Playing the room: how to make the audience talk to you

Playing the room: how to make the audience talk to you

A guest blog from Imogen Palmer, creator of IMOGENÉ .

When I started out doing stand-up as a bright-eyed 19 year old on the open mic circuit of Bristol, I observed a lot of aggressive audience interaction techniques. New comics would try to ‘riff’ on people who clearly didn’t really want to talk with them, and then get very nervous and express anger at the audience member for ‘giving them nothing!’.

I saw a common hosting and compering style that focused on ‘taking down’ an audience member through jokes and insults after talking with them. This has left scars…anyone who has worked in Front of House in comedy knows how difficult it can be to persuade audience members to sit in the front row. ‘You won’t be picked on!’ is a phrase I often had to use when seating audience members for an improv show, when they are not yet sure of the protocol.

I am not a fan of bullying style comedy. When I started compering, I decided not to mirror what I saw on the open mic circuit and chose instead to treat the audience like they were a roomful of friends in my living room. I didn’t blame them for not laughing at my jokes and used compering as a chance to chat with people and bring the room together in a warm-way, rather than as a chance to test my (very middling) stand-up.

The more relaxed I was, the more relaxed they seemed. The more authentic I was when talking with them, the more conversational the interactions became and, interestingly, the more discoveries of unexpected laughter. I stopped trying to be funny and the compering became funnier. I realised that the role of the compere was not to be the main event. Your job is to warm-up the crowd, give the information needed about the night and the acts and function as a palate cleanser to help give the acts the best time possible.

I discovered a whole new layer to audience interaction when I went to Australia and had an education in clowning from amazing artists such as Tessa Waters (Womanz), Deanna Fleysher (Butt Kapinski) and Phil Burgers (Dr Brown). I learnt that clowning is playing with the immediate connection between the performer on stage and the audience which can be vulnerable and terrifying for both involved.

So how do we make the audience feel safe? I practice a few tricks I’ve learnt from watching others when doing my incredibly interactive show IMOGENÉ : the improvised pop concert.

Make it obvious in the marketing

Let an audience know what they’re buying a ticket for by making it clear there will be interaction. I also mention this in the introduction to the show.

Treat the audience like friends

My character IMOGENÉ loves the audience. Without them, she is nothing and she needs them to save her career. Just like when I was compering, I discovered the more relaxed I was, the more relaxed the audience was and as IMOGENÉ, I seem to get away with asking very personal questions. 

Seek consent

This is one I am still practicing…when chatting with someone, I try to read their body language and see how comfortable they are when they are talking with me. If they look excruciatingly embarrassed, I move on to someone else. I’ve learnt how to rephrase questions if someone is not forthcoming with information and straight up say things like ‘is it ok if I ask you a personal question?’ So far, people seem fairly comfortable to open up to the character because she’s pretty open and vulnerable with them but I’m also aware that sometimes people feel forced to say SOMETHING because all the attention is on them.

These are just some of the tools I have discovered and I am still learning as I go and open to learning through trial and error. In one particularly memorable chat, when seeking inspiration to inspire a ‘sexy’ song, I asked a woman if she had a nickname for her vagina (I told you IMOGENÉ got personal). She beckoned me over to whisper in my ear. I asked if she minded if I shared the response with the room and she said yes so I told them – it was ‘sir’! It inspired a truly great song.

Imogen Palmer is the Artistic Director of The Delight Collective (The Bish Bosh Bash, IMOGENÉ : the improvised pop concert) and the Theatre School Manager of The Bristol Improv Theatre. IMOGENÉ is having her London debut at VAULT Festival, 26th – 28th February.

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