If you are performing an improv show, you may think that the only thing that will determine whether or not you have a good show is how well your group performs on stage. But the truth is, there is a lot more that goes into having a good show – including the pre-show music, how the audience sits, and how you take the suggestion at the top of the show. All of these elements are important, and they increase your odds of being able to do your best work and making sure the audience has a good time.
So this week, Sam Bowers, who has been directing the live version of the Improv Nerd shows here in Chicago for the last four years, offered to share his tips with you on how to generate good energy in the theater before the show to ensure that you have as receptive an audience as possible.
How to Boost the Energy Before an Improv Show
By Sam Bowers
1. Slowly increase your pre-show music volume
The volume of your pre-show music should be louder at 8 p.m. than at 7:30 p.m. If your stage manager slowly raises the volume after every song, your audience will have to raise their voices as they talk. This heightens energy and subconsciously builds anticipation.
2. Set lights and chairs early/intentionally
When the audience comes into the theater, you need to make sure your space looks as professional as possible. Have the chairs arranged well and make sure to bathe your stage in a perfect light setup. This will subconsciously increase the audience’s respect of your production, and more respect = a longer leash on bad improv and a higher likelihood of applause/laughter.
3. Create a smooth transition between the pre-show set up and the top of the show
Bring down the lights and turn up the music that was already playing. When hosting, wait for some sort of drop or appropriate moment in the song to come out. When the host hits the stage, bring up the lights and slowly fade the music. This transition should take no less than 30 seconds or else your audience will not have the tension built up appropriately. If you screw this up, the audience will be uneasy.
4. Tell your audience what they’re going to see
The only exposure to improv the average person has is from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which means they are completely unprepared for your long form piece. This results in many muggle audiences pulling back from confusing or ambitious forms, so you have to clue them in on what you’re going to do. You don’t need to explain every beat of a Harold, but tell people that you’re doing a form and perhaps what general components it has so they aren’t uneasy at the beginning of your first scene, or upset that you aren’t singing songs about prom like Wayne Brady.
5. Warm up the crowd
The point of warming up an audience is not to make them laugh, it’s to make them ready to laugh. In fact, I intentionally don’t put many jokes in my warm ups so that the act I’m opening for looks better. By stoking the energy in the room, you will not only make the audience more receptive to your set, but you will also allow the team listening back stage to key in on potential callbacks or subjects the audience finds funny.
6. Don’t steal focus
Teams typically nominate one person to step forward to grab the suggestion. Put your attention on your teammate getting the suggestion so the audience knows to give that person their attention too. If you’re talking and goofing around while someone else speaks, why shouldn’t the audience do the same thing in your set?
7. Get a suggestion that answers a question about your form
When getting a suggestion, never just ask for “anything at all” because you’re wasting an opportunity to improve your chances of success in your first scene. Get a location, relationship, or an occupation to start your improv show. Take “fire department” and then start your scene in a fire department. You’ve got enough improvising ahead of you, so set yourself up for success by eliminating one of the billion things you’ll have to come up with at the very beginning.
8. Warm up with your form
If you’re performing a Deconstruction at 10 p.m., perform an entire Deconstruction backstage at 9:15 p.m. This will prepare your brain to think in the way it needs to in order to execute your form. Don’t make the first two-person scene you do in an evening be the one you do in front of the paying audience.
9. Seat the audience close together towards the front of the house
If possible, assign your seating to ensure everyone sits as up close and centered. This will make every laugh bigger. It’s also ok to go out on stage at the top of your show and encourage people to move up. It might be an awkward moment at the beginning, but you’ll be grateful for it as you get into your show.
10. Confirm how your show ends
Speak directly to the stage manager and confirm the details of how you would like to conclude the show/set. Do they pull lights? Will you signal a light pull? Is the host supposed to return to the stage, or are you supposed to introduce the next act? This professionalism ensures groups coming on stage after you can ride your wave of good energy and not have to start over from the bottom.
Along with directing the Improv Nerd podcast, Sam Bowers produces several television and web series in Chicago, as well as performs improv across the United States with ComedySportz and the award-winning LL Cool Beans.
Feeling a little stuck in your improv? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, where you’ll get back to the basics and get personalized feedback. Only $79 if you register by March 30. Sign up today!