceive you and your personality. This is how I developed my persona on stage.”  —Julie Wilson*

In this totally bizarre, distorted, and extremely isolated moment in which we find ourselves, the one thing we cannot do is come together. So, the one thing we are completely incapable of being is a live audience.

Ironically or not, this may then be the best time of all to look at what it means to be that audience. Those of us who love making and witnessing live theatre, live music, and the melding of those two in live cabaret, can feel deep in our bones all that we are missing. And understanding what we are missing is also a ring of keys to understanding what it means to be in an audience, to have an audience, and, therefore, to be there for and with your audience.

The Audience is Your Acting PartnerIt has been proven scientifically that as we sit in the audience together, our hearts are literally beating at the same time. That synchronization and synchronicity is one of the keys to the audience relationship. All these people are breathing together, but at the same time, they are not focused on themselves or each other. They are focused on the performer. The sensation is palpable. When you stand on the stage and open your arms, you can actually feel the energy of the people in the room. It is an awesome power. And with that great power comes great responsibility.

Together, the audience becomes your acting partner. You might think that your acting partner is the other musicians onstage, but they are your accompanists, and so they are your musical partners, but not your acting partners. In terms of theatrical dynamics, they are part of you. That’s why in early rehearsal you face them—as you’re working out the music. But as you get closer to performance, you’re facing away from them because they’re part of your performance for the audience—as much a part of you as your costume, your song choices, your patter.

“If environmental theater seeks to immerse the audience in the performance, the cabaret poses the much more daunting situation of immersing the performance in the audience.”—Shane Vogel**

Now not every audience is an ideal audience, and no two audiences are exactly alike, which is one of the reasons that no two live performances are exactly alike.

Audiences Can be Divided into Three Categories Two Different Ways: The first is by attitude; that is, they can be friendly, apathetic, or hostile.

Friendly audiences are predisposed to listening, caring about what you’re doing, and appreciating what you have to offer. They are easy to be with, and ready to let you take them anywhere.

Apathetic audiences may be more interested in eating or drinking, talking with their friends, or just waiting their turn to be the center of attention themselves. With an apathetic audience, you may need to woo them, or use one or more of your most endearing qualities to win them over. It may be the warm, lush sound of your voice, or your elegance, or your daring. It may be a song they know well, or something that’s a complete surprise, or a wicked joke.

Hostile audience members are those that are actually against you, maybe even shout out things. You see this most with comedians, but not exclusively. Particularly when alcohol is involved, you never quite know what you’re going to get with an audience. Hostile audience members are most often not your fault, but they are your responsibility, and how you choose to deal with them may shift them or not, but if you deal with it well it will get the rest of the audience even more with you.

The second way of categorizing the audience is by degree of previous knowledge; that is, they can be a) experts;  b) somewhat experienced;  or c) completely uninformed. Knowing who your audience is and how experienced they are will go a long way to your feeling assurance in the choices you make and how much you can expect of them. You may need to make adjustments for a more or less knowledgeable audience. Sometimes it can even inspire you to have audience members answer questions for you or sing along with a song they all know.

Although there are numerous ways to categorize groups of people, these two ways can be the most helpful when trying to plan in advance for what any specific audience might be like. Factor in not just who might be coming, but what kind of seating the venue has, and where the performance space is in relation to the bar or to any open spaces where non-audience members might congregate. All of these will affect who your audience is, and, therefore, your performance.

Most often in cabaret, audiences are people who have been to many shows and are experienced, if not expert, in the art of being an audience member. Therefore, they are usually friendly and eager to become your acting partner as long as you are truly open to their energy and you take them in as much as you give to them.

It is impossible to have a conversation if you are only thinking about yourself and what you are saying and doing. If you are only giving out and not taking in, you will lose the opportunity to continue to develop your ability to have that conversation with each new audience. This is one of the most vital components of cabaret artistry.

Single-Spot Songs Can Still Be Shared—Some songs are not sung directly to the audience. Sometimes the audience bears witness to a moment in your show that is to one other person. I don’t mean an actual person sitting in the audience, which can be painfully embarrassing for the person being “sung to” and equally-painfully alienating for everyone else. I mean songs that are directed to one spot, to one person with whom you’re speaking, usually a song that is so intimate, filled with emotion—desire, hurt, or anger—that you would never want to put it on the audience even if it was about them.

These single-spot songs should usually be sung to an imaginary person who is beyond your audience but not too much higher up than them. Why? If your imaginary person is beyond the audience, everyone feels included in your energy. But if you put that imaginary person up too high on the wall, all we see is under your chin and your neck. Your energy is, literally, over our heads.

“I was never really aloof — that was people’s image of me — but it came about because I didn’t ever think that I should be anything but perfect for the audience. I found out along the way that they like you a little imperfect.” —Lena Horne

But Can’t the Audience Just Be the Audience?  Actually, what does that even mean? We can put that question in a bucket with other similar questions: “Can’t I just sing songs I like to sing?” “Can’t I just say what I feel like saying in the moment?” “Can’t I just …” fill in the blank. I translate all those questions as “Can’t I just be fabulous without planning so much?”

Yes, of course, it is possible. But it is much more likely that you will have a far greater chance of great results if you do the work of at least understanding what is entailed. Just like a great improviser in any medium—a jazz musician, comic, improv actor—it may look effortless, but it’s a sport that requires extensive training and practice. The more tools you have at your disposal, the less haphazard all your choices will be. Those tools include:

  • the understanding you have of the medium;
  • your instrument;
  • your objectives;
  • your choices of material; and
  • your relationship with the audience.

The more deeply you are present in the moment taking in, listening, and sharing yourself, all at the same time, the more you will become a truly accomplished cabaret artist.

As Salty Brine put it for me when I asked him for his take on the audience relationship:  “You have to be totally with them 100 percent of the time. Listening. Reacting.  Anticipating.  Learning.  Adapting. In truth. This isn’t easy. Because you’re juggling a million other things at the same time. It’s, of course, the same with any acting partner in a play. But it’s not one person. Or an ensemble. It’s a room full of people.” And then he immediately added, “It’s joyful work.”

“I had been doing a long engagement in Miami and the audience seemed to be ignoring me…. One night I was doing a song Pearl Bailey sang, ‘Tired,’ and as I sang the last words ‘…tired of you,’ I turned my back on them and walked off.  All of a sudden, applause erupted and I thought, ‘Oh they don’t want a nice girl from Omaha, they want to hear a bitch,’ and I gave them what they wanted.” —Julie Wilson*

Can Any of This Be Achieved Virtually? Not really. So much of it is about energy, about taking in as well as giving out, about relationship. With virtual performance, even if it is not pre-recorded, there is no energetic give and take between performer and audience, and that is the life blood of the medium.

As Audra McDonald said recently about live performance online—without an audience—“I’m addicted to what I call the holy communion between the audience and the artist.” What we are able to do virtually is important (especially given current circumstances), and certainly can be a joy and a pleasure, but it will never feed that profound and beautiful addiction that is cabaret.

*From Julie Wilson’s Foreword to The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook — Creating Your Own Act in Today’s Liveliest Theatre Setting by Bob Harrington (2000, Back Stage Books)

**From Shane Vogel’s The Scene of Harlem Cabaret (2009, University of Chicago Press)






Category: Cabaret Handbook

About the Author ()

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote."  www.shellenlubin.com, www.mondaymorningquotes.com, @shlubin

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