May 31, 2014

"But you made the quiches yourself": becoming a better stage performer


 THE FAILURE.

The stage lights burning the back of my eyes. The solitary microphone and the stares from the audience. And the sudden and lurching gap in my memory.

I remember my only attempt at stand-up comedy well: I died on my backside: a brutal failure. The years have not diminished my shock at the experience.

The next time I took to the stage was for Bright Club with a comedy lecture called Gospel According To Aphex Twin. It wasn't stand-up but I played it for laughs and I shook like a leaf. Four years later and, for the first time ever earlier this week, I had a "performer moment". A moment where I wasn't just on a stage reading funny stuff, but I used a learned technique to elicit a response from an audience. Like a Performer, capital P.

THE MOMENT.

The moment happened as I compered Bad Language. A couple of open mic acts hadn't turned up, and at one point there was a risk that it could have derailed the night. I needed to make light of the situation on stage, so I used a stupid metaphor, explained slowly with the best deadpan I could manage. I likened the no-shows to me making five quiches for a dinner party, with only four guests turning up, leaving me to eat the final broccoli-filled quiche even though I hated broccoli.

And then came a friendly heckle. "But you made the quiches yourself."

"Sorry?"

"But you made the quiches yourself."

The heckler shot my metaphor down with brilliantly-timed wit. I couldn't fight the logic. Why would I make a quiche I hated the taste of?

THE CLICK.

Something clicked. For the first time, I could use a heckle to gain a bigger laugh. I feigned a dawning realisation at the audience member's insight, and while I acted this out, my mind wrote a punchline. The punchline went something like: "This is what my life has come to: me making quiches I hate for people that don't exist."

As I spoke the punchline, keeping my timing regular and my voice steady, my brain went into planning mode again. I decided that after the word "exist", I should turn from the microphone. A visual full stop to land the phrase with a decisive thunk. It worked. People laughed.

It was only a small moment, and by writing all this out, I am probably overplaying it. I'm also not trying to tell you how hilarious I am. The point is this: what struck me about that moment was I could multi-task my little brain gremlins to enable me to plan mid-performance. I'd not done that before. I felt like a stand-up.

THE FUTURE.

The heckler apologised afterwards, but he didn't need to. I thanked him for making it funnier than it ever could have been.

I guess the moral is that performance skill can be learned, that's probably worth trusting the moment, that a strong-enough stage presence can withstand almost anything.

There are many stage performers better than me. But sometimes it's nice to look back and see how far you've come - because the energy I still get from that long-past stand-up failure still drives me to be a better performer today.