Posted on 02 May 2013
Comedians do not come up the performance ranks in the same way that actors do. We are not in a position to be drilled on the do’s and don’ts of performance. Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand theatrical etiquette, if you have any aspirations of working with others on stage, on TV, or in films.
The first thing to remember is that you are just a drop in the ocean of performers. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year had over 400 shows with over 2000 performers. Many of those people are genuinely talented. Comedians like you are not in short supply. Therefore, maintaining a good reputation is crucial to your success.
Key personal characteristics you need to develop are an easy-going personality, a respectful nature, and a willingness to put in the work. Anything less and you may be surprised at how few people are interested in including you in their productions. Honestly, any performance is a collaborative effort, you will always have to exercise your social skills at their polished shiny best. It’s about the show, it will never be about you, no matter how big a name you get.
So here are the rules:
Attend all rehearsals.
Rehearsals are crucial to the success of a show. They aren’t just about memorising lines. They are about refining performances, improving jokes, and ensuring that all elements of the show are working together properly. Just because you know your lines doesn’t mean your presence is optional. Others need to know how to work with you.
If you want performance to be a job, treat it like one. Turn up at rehearsals on time. Most especially turn up early on performance nights. If for any reason you will be late or cannot make it, call and make sure your excuse is a good one.
If you are in a show with a performer who can’t get their act together, I would strongly suggest finding their replacement earlier rather than later. Everyone deeply relies on one another in larger shows. You can only work with reliable people. Your reputation with audiences is also crucial. Do not put yourself in the way of disappointing them.
Assign a director.
You can bring an outside director on board, you can choose one among your group to be the director, or you can share directing by each comedian being responsible for a sketch in which they don’t appear. The director will be the final word on performances.
Remember the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” You don’t want your show ruined by power struggles. You do want someone who can provide a broad outside perspective, who can keep performances focused on creating meaningful stories and humourous moments.
Refrain from telling people how to do their jobs.
I have had to ban friends and family from seeing rehearsals, because they sometimes feel their relationship gives them the right to express an opinion. If a comedian is given several differing ideas of how a bit should be performed, it becomes confusing and dispiriting.
Only two opinions count during the rehearsal stage: the performer’s and the director’s. The performer needs to learn how to be confident in their performance choices. The director should have the insight and vision to ensure the show as a whole functions successfully. Actors telling other actors how to do their jobs can be insulting. Actors telling lighting, sound, and costuming people how to do their jobs can be insulting. And you definitely don’t tell directors how to do their job.
Learn your lines.
Stand-up comedians are used to being loosey-goosey with their lines. However, the instant you are working with another person in narrative comedy, you must know your lines as early and as precisely as possible.
You need to know your lines to help others learn theirs and give them their cues. You need your lines, so the director can move on with your vocal performance, blocking, comic timing, and emotional flow. You need your lines burnt so deeply into your brain cells that no amount of nerves can stop them from tumbling out of your mouth at the right times.
Do your homework.
Study your character. Get to know who they are, how they feel, what they want, what they fear, and what the nature of their relationships is like. If they are based on a real person, find out all you can about them. If they are based on a type of person, such as an estate gardener, find out about what it means to be that sort of gardener—where you would live, what you would eat, what tools you would use, who you would interact with, what the job would do to your body, and what each day would be like. Use this information to bring your character to life.
Don’t take direction personally.
A good director will challenge you. You will be expected to stretch youself every time you take on a role. A good director will have a particular vision for the show and will be looking for certain emotional and dramatic development. When a director asks for a different take on a line, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have made a mistake. Be prepared to offer numerous possible deliveries, and in that way make it possible for the director to shape the show, with your help, into something special.
Desire excellence and recognise it comes with humility and cooperation.
Ad-lib or improvise only when appropriate.
Theatresports events are meant to be improvised. Audience interactions are always going to be ad-libbed. If a piece of scenery falls over or some other mishap occurs, you may need to improvise your way around it in order to keep the story moving along. Forgotten lines sometimes require improvisation as a rescue.
Goofing around, trying to be clever, enforcing a change in the script on the fly—none of these will endear you to the director, writer, other performers, or even the audience. When you surprise everyone with something unscripted, you put everyone off and make it hard for them to do their jobs. I know on the last night of a show it’s tempting to pull a few stunts, and sometimes it works. Make sure you only do this if you are on good terms with the people you are pranking and the ad-lib is a small one.
Warm up your voice and body.
All performance is a form of physical activity. Without warmed up muscles, you risk muscle cramps and strains. Without a warmed up voice, you risk losing it or permanently damaging your vocal cords. You may not have time at the venue to warm up your voice and body, so always do some warm-ups before you arrive.
Turn the sound off on your phone. Be quiet when others are performing. Be quiet when the director is speaking. Be quiet before the show starts. Be quiet during the show. Be respectful of the fact that everyone has a job to do and part of it will include listening.
No backstage gossiping or bickering.
I know of few things more destructive to a production. This sort of behaviour sucks the energy out of performances and sucks the joy out of being on stage. If you have a problem with another performer, take it to the director or stage manager and let them sort it out. Otherwise, grit your teeth and be absolutely professional. People usually recognise who the troublemakers are without your getting entangled in the troublemaking.
Treat props, costumes, and scenery with care.
It doesn’t matter how cheap they are, they still cost time and money and are crucial to the storytelling on stage. Don’t assume that at the end of a season, you can damage or take an item. Often they are re-used for later productions.
Treat your venue respectfully.
Ask permission to move things around. Do not interfere with the running of that venue. If your show is at a pub or restaurant, be careful to not be underfoot of the wait staff. Replace anything that gets broken. Clean up after yourselves. Be sure to thank the venue manager at the end for their patience and generosity. With a good reputation the venue will be happy to have you back. With a bad reputation you may start finding it hard to put on a show anywhere.
I urge you to take these rules of performance etiquette seriously. They are key to your success. If you are working with a group of friends, follow these rules even more closely. You risk damaging the show and wrecking your relationships with these people if you get overly casual about the points. If they are your friends, they deserve better. When I am directing I am always grateful when I have a room full of people who behave professionally. That’s when staged storymaking becomes a delight.
Peace and kindness,