Dealing with a belligerent audience

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Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Melissa » September 18th, 2013, 11:01 am

I do a lot of improv in San Antonio. The crowd is a little different than the ones I've seen in Austin, but I'd thought I'd throw this out here to see if anyone has any advice on the matter.
Recently I've had a lot of extremely drunk audience members that have been pretty loud and sometimes hostile toward the players on stage. One time, a guy came up on stage and tried to jump in on a scene. Most of the time I just try to ignore them, but it can be really distracting for me as an improviser and I can see that it is bothering other audience members. The few times I've tried to confront the noisy parties, its turned pretty ugly and only seems to make it worse. Normally, if it's really bad, the house manager will kick them out, but before that happens there is a lot of uncomfortable energy floating around.
Does anyone have any tips/tricks that have worked before?
Any awesome terrible audience stories?
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Spots » September 18th, 2013, 12:17 pm

Thanks for asking this! You know, this is a great topic for standup comedians who tour regularly too. So I'd encourage imps to grab their standup friends and link them to this discussion.

Standup comedians are going to have experience with this kind of venue.

These kinds of venues are not ideal. The problem is what I call "buying in". Obviously this is not the sacred theater space where people respectfully buy their tickets and sit quietly, happily suspending disbelief. In fact, this is the exact opposite. This person never bought in. They just came to their neighborhood bar to chat or maybe even listen to loud music.

"What the bleep are these people doing onstage?"

I'd like to say that this can happen in any city. Austin has venues that are like this. Ever try to perform improv at Mohawks? Cheer Ups? The Music Hall in San Marcos? People will talk throughout your whole show.


You can't cure this 100%. But what you can try to do is earn their respect at the very top. Ask for folks to move to the front of the space and encourage each other to buy in.

You might even *confidently* say, "Hey guys we got some awesome guys putting on a show for you here. Realize this is a tough venue for this type of show so do your best to pretend like this is a theater and encourage the person to your right to leave the bar for a few minutes and come right up to the stage to enjoy this and support our performers."


In other words, don't just barge into it pretending like this a sacred theater space. You might even walk around 5 minutes before the show and personally "invite" people to the vibe of the show. Get them engaged and out of their weekly bar routine.

Now that's a pretty specific way to try to earn an audience's respect. Another way would be to have some balls and talk to the crowd with the gusto of Bill Murray or someone else very funny. Size them up. Demand respect without excluding them. Once you tip over into the "fuck these guys" mentality you've lost your confidence and you will never win them back.


C[hris] G[ethard] wrote a pretty decent article on a similar experience. I'm still up in the air on what he concluded about the entire city of Philadelphia. I'll have to see it for myself. But it's still a good read: http://www.vice.com/read/philadelphia-i ... orm-comedy


But my biggest piece of advice is to somehow "break the routine" of the regular bar crowd and include them especially. Walk around before the show and start conversations with as many of them as you can. Genuinely. Defuse the bomb beforehand and come up with a method to win the audience over.

There are still some formats, no matter what, which won't go over well in this kind of space. It's why New Movement has never performed any longform at Fun Fun Fun Fest. There are other show formats which fit this "chatty crowd" vibe without crushing our souls as performers. Air Sex and Vanessa's One Night Stand continually include the crowd on a moment to moment basis. So the vibe these shows encourage just work better than what I consider to be our bread and butter. I'd love to see the Megaphone up there one day-- however I can't imagine being an audience member wandering in from the edge of the yellow tent (15 minutes after the beginning). So the show's just not doable at that venue.

Changing your format only applies during extreme cases. But always work with the crowd and win their respect.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby androidqueen » September 18th, 2013, 2:33 pm

Melissa, am I mistaken in thinking that these things are actually happening in theaters, rather than bars? If so, I would talk to the theater management about admitting loud and/or belligerent patrons, or being more aggressive about booting them. Certainly, there will always be edge cases and situations that are unpredictable, but it sounds like the theater isn't doing a very good job of protecting their performers (or presenting a good experience for other audience members).
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Spots » September 18th, 2013, 2:36 pm

No way.. entire crowds not buying in?



The only way I could imagine crowds acting this way (in a theater) is that the host is somehow encouraging disrespect and discouraging people from buying in.


Whatever is going on don't try to deal with it from the stage. Have a friend or house manager approach them & offer them warnings, politely at first, and remind them a show is going on. Maybe whip up a card that says "This is your first warning. If I have to come to this table again you'll be asked to leave."
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby androidqueen » September 18th, 2013, 3:38 pm

I don't want to put words into Melissa's mouth, but I didn't get the impression that it was entire crowds -- just a few bad apples ruining it for everyone. I do agree with you, though, that this should be handled by the house manager.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Roy Janik » September 18th, 2013, 3:45 pm

Yup. Assuming it's at a theater (and I think it is, since there's a house manager), they should warn the audience members, and then make them leave if they continue being disruptive.

Assuming your show supports it, I think it's totally cool for you to leave the stage momentarily to go find the house manager and alert them to the problem.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Spots » September 18th, 2013, 8:02 pm

Are we getting at why Chuy resigns to there being no improv in San Antonio in the immediate future?


Do the silent people in the audience only marginally appreciate the arts? Come on, shoosh a person if they're being disruptive..
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby happywaffle » September 19th, 2013, 9:38 am

Dave Razowsky told our workshop about the time he brought a show to a screeching halt and ordered a disruptive audience member out of the theater from the stage. What he did next was a clever way to win the audience back: he had the audience take a collective deep breath, light imaginary branches of sage, and wave them around in the air to "clear the bad energy from the room." And then the show continued.

And yep it's primarily the job of the house manager to deal with this. Usually one person can run and grab him/her while the others continue the show.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Melissa » September 19th, 2013, 11:17 am

SA isn't all bad, normally the audience is excited to be there. They do pay to get in after all, I think the problem is a few bad eggs getting wasted then attempting to sit still and be quiet for an hour.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Chuy! » September 19th, 2013, 6:23 pm

I used to be the crowd specialist for The Oxymorons which is the troupe I'm assuming Melissa is talking about. Most of the SA audience members like to heckle, but they are also very fun. If you come at them with a thinly-veiled insult, a lot of the time they will hush. They actually respect a troupe that can pseudo embarrass them in front of their friends. It makes them feel even more apart of the show. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but it works. I can't count the amount of times that the "troublemaker" came up to me after a show and said something like, "You got me good man!" Or "I'm sorry, but you know I had to fuck with you! We had a great time!" And BTW, when I say SA doesn't have improv, I mean, there are exactly 3 troupes and not many places to play...
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » September 19th, 2013, 6:59 pm

Firepower. And lots of it.
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby mitchmills » September 19th, 2013, 7:43 pm

Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell wrote:Firepower. And lots of it.


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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby valetoile » September 20th, 2013, 1:14 pm

Yeah, it sounds like the audiences in general in SA are used to more of a stand-up club experience, where heckling and some back and forth are part of the experience. You can go with it, as Chuy suggests (and it sounds like everyone can leave with a good experience, if you let go of the idea of how audiences are "supposed" to behave). To set expectations and hopefully dissuade the most heinous offenders, you could start giving a speech at the beginning (something like "Hey! We're all here to have fun, and we may need some help from you guys, but if you disrupt the show you will be asked to leave. Don't be that guy who ruins it for everyone." And then when someone is disruptive, you can say, "Hey, you're being that guy. Get out.")

Or you can try to train the audiences for a different kind of experience. I think it's doable, but it will be hard, and you'll probably end up losing some audience members and rebuilding a new audience who's looking for a more theatre experience. You'll probably get a lot of backlash and feel attacked. It might be easier to start in a new venue that already has some of the crowd you're looking for- maybe a theatre that puts on scripted work who is willing to rent their space on weeknights or late nights? It will probably take years to build up something with regular crowds. Good luck!
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Re: Dealing with a belligerent audience

Postby Pdyx » September 24th, 2013, 9:18 am

A month or two ago there were two guys who were in the audience for the Opposites Wednesday night show. I think they had come to see their friend who was in a class recital that was opening for the show. As I had been wandering around the theater and the green room during the opening acts, I had noticed these guys talking a lot and entering and exiting the theater. When Opposites went on, I saw them, in the very front, talking and generally not paying attention. They were distracting me and the audience around them. So I stared daggers at them during the opening of the show, until they got the hint, got up and left. Seemed to work. Not sure it was the best idea really, but I just did it without even thinking about it.

What's funny is that one of them came up to me and Mark at the end of the show and criticized the fact that we had a sketch reading as one of the opening acts. He said it was confusing to have scripted work and improv in the same bill (and in particular a reading). I asked him if he was there for the whole show, and he insisted he was, so I clarified, you were there when we did our hosting bit and explained that there would be a sketch portion and an improv portion of the show? He wasn't sure, but still insisted it was confusing.
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