January 18, 2011

Student Audience Psychology

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:44 pm

Today I learned something new.

We had our first student matinee of Comedy of Errors. Now I’ve certainly done enough student matinees in my career, and have learned a bit about how student audiences react to shows. But we have an interesting start to our show that makes it different.

I think this show has the most badass opening of any show I’ve done in my career for one reason: it has no preshow announcement. Not only that, but the opening sequence has no music or anything else to provide a segue before the text starts.

House to half
House out
Curtain rises
Actor begins speaking

It’s without a doubt my favorite 15 seconds of my day.

I recall the days when Broadway shows didn’t have preshow announcements, though I never really got to stage manage in that era. I’ve probably done a couple shows without announcements, but they would have been small off-off-Broadway shows, which feel much different in a 99-seat theatre. I’m not particularly opposed to announcements, I actually enjoy doing them a little, but I think it’s fabulously old-school to dim the house lights and jump right into a show.

So anyway, this is what I have to work with when we start the show. The timing of the whole thing is at my discretion — when the audience has settled enough to go to black, and when they have fully settled before taking the curtain out. Here’s where 11 performances for adult audiences have led me astray: I have become accustomed to waiting until the moment the house is completely silent before bringing the curtain up.

There is a well-known characteristic of student audiences: they really like blackouts. More often than not, when the lights fade to black they will scream. They will scream for the duration of the blackout. I’ve had many discussions trying to figure out exactly why this is, without much success, but it is so.

So I made the fatal mistake, when there was still a little bit of settling and rustling as the lights hit black, of holding and waiting for it to stop, as I would do for an evening performance. Well of course it didn’t stop. It transitioned from rustling of programs to laughing and screaming, and well, I put a stop to that by taking the curtain out while it was just a few kids before it could spread to all 461 of them.

So, stage managers, life lesson: if your instructions are to hold in a blackout until the house is quiet, do NOT do this at a student performance. Get the hell out of the blackout as soon as you can, it will only get worse the longer you sit in it. I should have known this before, but was just going through my usual show and forgot about the dreaded blackout scream. Let my folly be a lesson to you.