Top of the Show to you!

I was struggling with the tone of a show I was working on several years back . . . the audience just wasn’t getting on our journey fast enough.  It took them too long to figure out what we were trying to do.

I actually felt like it was pretty clear once you got into the story, but I got some great advice from a respected vet that I will never forget, that helped me clearly define the tone for myself, and more importantly, the ticket buyers.

Here’s what this pro said:

It’s essential that at the top of your show (and sometimes even before you begin), you let the audience know the type of experience they are in for . . . or, more importantly, the type of experience you want them to have.  Think about it in theme park terms:  if you’re a roller coaster, you want your riders to know, just as they strap themselves in.  A carousel, same thing.  A haunted house . . . you get the picture.

So if you’re a comedy, better kick off with some funny.  Fantasy . . . let’s see/hear something that’s pretty far from reality.  And so on.

Let me reiterate that often this is in the first few moments of the show (if you’re going to see Somewhere in Time next month, you’ll see an example) . . . and sometimes it’s in the pre-show.  Sometimes it’s text, and sometimes it’s just an image, a sound, etc.

Examples?  On Altar Boyz, we added a “Thou Shalt Not Touch” sign over our soul sensor to let people know that despite the cool, hip looking rock concert set, and a title like Altar Boyz, we were going to poke a little fun at ourselves, so the audience could relax.  On Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, I remember the late, great, and often cranky, Arthur Laurents giving a note asking us to bring in the beautiful red house curtain at The Shubert Theatre for the audience walk-in, instead of letting them stare at the black, empty back wall of the theater and its ghost light for fifteen minutes . . . because an audience looking at darkness for that kind of time was going to get depressed, and Gypsy (while dark and dysfunctional at times) was an old fashioned Broadway show with a lot of comedy . . . and Arthur wanted the crowd to be in the mood.  (Audience response changed overnight, btw. Arthur was often cranky, but often right.)

You’re meeting your audience for the first time when they walk in your door.  Make sure you make a great and honest first impression.  If you don’t, they’ll never want to hang out with you for two and a half hours.


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  • Kerry Zukus says:

    Which is why a certain musical once began with “Comedy Tonight!”

  • At one of Dame Edna’s shows (I can’t remember which one) Christmas Carols softly played as the audience filed in before each performance — except NOT at Christmastime. Playing Christmas Carols in the fall, spring, and summer telegraphed to the audience that they were entering a different world.

    It’s hard to describe the feeling you get hearing Christmas carols out of synch — and I’m sure for everyone that feeling is slightly different — but to me it created a playful mood that was just right for Dame Edna’s humor.

  • Khiyon Hursey says:

    love this ken!

    three more great examples are sweeney todd, wicked and next to normal. sweeney starts off with really dark music and “attend the tale of sweeney todd”. wicked- just the first few notes alone of the score are wild. and when i saw a local prod of N2N, diana came out 10 minutes to curtain and was acting “strange”. it was set up beautifully. thanks for this great tip ken!

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