Thursday, January 5, 2017
Enlisting The Audience: 5 TIps For Managing An Audience
Text of Epaminondas
Part 1: Covert and overt Audience Participation
Part 2: Overt Audience Participation
Part 3: Covert Audience Participation
Part 4: 5 Tips For Managing An Audience
In the last few posts, I've gone into some detail to explain what I mean when I talk about overt and covert audience participation. Epaminondas is a great story to use because it is easy to see where the rhythms run in the tale, and how it lends itself to setting up easy rules for the audience to follow.
What about stories that don't have that kind of structure? Can you do audience participation with them? Of Course.
There are lots of things I could say about audience participation but who has space for that? So, here are five common sense things to consider. Some of them are things you can plan before you ever see an audience, and some of them are things you do while you are in front of one.
I often talk about storytellers as being tour guides. We pick up an audience, carry it to various places, or cajole it into following us, as we unfold amazing worlds, characters, and situations for them. I firmly believe that this is what we are doing, but that is not all that is happening.
We are also in hunter-gatherer mode.
We stalk and snare a wild audience and our job is to ride it no matter which way it chooses to bolt, buck, run, or roll. We hold on for dear life and try to figure out what we need to do to keep control of the beast and guide it where we want it to go all the while knowing that at any moment we might be thrown off and trampled.
While we are riding it, we must also respect what it needs, wants, and actually does in order to make sure that when the ride is over we go our separate ways having had an amazing and exhilarating though sometimes exhausting, experience.
Each performer must find her or his own way to do this, but here are some generic "everyone could do these" suggestions I have for working an audience.
1. Ask questions of an audience: These do not have to be individually answered. The whole point of these questions is to establish a communal baseline.
Here is the way I begin a story about Brer Possum and the Frogs. The only response necessary is a raising of the hand after each question.
1. How many of you have moms who are good cooks?
2. How many of you have moms who are NOT good cooks?
3. How many of you have dads who are good cooks?
4. How many of you have dads who are Not good cooks?
5. How many of you have a relative who thinks they are a good cook...but they are not.
6. How many of you who have parents or guardians who are good cooks, but every now and then they go into the kitchen and they experiment? You know what I mean? They go in the kitchen and bring out something that has weird sauce, or some kind of strange looking noodles or something, and they put it in front of you and expect you to eat it. When I was a kid and that happened in my family, the first words out of our mouths were, "We aren't eating this."
7. How many of you have ever been served something so disgusting at the dinner table it made you cry?
I tell a short personal anecdote about a time when I cried at the dinner table.
Now, we are ready to tell the story I've chosen.
These questions aren't about my finding out everyone's story...they are about everyone joining me in my story. I set the playing field and invite them to come and play my game.
The coolest thing about starting a story this way is that for the rest of the day, everyone in that audience has a story to tell about a family meal or a funny food event.
The audience is engaged during the story, and they walk away to engage other people in story.
The second function of questions is to check in with the audience. By making them actively participate even on the level of raising their hand every five minutes or so, they get used to the idea that you want their input. They begin reacting to you in an active way instead of a passive one. Your overt request to see a show of hands gives you the covert request of having your audience stay with you because there is no telling when you are going to ask for their input.
This leads us to the second tip.
2. Check in with the audience during the story. You can do this by asking them to nod or having them fill in bits of the story over the course of the tale. You can also do this non-verbally.
This technique is about reading an audience
a. Scan the audience. make eye contact with people
b. Look for nonverbal signals. Where are their eyes? Did they nod their heads? Are they smiling at places that need smiles? What are their hands doing? Are they fidgeting? Are they leaning forward? What are they doing? Do you need to recapture their attention? Make a choice to do something that will bring them back into the situation if you feel like you are losing them.
c. Are they engaged? Do they look like their eyes are glassing over? What can you do to recapture them if they look lost? Why are they lost? Did you say something that they missed? Have you glossed over an idea or point that they needed to understand the tale? Why are they behaving this way, and is this the first time you've seen it? Make a choice to either ask them a question or re-engage them some kind of way.
Once you realize what your audience is doing, adjust your work. You can ask a question or reiterate a point or go into more detail. If you catch the initial place you lose an audience, you can easily compensate...if you go too long without fixing it, then you are lost...and so are they!
3. Allow the audience to shape the tale.
If the audience starts reacting to something in a way that has never happened, take note of it. Do you like it? how will you change the tale because of it during this particular telling? Do you hate it? How do you stop it? Consider why the reaction is happening and adjust.
Some audiences are unique. They might do something that won't happen again. Crafting your piece for certain reactions can help, but sometimes you just get wild cards. Roll with it.
I started telling La Mariposa in schools pretty frequently over the last year. What I noticed was that if the kindergarten is in the room, they often applaud when the butterfly accepts the mouse's proposal, but nobody else does. It happens most often when I am in front of a K - 5 audience. When the older kids are not there, the kindergarten isn't likely to do it. I am quite fascinated by what causes this reaction. I begin to wonder if there is some way to craft this story that causes the entire audience to applaud...hmmmm.
4. If an audience has a bad reaction to something, don't dismiss it! Learn from it!
Stories grow from adversity as well a success. Let the story that didn't work teach you how to work story. Only an audience can really teach you what kind of storyteller you are. Let them.
I learn a great deal from audiences. Every telling teaches me something. The tellings that weigh on me are the ones where I don't succeed, but I am not often baffled by them anymore. Sometimes I just can't capture an audience and I try to figure out what I could have done better. Other times I misread them and don't give them what they need. Sometimes I am fighting an uphill battle before I begin, but I just keep at it. I learn to crack some audiences, and other times I am confronted with something I don't understand. It's all part of the work.
My favorite saying about this comes from Mythbusters..."Failure is always an option!"
(I have friends who balk at the word "failure". They say, "It isn't a failure if you learn from it, or "you didn't fail!" I'm here to tell you that sometimes I fail. Failing isn't the end of the world. I think of it as a place to start. If the word makes you uncomfortable substitute something nicer.)
5. If you notice a recurring thing happening in a story that you feel adds to the story, incorporate it, and let it help shape the tale.
We don't always know what is happening to an audience when we choose a piece. Just because we think a story is about one thing, doesn't mean that is so. Let the audience help you figure out what to do with certain tales.
The stories I tell in tandem with audiences are all due to the work I did with Epaminondas. Crafting that story over the course of five years helped me identify other stories that could be crafted in similar fashion.
So, that's my advice. Good luck out there.
Happy Audience Rustling!