Putting foreplay before your play.

was fortune enough to be featured on The Late Show with David Letterman yesterday (you can see the clip here), and while I waited for the show to begin, something special happened.

Somebody put me in the mood.

That’s right, readers, dim the lights, put on the Manilow, and cue the bow chicka wow wow.

Ok, ok, so maybe that somebody was Eddie Brill, a 50ish catskilly comedian with a little bit more facial hair than I would normally be attracted to, but still, Eddie is one smooooooth operator.

See, Eddie is the warm-up comedian for Dave’s live studio audience.  He steps out twenty minutes before taping and tells a few jokes to get us good and teased up for the fun we’re about to have.  And then, he throws it to a video starring Alec Baldwin that featured instructions like, “No cell phones, no yelling,” (sound familiar) . . . and, you guessed it, that video is damn funny on its own.

Oh, and my favorite part of the vid? They literally ask for laughs.  Yep, they say, “During the show, we want you to laugh, so laugh hard and laugh often.”

And since they do it so creatively, you want to give them what they want (especially since you didn’t pay for your ticket, and also because laughing gets the blood flowing and you could store a corpse in that Letterman theater it’s so cold).

My Letterman experience reminded me how important it is to warm up your audience before you take them on your journey (which is going to be longer than one hour, and a lot more expensive).  Now, you can’t ask for laughs, you can’t bring out a warm up comedian (well, 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down could), and having Paul Shaffer and his band play before your production of Hedda Gabbler might not make much sense . . . but there are subtler ways to Eddie Brill your crowd . . . you just have to find them.

Is food and drink available?  Can your audience bring it to their seat?  How are they greeted by the ushers?  What are the ushers wearing?  Is there pre-show music?  Do you have wifi?  What’s in your program besides the usual stuff?  Anything fun?  What does your lobby look like?  Do you have video playing?  Are there characters from the play/musical milling about?

All of this, if appropriate to your show, can help create for a better experience during your show, which creates for better word of mouth after your show.

If you don’t . . . well, you know what happens when you just go for it.  It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and no one really gets any pleasure out of it.

So add some foreplay to your play.  It may take a bit more time, and a bit more effort, but the results could be mindblowing.


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  • Kristin says:

    One of my favorite pre-show atmospheres was at Roundabout’s production of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. The live music set me in the best mood to see the show and was the perfect send off after the curtain fell. I think it is a great touch to go above and beyond smiling ushers and providing snacks and drinks. Set the tone for the show the audience is about to take part in!

  • Warren says:

    I live in Australia but get to NY reasonably often. Often enough to notice a disturbing trend of not opening the house until 10 minutes prior to show time. What’s the point of that? What happened to the days of opening the house just after the half hour call? Nowawadays you’re forced to join a queue half way round the block. The Broadway theatre is the worst offender but all are guilty. What a shocking way to set the tone. Don’t producers want their audience to be in a receptive mood? Well not if they’re being herded in like cattle!!

  • The most recent revival of La Cage Aux Folles really did it the right way. Before the show, the swings would come out in full drag getup and hand out programs, walk people to their seats, stand out on the sidewalk and welcome people and possibly drum up some walk-up sales. It took very little effort and was probably pretty low cost as well. It really engaged the audience and gave us all some entertainment prior to the show.

  • Rita says:

    Please, please no wifi or food and drinks at the seat! It’s bad enough now with the phoning and texting and snacking. Those things focus audience attention inward – on their individual wants and needs – not outward on a shared experience.
    Trick out the ushers, play music, decorate the house and lobby, send actors to chat and welcome as the audience is arriving. Those things – done appropriately – can be lots of fun and set the tone.
    Theatre is unique because no two audiences see exactly the same show. It’s live, and the audience dynamic can enhance the experience for everyone. And because it is a communal experience, any foreplay should encourage community. (wow, never thought I’d put those words together in a sentence!)

  • When I do sound design for a play, I decide on a musical signature for the play and the music continues gently in the house at pre-show, intermission and post-show. I’ve seldom heard this done on Broadway – union rules? I find that music creates an emotional atmosphere – festive if appropriate for the play – and binds the community of theatergoers in a subtle way.

  • Louisa says:

    Creating a pre-show experience including live music and a happy hour has gotten very positive responses at my theatre. One of our challenges has been in encouraging patrons to arrive earlier than they are used to in order to fully enjoy the experience. Those who do get there earlier definitely enjoy it though. Also, curious if anyone has come across any data or research regarding how these types of activities affect audience retention?

  • Don Reed says:

    As the audience warm up for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno — I say a loud, “Amen!” You must do something to get that audience revvved up. Ken, you always give out some of your pearls of wizdom — so here’s one of my big secrets that always works for COMEDIES and won’t cost you a cent. Play pre-show music on theme (as many shows do) — but here’s the trick — start it very, very low and progressively build it louder with each song, this inadvertently forces the audience to talk over the music while waiting for the show to begin. Of course, never reach a volume level that is higher than the production (you don’t leave yourself anywhere to go if you do) — but slowly pumping that music will have them vocalizing before a show even starts –and thus they are most likely to laugh and hoot with much more fervor.

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