Live performance is something I’ve been doing for many years. Usually it takes one of two forms: either I am in a play, and have lines to learn and places to stand, which I then attempt to repeat night after night more or less exactly the same. This is called ‘acting’.
Or I’m improvising, and every night is completely different: scenes, games and fantastical stories being made up on the spot using audience suggestions. There are different everythings happening all the time, so no two shows are alike, no two stories are similar.
I’m now in the process of delivering Roman Around, which is, for me, a whole new type of show. It relies on the skills that I’ve honed through acting and improvising, and yet it is an entirely different kind of thing.
I’ve done two ‘previews’ (shows of the ‘work-in-progress’ but with live audiences – mostly, but not entirely – consisting of friends and my wife).
The shows were very different – both in delivery and reception. There were similarities, as the show has a structure, but there were many deviations, changes and ad libs. Overall, the result was a contented audience. And a happy, if not entirely satisfied, performer.
I’m glad the audiences are enjoying it, but I’m also now realizing that all the rehearsal and preparation in advance of putting a show like this in front of the audience is really just work one must put in before putting in a whole bunch more work.
I’m developing a whole new respect for the craft of stand-up comedy, which seems to consist entirely of writing jokes, honing them in front of audiences until they’re hilarious, then writing new jokes to go between the killer bits. Then honing them. And so on. Then shuffling and adjusting all of your material on the fly to suit your audience. It is a non-stop process of developing, building, cutting and shaping material. I’m getting a window in that world, and yet coming at it in an entirely different way.
I can understand why stand-ups start with a few minutes of material and then build up to more stage time. Not that Roman Around is actually stand-up comedy per se. But when I quit trying to hypothesize on the genre (solo storytelling? stand-up play?), it sure looks like stand-up comedy – me onstage for an hour, talking to the audience, acting out scenes and generally being funny, entertaining, and informative.
The thing is, before the first preview on Monday I had everything more or less ready to go: a whole hour of two interwoven narrative arcs, peppered with jokes and asides.
But when I got in front of an audience it was different. Some parts or lines I thought were funny, they didn’t. Some things that I thought were only kinda funny, they laughed wildly at. I was surprised, but pleasantly so.
I even improvised some bits in and around some of the stories, because it seemed to be what the audience was looking for. I also added in some more acting bits for some of the stories, because it seemed to be what they (the audience and the stories) needed. And I think I got it mostly right. Because, at the end of the show, we were all happy.
After that show I figured I’d gotten it well and truly sorted out. I knew what the audience liked and what they didn’t. I knew what to add and what I could subtract to bring it all together. Once I got over my initial shock at the unpredictability of the audience, I was comfortable – thanks to years of ‘crowd-reading’ at improv and theatrical hosting gigs.
And then, on Wednesday, I performed it again. For a different audience. This is where it got a little tricky. That audience also enjoyed it, but they didn’t laugh as much, and when they did, it was not always at the same parts as the audience on Monday.
For example, I have what I would call a throwaway line in which I explain that, at a certain point in history, Jesus was dead, and “not Easter dead. Really dead.”
In the writing of it, I thought that this line would be amusing. On Monday though, the audience could hardly contain their laughter. It started as a snicker, became a general roar of mirth, and then, when that subsided, even brought out a couple aftershocks of chuckles. I realized that I had written a bigger winner than I had first thought.
But on Wednesday, that line brought out a few giggles and nothing more. I carried on, but that moment only crystallized what I had been suspecting since I started the Wednesday show: I have a puzzle on my hands.
Actually, a puzzle is not the right analogy. The title of this post is.
This live show is a living thing. It is not something I’ve written that I recite in front of an audience. It is something created by me, that I perform to and with the audience. I had suspected that before, but now I know it, and know that the show will continue to change as every new audience comes in. Each show will be much different than the one before it, and the one afterwards.
The good news is that both audiences loved the show. I got lots of positive feedback – even from the audience members who were not my friends. The other good news is that I’m determined to tighten up the show, emphasizing the narrative drive and tuning the funny bits so that it delivers maximum thought-provoking mirth to maximally engage minds.
As the performing of it is something I do with the audience, I’ll be listening to us both, and get clues from my paternal instinct, and the audience’s laughter as to how to care for and nurture the show so that it continues to grow, as all living things need to do.
If you want to be part of the action, you can.