Was the audience weird tonight? I feel like the audience was kind of weird tonight.
— Multiple improvisers across many nights
Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts of Dummy were in town last weekend for a series of workshops about scene work. Their brand of improv emphasizes scenes that have players attempt to relate to one another with conversations similar to what one might encounter in real life. Jon Skulski, who is currently doing an intensive at iO and taking classes with Jason, has been writing up detailed reflections on this style (see Chicago and the Day One, Improv is about Balance, The Simple Choice, and possibly more), and as one might notice in reading through those notes, Jason spends a lot of time talking about the audience.
When I’ve heard other instructors talk about the audience, it’s generally the adage to play for one’s scene partner instead of the audience. However, I think that advice is less about the audience and more about playing to the top of one’s intelligence versus going for a quick laugh. Jason’s comments on the audience are much richer, and someone in one of my classes last weekend asked him how he got that perspective.
“I just started going to shows and sitting in the corner, turning my head back and forth between the improvisers and the audience.”
When I heard Jason’s response, I had to try it out for myself.
Before proceeding, there are a few caveats about taking any of the observations in the rest of this post too seriously. First, I am reporting back about one show, so my observations are limited by the types of scenes from the two troupes that performed that evening (given more evenings, more teams, and more forms, I likely would have a much larger collection of scenes off of which to explore), as well as the composition of the audience that evening (mostly other improvisers). Second, I almost certainly missed certain audience reactions, as well as important scenic elements, during the process of shifting my focus. Third, I could only see so far back into the audience, so my focus was on a relatively small portion of the overall group.
With those caveats in mind, watching a show in this particular way is fascinating. The audience offers up visual cues (smiles, frowns, eyebrow furrows) in addition to the audible ones (usually laughs and groans), and given how most theaters are lit, one might never notice these as a performer. There are also patterns in audience behavior that appear to be independent of particular scenes.
For instance, at the start of a new scene, I generally noticed that people in the audience started to tense up, furrow their eyebrows, lean forward, or cross their arms. As the scenes progressed, some people in the audience started to lean back in their seats, smile, and uncross their arms. And, of course, at different moments, people laughed, present company included. The timings varied from person to person and scene to scene, but there was almost always a universal reset to the tense, furrowed eyebrows after an edit.
I had fun tracking how the variations played out depending on the scene. A lot of the scenes that I saw that evening were heavy on premise, during which audience members might laugh at a particular joke or jokes but then immediately return to their tense posture, furrowed eyebrows, and crossed arms. Many of the scenes had one strong character and an undefined straight man, and in these situations the audience tended to relax when the character spoke and tense up when the straight man spoke.
The scene that was the coolest to watch in this way was one in which there were two strong characters that each had big, positive reactions to what the other was saying. In this scene, the audience’s tense period disappeared after the first two lines, and it also just happened to be the scene that got the most laughs of the evening. I would have loved to see more scenes like this and how an audience might react. I guess that’s enough inspiration to do this again.