I keep learning new stuff, every time we do the play. Here's one I didn't expect at all: each night, the audiences laugh at different lines. Isn't that odd? They're the same lines every night, and they're delivered pretty much the same way. But they get different responses. It's as if the audience has an identity as a group, rather than being a collection of individuals. It must have something to do with peer pressure: if you feel like laughing in one place, but nobody else is laughing, you might stifle your laugh and just smile.
We have one woman in the play, "Mrs. Baker," who consistently steals the show and always gets laughs. She has a wonderful part and is excellent in her delivery of her lines. I have to take bows right after her, and the applause always dies down a bit when I come out. They still clap, so they either liked me or they're being polite, but they absolutely loved her. Bless her, I love her too.
But even she noticed how the laughs come at different places.
Here's an example. The first night, the audience absolutely roared at my delivery of what I've come to call my "butter me" line in act 1. I say brightly, "I was Miss Automatic Toaster. I popped up and I sang, and after the show three salesmen tried to butter me!" I was actually a little startled at how long they laughed that night. I had to hold my pose and wiggle a little bit till they settled down so "Alan" could say his line.
Performance two: zero response. Nada, nyet, nossir. Dead silence. They might have been smiling, but I couldn't see them so I couldn't tell. There I was, all ready for a laugh, and I didn't get one. And this is one of the things I learned from the more experienced actors when I asked them later: Never expect a laugh.
The Huz was there that night and he shared why he didn't laugh. It wasn't my delivery, he said; rather, it was because to him the line was out of character for my nice-girl character, so he was sort of shocked and not sure what to think. That was valuable input. The next performance I altered my delivery to include a sideways glance at "Alan" so the audience could know that I was only saying it to get a reaction out of him.
Performance three: moderate laughter at my "butter me" line. This crowd didn't laugh much at any of the lines that WE think are pretty funny, including some side-busters from "Mr. Baker." One of the actors, Jim, figured out what was going on. These folks were laughing hard at the broader, more physical humor delivered by the "Buddy" character. Once he pointed that out, I was able to adjust my performance. In act 2, I usually play the scene as if I were only slightly tipsy. This time, I hammed it up to be very obviously tipsy. Sure enough, that worked. Got quite a few laughs.
So, there's another lesson. Pay attention to what the crowd is laughing at. If you can figure out the pattern, you might be able to adjust your performance.
So now, I have a request to make of you. The next time you're in the audience for a comedy and something makes you smile, please add at least an audible chuckle so the actors know they're amusing you. The lights are so bright that we can't see you, and besides, there aren't many points in the play where it's appropriate for us to turn our eyes your way. Without the audible feedback, we can't tell if we're bombing or not, and that's a pretty discouraging situation for us. If you start chuckling out loud, pretty soon someone else will feel more comfortable breaking that audience silence, and before long we might have a nice, responsive audience to help us know how we're doing. And perhaps we will adjust our performance a bit to the audience's taste, as we did in our third performance.
Previous posts about the play (in reverse order):
relief, and no stage fright
reflections on acting
Come Blow Your Horn