Monday, 27 April 2009

How to get on stage for the first time

When people take my stand-up workshops they often talk about what a great fear they have about doing stand-up. The fear of public speaking and stage-fright in general are broad subjects but in terms of bridging that initial gap and actually putting yourself on stage I would like to provide something of a roadmap to anyone who is interested. The first key to this process is demystifying it; break it down into a few tangible elements. There are three main areas that you can put time and effort into that will ease you into your first stand-up performance that much more comfortably: construction, delivery and situation.

1 – Construction --- Put together your material in advance – you will probably be doing a five minute set so put together the right amount of material and really get to know it. I say get to know it rather than memorize it because the process of word for word memorization can tie people up. If you have a style like Steven Wright you will have to do quite a bit of memorization but most styles are more flexible. In the time immediately before you go on stage refer a list of the subjects you are going to talk about( eg: drinking, Christmas, dieting, Mexico) rather than a total script. Putting together material is too broad a subject for me to cover in detail here but remember:

a - you should be doing material because you think it’s funny, not just because you think a crowd might laugh at it.

b – to go through and edit your material several times – go through it sentence by sentence and determine "is this part essential to understanding the bit?" and " is it funny?" If it is neither…. Get rid of it! Keep things trim.

Once you have put together some material, edited out the non-essential parts and feel you can remember it all you are on the way.

2 – Delivery --- In comedy, how you say things can sometimes be more important than what you are actually saying. Try to take note of what things define the way you speak and what people find amusing. You can work on delivery in casual conversations. If you have a subject you want to do some comedy on, talk with people about it – not necessarily as “a comedy piece” but just as a normal topic of conversation. Get comfortable on the topic, how you like to speak about it and what seems to amuse people. If you are inclined to doing voices, acting things out, telling stories, using facial expressions etc. pay attention to yourself when you are doing them and remember that you will probably have license to really use them on stage. So figure out some of the characteristics that you have and start getting control of them.

3 – Situation --- Take control of the situation that comedy takes place in so it doesn’t take control of you. In a general sense, you should seize any opportunity you have that involves standing up and speaking to a group of people, if there is a microphone and lights involved, even better. This doesn’t have to involve any comedy at all, it is more about being comfortable in front of a group of people, holding their attention, using a microphone, having lights on you etc. etc. In the specific, you should go and see some live comedy shows, figure out which venue you might be able to perform in and get to know it. Get to know the people who organize the comedy show, get to know what type of crowds go there, meet some of the comedians, get to know how they perform and ask their advice, most are happy to give it.

Know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it and the situation that you will be in – it’s that simple. If you pay attention to these things you’ll be far more comfortable on that stage when you finally get there – and, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the process in the meantime – good luck and….. enjoy!!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Which audience is the most important?

When you are onstage performing there are various audiences to consider. Here are the main ones you have to deal with on a regular basis.

1 - The crowd
2 - Yourself
3 - The owner/manager
4 - The other comedians
5 - The objective third eye

So, who is the most important of these 5? Who should you play to and cater to? As with so many things in stand-up there is no one answer. Many people would reflexively say "the crowd" that's what you are there to do; keep that crowd happy. To my thinking this idea is incorrect at the most fundamental level. A good comedian should predicate their act not on what they think the crowd wants but on making the most of their own approach to comedy. You shouldn't try and find things you think a crowd will like, you should work on what you think is funny and then figure out how to make it work with your crowds. Aside from the root-level problem the crowd is problematic as the ultimate arbiter because one has to play many different types of crowds - sometimes to keep a bunch of small town drunks happy requires that you degrade your own performance and if you do that on a regular basis inevitably your act will suffer over the long haul.

Playing entirely for yourself also has certain dangers. It is certainly a brave approach and can lead to a more confident and experimental style but treading the line between that and becoming a self-rightous and self-indulgent comic must be done with great caution. It is important to assert yourself and your own style and sometimes that will mean swimming against the current but to make a habit of depriving your act of empathy will serve only to poison your act and yourself. Play to yourself, but don't make a habit of doing it at the expense of your crowd, or you become a risk for any booker to hire

The bookers, agents and other comedians are the very specific audience at the back of the rom and it's tough to ignore them. Sometimes, you don't want to ignore them. In a showcase situation, be aware of what they want to see and try to show them the side of you that fits the bill - another situation where just going for laughs won't always serve you well. When it comes to this particular set of viewers, you can usually score some extra points with a few occasional lines which are designed to please them without alienating the crowd too much - it's fairly easy to do. "Playing to the back of the room" can be fun in bursts but unless you are a well-established headline act it's inadvisable to completely direct your show that way: it's easy for the rebel to become the causeless martyr.

My personal favourite is the third eye. That independant, objective third eye. Imagine that the show you are doing is being recorded and watched far in the future by a wise unbiased judge who is able to simply see how well (or badly) you have constructed and peformed your comedy. How does it stack up in the big picture? Did you lose the crowd part-way through but ultimately deliver a well crafted performance that was a step forward in your own creative evolution? This sounds so perfect, but pandering to perfection can damage your realities. You can entertain that third eye but have the crowd and the bar owner completely turned off, so you have to weigh your options. In the end, it's a mixture of all these audiences that should motivate you and hopefully attempting to achieve a balance is an enjoyable process.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Comedy Addicts

Comedy is the only profession I know where the work is the easiest part of the job. I don't know any comedians who don't truly enjoy the time they spend on stage. Even the beginners who experience paralysing fear still get more positive than negative from their time behind the microphone. Comedians are quite simply addicted to performing, that is why most major cities have venues with comedy shows where comedians, both amateur and professional, jockey for the glittering prize of being allowed to work without pay beyond a free drink or two. Some are working on new material but others are wearing down old material smoother than river rock. Some are trying to fill a social void, and others are leaving behind frustrated spouses and unfulfilled commitments.

The venues involved in this wholesale giveaway of comedy talent are typically nothing you would expect a performer to covet: sports bars with a hundred flickering televisions or coffee shops where the crowds and the Columbian are equally lukewarm and thin. To be fair there are also well run, ambitious little gigs that boast a heart of regulars and a great space to do seven minutes without the constraints that money gigs can bring. Regardless of the quality of the venue, as long as the management has no complaints and some patient soul remains willing to donate their time and effort into organization the gig will continue. Sometimes long after it should have been allowed to die with dignity.

It is a peculiar mixture of ego, art and adrenaline that keeps the comedian's enthusiasm unbridled and while the public demand for live stand-up will ebb and flow, nothing will, it seems, diminish the supply or the needs of the stand-up comedy addicts.