by Steve Rapson
Professionals and beginners often have the same feelings of insecurity about their performance. The difference between them is the pro knows what to do and does it in spite of fear or doubts: fear they will bomb or fear of looking the fool. I am always afraid I will do poorly, that I will be judged inadequate, that I will be judged at all. I have learned to not let those feelings inform my act. I try to suppress self-absorbed feelings and focus first on my performance and second on the audience. I have been faking it for so long that it feels real to me. What feels real is real. Self-delusion can have positive results.
I was at an open mic last night where many performers began awkwardly and, after their act, walked away from the audience without the slightest acknowledgement that they were being applauded. Perhaps we feel the urge hurry away after our performance because we think we didn't do well, or we are relieved it's over. We must fight that urge. At the least it is impolite. I suggested to one performer who had asked me how she did--she performed well but exited poorly--that she might stand there and acknowledge the crowd for a few seconds, maybe even a slight bow? Genuine fear crossed her face along with an embarrassed smile, "Oh, no! I couldn't do that," she said sincerely. This is self-absorption at its highest. She thinks the bow is about her. However, it is the one thing about an act that has the least to do with the performer; it is for the people applauding.
Other performers were so immersed in self-observation and self-judgment that they made negative editorial faces and noises about their performance as it unfolded: they made Mistake Face. A pro will not sabotage his act by making the audience aware of details they would not know otherwise. Performance techniques do not matter if the material is not good. Good technique will not save bad material. Poor technique, however, will diminish good material. Here are some stage techniques that will immediately move you and your good material up the ladder a few rungs.
How To Begin
When you arrive at the mike, stand there, be still and quiet, look at the people. A smile is optional as you may want to set a different mood. I would avoid scowling. Let a few seconds of silence elapse while you look around and take them in. Then say something like, "It is my pleasure to perform for you tonight." Say no more. This is where you show your command of the room, your relaxed confident demeanor, your power. The audience will feel well taken care of. They know they are in good hands. Deliver your first few lines right to the faces of the people. Then perform as you normally do. This is the Great Beginning.
How to End, Part I
As you reach the end of the show, pause. Deliver your last few lines right to the faces of the people. If you were reading a fairy tale, you would look up, close the book, and say, "...and they lived happily ever after." This feeling of deliberate finality is your objective.
Signal that it is over by doing all of the following in a deliberate fashion. If you are reading, lower your pages as you say your last line. You don't need them now, you are looking at the people, and it's over. If you are singing or playing, pause and let the final note have its space to subside. They will wait as long as you stay in your performance mode. Then take a small step back, do a slight bow. Do not take your eyes off them during the slight bow, smile, say, "Thank-you." Brace yourself. They will explode in applause. You will be taken aback by the power of it. I am always taken by surprise, and it always happens when I do the things I suggest for you.
How To End, Part II
While the applause continues, do the following: Take one step to your right or left. Bow slowly and more deeply than your first bow. You step to the side so you don't bump your head on the mic stand. They are telling you that, for this instant, they love you. Your best response is humility and gratitude. If you have problems receiving and/or acknowledging overt expressions of love from people you don't know, this is not the time to manifest those problems by hurrying away. Maybe you think you did not do well and feel uncomfortable accepting their ovation. Live with it for five or ten seconds. You are a pro. A pro does the right thing in spite of feeling discomfort. Besides, what you think about your performance does not matter, especially at this moment.
If you have a partner, after the second deeper bow, turn to him/her with an outstretched hand in their direction. They will bow. Then your partner holds a hand out to you, and you bow together. At each bow the applause will get louder and then diminish to its former level. Exit. This is the Great Ending.
If you have been counting will see that you must bow at least twice if you are alone, and at least three times if you have a partner. As long as they applaud, you will remain. As long as you remain, they will applaud. This is called milking it. Milking it is an honorable stage tradition. It is resented only by those who don't have opportunity to milk it. Your challenge is to exit just before the people decide you have had enough love and stop applauding despite your continued bowing.
Between the Great Beginning and the Great Ending is your act. If you begin strong and end strong you'll be amazed at how much more fun the middle is. Especially with all your great material.
Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium