Sunday, December 17, 2006

How audiences affect us

The Woven Chords Christmas concert was in our home town of Stamford last night. As is often the case, we were performing in a church, in this case a modern refurbishment of a beautiful old Methodist Church. There must have been almost 60 people in the choir so we took a while to get on stage. Usually people start clapping as soon as we enter, then it wanes a bit as they realise how many of us there are! But this time we entered to complete silence. There were around 120 people in the audience and you could have heard a pin drop.

Audience dynamics are a very strange thing. Sometimes it’s as if you’re performing to the living dead, and yet afterwards you might have loads of people coming up to you saying how wonderful the concert was. At other times the audience is far more animated and full of smiling faces, and yet there is hardly any feedback when the concert is over. But however the audience are feeling, the first few moments of a concert tend to set the feel for the rest of the night. The silence was deafening!

In the early days of WorldSong, we once played in a church and after the first song there was no applause at all. This was very unexpected and threw us a little. I realised that perhaps the audience weren’t used to seeing performances in churches, so without trying to fish for applause, I did point out that it was allowed, and from then on the concert went with a swing!

So last night I decided to make a joke of it and tiptoed from one side of the choir to the other asking in a loud stage whisper if the singers were OK. Gradually the audience began to laugh and warm to us, and when the final singer took their place, the whole audience applauded.

It was a great concert – one of our best – but a very unresponsive, sleepy audience. The trouble with new churches and refurbishments is that the heating can actually work for a change! Last night the heat was oppressive and there were plenty of red faces on stage. We had loud encore calls though, and the whole audience joined in with carols at the end.

I suppose with confidence and experience it is possible to not be affected by an audience’s response, but it still affects me after over 20 years as a performer. There I am up on stage trying my hardest and enjoying myself, but I only have to catch the eye of a seemingly disinterested or bored-looking audience member and all the doubts start creeping in: maybe they don’t like me; perhaps I’m not performing very well; it’s not their taste and there’s another hour and a half to go! etc. etc. Of course, as a choir leader I have my back to the audience most of the time, but I do try to get them on my side with a bit of banter between songs and it sometimes feels like I’m a stand-up comic who’s dying! Usually, of course, it is our own internal critics talking and the audience are actually having a great time.

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Chris Rowbury


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