Knowing Your Audience

As no two audiences are the same, it is almost impossible for an actor or a magician to assess the peculiar nature of the people of the auditorium until he has been before them for at least a few minutes.

Nevertheless, there are signposts which should be recognised. All children, for example, are more "knowing" than adults, except the very little ones. They have unadulterated minds and look for simple explanations which are generally the right ones. This was brought home to me some years ago when on consecutive evenings I performed the same tricks before a scientific society and the juniors of an East End mission. The members of the former were easy prey. I listened to them after the show attributing my performance to psychology, mirrors, reflected light, and all sorts of involved apparatus.

At the mission, the youngsters went alarmingly to the point. They called out such things as: " Turn yer 'and over, guvnor." "What about the bit of thread?" and "Let's see the other side of the lid." How right they were! Hence the need, with children, to be resolute and absolutely unsuspicious in every move you make. On no account — whether acting a play or doing a trick — should there be any playing down to children. Treat them as adults. They can appreciate a Shakespearean play if it is well acted and presented; and similarly, they will not be inattentive or "see through" a trick if it is done with finesse.

Time and place have a considerable effect on an audience. Every music-hall performer knows that a "turn" after the interval (and a visit to the bar) finds people in a better mood. Monday is a more deadly day than early closing day, when alert shopkeepers — used to dealing with all sorts of contingencies — are out for amusement. A hotel audience, with waiters hovering about to serve drinks, has not the concentration of a more formal gathering and is a nightmare for the mentalist. The hotel audience needs something direct and readily visualised.

In my opinion, mentalists are incomprehensibly stupid if they offer any large-size audience demonstrations with bits of paper and small objects taken from, or shown to, the few people in the front rows. To know your audience, you must try to take as many of them into account as possible.

Once you are "on", be quick to sense the spirit of the people in front of you. All sorts of things may have influenced them in general —the weather, the previous performers, the hall or theatre, the locality. On the last point, it is dangerous to dogmatise; but audiences in Dublin, Glasgow and Blackpool are quite different from those in Belfast, Edinburgh and. Bristol. Both lots are very wideawake; but the first three are more pliable and ready to laugh — or cry.

In getting to know your audience, particularly watch how the pace of your performance is affecting them. It is easy to go too slow or too fast. Both can be equally monotonous. Variety of pace is the keynote of all good stage work.

Watch, too, your own personality. If you are appearing before a specific organisation, give a thought to their brand of humour. Women, for example, cannot stand crude jokes against themselves. The majority of an allmale audience — contrary to general belief does not like "dirt" and always regards the performer who employs it as a second-rater. An audience of office-workers is quite different from an audience of factory-hands. It is not a matter of assumed "superiority", but of relaxation. The average typist deals all day in a routine of black and white. She is ready for colour — for the eye and ear. The factory hand wants a change from the clang of machinery, and appreciates homely humour and simple melody — and even an uninvolved mental jerk.

One of the best indications of an audience's reactions is their coughing! Eminent actress, Flora Robson, told me that she always listens for this before she goes on to the stage and is alive to it throughout the performance. She is thus able to make dramatic pauses so that her words "jump" in just before or after the coughers! Most coughing is unnecessary and is merely a nervous habit. The experienced actor, speaker or magician can — by careful timing of speech and action (with occasional repetition) — use it and even stifle it. In times of emotion and rivetted interest, an audience does not cough.

NEXT ISSUE: The performer's hands and feet.

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