Tuesday, 22 January 2013

9 Ways to Connect with your Audience in Burlesque

I'm back again!

After the unprecedented interest in my last blog Ten Things I wish I'd known as a Beginner Burlesque Performer I firstly wanted to say thanks to everyone who read, re-posted, linked and commented. I had no idea so many people would find it interesting!
So, on the crest of that wave I'm back with the next blog in this series, written with my burlesque teaching hat on, in the weeks leading up to teaching my first burlesque class. Drama Queens Burlesque - plug, plug! In this blog I will be looking at nine tips to help newcomer burlesque performers form and develop a relationship with their audience.

Costumes, music, concepts, choreography, gags and reveals, promotion and connections can all amount to very little if your audience feel bored or disinterested when watching you, or if they find you dislikeable, annoying or aloof onstage. Some performers just have it. The big IT. There are certain performers whom audiences just adore. They've got the skills, the talent, the ideas, the costumes, but it's more than just that. The audience falls in love with them.

A lot of what relates a performer to an audience is elusive and unknowable; call it charisma, charm, stage presence, X-factor or vibe. For a lucky few performers this can be instinctive or innate, but there are also aspects of building a connection with audiences that can be learned and practised by the rest of us mere mortals. Relating to an audience is complex, in the sense that it is easy to learn but difficult to master. Some performers will take years honing the skills of reading, pleasing and reflecting on their audiences and will slowly cultivate skills in this area, others will step onto the stage the very first time and have the crowd eating out of their hands.

So, with this in mind, I share with you nine tipettes for how to cultivate a relationship with your audience. I can't guarantee they will make the audience fall in love with you, but they will certainly put you on the right track to getting on friendly terms with your viewing public.

1. Respect your audience on stage and off

A good performer always treats his or her audience with respect. You should arrive on stage well rehearsed, ready to perform and committed to the moment. Any fuss, negativity or issues from backstage or your real life should be left off stage, or if this is impossible, channelled into your performance. You should never take to the stage too drunk to perform well (many performers even choose not to drink at all until they have finished their turn) or with a half arsed or can't be bothered attitude. Remember, these people parted with good money to be entertained and you signed up to be the one to do it.

Off stage it's just good manners to be friendly. Some performers like to mingle after a show and others feel tired after performing and prefer to slip out discreetly but either way if an audience member compliments you on your performance, asks to take a picture with you or asks you a question about how you began performing, be gracious and indulge them. I'm sure that for most people reading this I am stating the obvious here, but I have witnessed the occasional performer acting like a diva in front of fans and it really spoils it for everyone.

2. Look up, look out, make eye contact

One thing that makes a world of difference in the 'eyes' (ouch!) of the audience is eye contact. It can be tricky when looking out into stage lighting to clearly see the faces of individual audience members, but you can still look up and out over the crowd. Where lighting permits, try to mix looking out into the audience with making brief eye contact with individual audience members. I have seen performers create very interesting and technically strong performances but they have performed with their faces turned down and their eyes lowered. This impedes your connection with the audience and can make them lose interest in what you are doing. Depending on the type of character you are performing as, you may want to tailor the type of looks you give out, but even if you are playing a very shy character you need to find a way to engage the audience with you eyes, perhaps by mixing looking away or down with looking up and out (think Princess Diana!).
[Picture of me making eye contact with the audience. Photographer Martyn Nomad Photography]

3. Work the room

Unlike many other theatrical forms, burlesque performances don't usually have a 'fourth wall'; the imaginary line that separates the world of the performance from the world of the audience. Instead burlesque performers react to and interact with their audience, performing for and to them, not just in front of them. Use this characteristic of burlesque to your advantage by working the whole room. Make everyone in the audience feel like you are performing to entertain them personally. Performers such as Missy Malone or Khandie Khisses are genius at this. They move seamlessly across the stage directing a shimmy to the people at the front left, then a bump to the folks at the middle back, followed by a cheeky wink to the lady in the specs on the fifth row. It takes practice, but communicating directly with different parts of the room (while never ignoring the rest of the audience) will make the audience feel connected to you and part of the show.
Be aware of how you use the stage and where possible do a walk through at new venues so you can see where your audience will be seated and plan how you will get the best out of your performance space, with no audience member feeling like they are in the 'cheap seats'.

4. Learn to read audience reactions

The audience as a group will constantly be giving you cues about what they enjoy and what makes them tick. The most skilled performers become adept at reading audience reactions but it is a skill that takes time to master. For newer performers you may find it easier to watch how audiences react to your peers than your own performances, what makes them laugh, when are they applauding the most, when they whoop or cheer and what are people's faces are saying when they are quiet. I remember the first time I performed a non-comedic fan dance to a burlesque audience. They were quiet all the way through and I thought that meant I had bored them, but the applause at the end suggested that they were just responding to the delicate mood of the piece.
In your own performances, you should listen out for the audience responses, as reading their faces may not always be possible under the stage lights. You may also find it useful to keep a reflective log of audience reactions to particular acts. I find I forget things if I leave it, but if I make a note of a joke, reveal, music selection or move that provokes a strong reaction from the crowd I can come back to it later and try to analyse why certain parts worked well and try to replicate successes, or figure out which points to emphasise and milk.

Also, as a burlesque performer you may find you receive a certain amount of post show compliments from audience members. These accolades are great and make us feel good but if someone says your act was 'really good' or 'really pretty' that doesn't tell you a huge amount. Be aware instead of audience members who tell you they specifically liked a certain aspect such as costuming, a particular gag, a physical or dance skill, that will help you to guage which parts of your performances are really flying.

5. Never break character to complain or explain

This one might sound ludicrous but I will never forget the day I saw a performer stop what she was doing mid-act and tell the audience she had made a mistake! She then continued the act in a fairly deflated manner and at the end of the act explained again that she had made a mistake and that it had not been her fault. If this had been a pre-planned joke as part of a comedy act it would have been fun, but as a spontaneous explanation and complaint it just felt awkward and I didn't know where to look.

If you make a mistake or a slip, try to recover gracefully if you can, keep smiling and make it into a joke if necessary but whatever you do don't break character and never explain why the mistake wasn't your fault. Even if it wasn't. In reality, if you make a mistake on the stage the odds are the audience will never even know; with even fairly large fluffs they won't realise. They have never seen your act in rehearsal, and as long as you keep up your character and performance you'll be able to smooth it over. If something more serious happens, like if you trip and fall (this happened to me and my wig went flying off. I always gripped my wigs more firmly after that day!) all you can do is keep smiling and laugh it off. If you handle your setback with good grace the audience willl respect you for it, if you try and explain what went wrong, complain or finish the rest of the act in a sulk they will just feel uncomfortable.
I would also take this point a little further and say that unless it was blindingly obvious (again, like falling over and losing your wig) don't tell audience members after the show that you bodged up, or ask them if they noticed. There's no need, the odds are they will never know you made a mistake.

6. Ensure the audience can see, hear and understand

It's worth bearing in mind that your audience are more likely to enjoy and relate to your performance if they know what's going on. If they are spending half the act going 'Eh? What was that?' they aren't going to be as invested in the moment as you might like. There are several factors that can add to audience confusion, and most of them can be easily avoided.

Firstly think about your music. Your music should tell the audience something about your character, the mood of the piece or the narrative. This mood should become clear to them quickly, unless you specifically want them to have some sort of gradual revelation about who your character or what your setting is. Choose music that sounds like the character or situation you wish to portray, rather than a song with lyrics that tell the audience the information. Think about it, unless the lyrics are very clear (or heavily repeated) or the song is universally well known, you may find the audience don't catch the words. Also, think about songs that have more than one recording, where the cover fundamentally changes the mood and character of the song. It's not the lyrics creating the mood, it's the arrangement, instrumentation, tempo, rhythm and vocal. If the song sounds right it doesn't matter so much about the words, although in many cases you may find a track where both words and music fit your ideas.

Think carefully about signs, posters, labels and pictures before you use them. In my early days of burlesque I made lots of acts that involved reading signs and labels and the technique does not always work (although I admit I do still have a couple of written elements in acts knocking around). Use signs, labels and posters only when strictly necessary. If there's a way to show something to your audience, rather than telling them using a sign I would advise using the other method. The reason for this is that not all audience members will see it, if they do see it they might not all be able to read it, and even if they can, it might distract them from the action of the performance. If you are going to use a sign, label or poster make sure you use a clear, large font so it is easily readable, ensure that you show it to all quarters of the audience for a sufficient amount of time and most importantly, don't fall out of character, or think that you don't need to keep performing while you are presenting the sign or label.

A lot of the same rules apply for showing a picture. If the picture is not easily recognisable at a quick glance your audience probably won't know who they are looking at, a picture of Homer Simpson is probably going to be more instantly identifiable than David Cameron. If you are going to use an image, like with the signs, make it large and present is as a performer. If possible and relevant for the act, perhaps consider having the image propped up on an easel so the audience have a little more time to take it in.

7. One on one contact - Come on strong

Some performers like to get a little more personal with their audience. This can be anything from gesturing directly to a particular individual during your act right up to getting out into the crowd or bringing someone up on stage to join in your performance in some capacity. This can really help to mix it up performance wise, and if it pays off, that individual will always remember their up-close and personal moment at a show, not to mention, it usually gets a smile (sometimes in relief that they aren't the ones being picked on) from the rest of the audience.
One on one contact can be risky though, the person might be embarassed and not want to participate for one thing. If your contact is small, like a wink, a point or a gesture in their direction, it doesn't really matter if your quarry blushes and looks away, in fact, it may add to the humour of the moment. For anything that involves your audience member joining in, however, you have to be aware of the difference between the shy, giggling 'oh no, I couldn't!' and the folded arms and grim determination of someone who is not going to budge under any circumstances. You need to be aware of when to push your audience member to join in and when to back off and try somebody else. Either way though, coming on strong is important. As I mentioned above, burlesque doesn't usually have a particularly rigid fourth wall, but if you are going to go ahead and break right through it you need to be confident and sure of your character or persona. If the audience member you choose to pick on does something unexpected you have to be sure you can handle it, and you  should present yourself confidently, because if you look unsure about drawing someone in to the game, they'll be unsure about it too.

8. Be yourself

One of the most important parts of burlesque performance is carving your own unique persona or creating personal characters. Audiences don't want to see a clone of something they have already seen before, they want to see your take on it. By all means, be inspired by other performers and how they relate to and interact with their audiences but there's no point trying to out and out copy their techniques for performance style.
You'll find, as you go along that there are things you can 'get away with' in terms of connecting with the audience that perhaps other performers can't. In one of my acts I make a one fingered gesture to the crowd. I considered this long and hard. Would it be a push too far? Would it seem too unfriendly? Would it violate the relationship I was trying to build with the crowd? This gesture was in the context of my 'Emotional Strip' act, in which I play through the different human emotions. This is the final gag in my 'angry' section, performed to a section of Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. In the end I went with it because the act itself, and my persona in this character are both very, very silly. And I always feel I'm a fairly non-threatening figure; short, dumpy with big boobs and a rubbery expressive face. In my performance the gamble pays off because it's a short, sharp joke before the mood changes into something even sillier. Other performers, or even I myself might not be able to get away with this gesture in a different act. In the same way, I don't think I could ever pull off the staple of dragging a feather boa or fan over a bald man's head. It just wouldn't be sexy coming from me in my chosen stage persona.
By being yourself and playing to your strengths you can figure out the best ways to play with your audience and make them remember you. 

9. Express with your face

When I started out burlesque, as a member of a troupe, we would sometimes walk through an act in rehearsals with what we called 'bored stripper face'. I'm sure you've seen it, the dead eyes, distracted non-expression a performer wears when he or she is thinking of something else. In the 7th walk through of the day that face may well be expected, but I have seen more than a few performers on stage, in front of a paying audience performing a routine with a bored stripper face on. The body's there, the moves might even be graceful, but the performer might as well be asleep for all the expression you can read on the face.

When you're on stage you should look present and engaged. As I mentioned before,you should be looking up and out at your audience, at least for the majority of your time on stage. If you are performing a classic, cheesecake or showgirl style act you may want to make cute, pin-up style faces but you at least want to smile, smoulder or do something with your face. For character based or comedic performances facial expressions become even more important. Nobody wants to see a body performing hilarious physical comedy while the face look like it's contemplating the grocery list and how will you convince your audience you are evil, lonely, mischevious, letcherous or sneaky if your face looks like you're doing some particularly tricky mental arithemtic. Personally, I like to perform using exaggerated facial expressions. I like even the audience in the back row to know exactly what I'm emoting, but that isn't to everyone's taste. Either way though, if you look at any successful and popular burlesque performer out there they'll be doing something with their face, other than daydreaming about fluffy kittens. No bored stripper faces necessary. (NB. If you are playing a bored stripper in you act then, by all means, make a bored stripper face).
[Photo by James Thorpe]

For most of us (me especially) audience relationships are a tricky thing to create and maintain, while for some it just seems to come naturally. As a newer performer, by practicing these skills you can begin to really connect with your audience and make them enjoy and remember your performances.

Until next time,


  1. your blogs are fast becoming my favourites x thank you for sharing x

  2. I love you Emerald, you are one of my favourate performers! You're such an amazing actress.

  3. Wow! Thanks Lily. I only just saw you comment, but thanks for being so sweet! x

  4. I would just like to say thank you for helping those of us new to the whole scene out and for free. Everyone needs a hand once in a while, and you are most generous.