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Thrown To The Lions: Burlesque Audiences and How To Survive Them

I love my audiences, but I’d sooner have root canal surgery than to be faced again with the one I played to last Thursday night. Imagine having to confront an audience. It was as if I had been thrown out into the Colosseum to be fed to the lions. Yet this is not the 2nd Century and this isn’t Ancient Rome. The time was midnight and the place was a burlesque theatre in the Lower East Side but still, there was an atmosphere heavy with the scent of barbarism.

I was backstage, preparing to host the late show. A few feet away, on the other side of the curtain, sat the remnants of the audience of the earlier 10 o’clock show, at the end of which the previous host – a skilled and accomplished performer – handed me the microphone and wished me well with a sympathetic look in his eye. A peek through the curtain told me everything I needed to know. They were drunk, loud and obnoxious – a phone-staring, selfie-taking, toilet-going crowd. They had not bought a ticket to see me. I would just happen to be there along with the beer, the bartenders and the bathrooms upstairs. In about ten minutes time, I would be nothing more than an interruption to their evening. 

Such audiences are one of a kind, like an unexpected parking fine. It is like finding the milk has gone sour. They function with a pack mentality. It is not that they were a tricky audience or even a difficult crowd. I can’t think of a suitable adjective to describe them. Indifference, I should think. Just a total lack of interest and absolutely indifferent to whoever might be on stage. The collective message, forty voices strong, might as well be: Just bring on the tits.

Onstage, during my opening routine, time passes slowly amidst the raised voices of inebriated conversation among the crowd and at the bar. I notice the couple at the table over to my left. He’s checked his watch twice in the last five minutes and she’s sitting there, tapping her foot incessantly on the floor – the lower body equivalent of somebody drumming their fingers impatiently. And did I hear her correctly? Was she sighing? And is the woman sitting behind her actually shaking her head? And it’s not hard to see the faces of the four people sitting in the third row – they are lit up like beacons by the light of the screens of their phones. Literally, it’s a glow-in-the-dark crowd. 

Doing comedy at a time like this is like trying to surf an ocean without waves, or in this case, even without a board. Lines don’t quite land in the same way that they usually do. What I have is of little consequence to them. The laughs are not there and I need to fill five minutes while the next act sets up behind the curtain. I am truly up shit creek without a paddle and I must continue until two in the morning. I see a fellow performer watching from the side of the room and she mouths the words “I’m sorry”. 

Strangely enough, at the start of the second set an hour later, something washes over me and I start to feel almost cocky. I suddenly cease to give a shit. I embark on a journey of high sarcasm. I start flattering them about how wonderful they are and how we haven’t had such a great audience as them in such a long time and yadda yadda yadda and they are so hammered and indifferent to how they actually are, that they start to begin to actually believe this nonsense. At one point they even pay themselves the compliment of applauding themselves for being so marvellous and I feel strangely empowered. Like I somehow have one over them. It is this that gets me through the rest of the show. I’m delighted for myself and reward myself afterwards at the bar with a drink or two hundred.

It’s important to reflect on the worst nights of one’s working life. A night like that teaches so much. Social media, for example, is filled to the brim with success stories in this age of the Selfie. I believe there's great value in sharing those experiences from the opposite side of the coin – for a healthy balance at least. A night like last Thursday in that theatre in the Lower East Side is indeed akin to the public spectacles of Ancient Rome – but when it does happen it keeps you from getting too complacent and as we all know, complacency is a ground on which no artist should dare to tread.
 

With thanks to Matt Roper for the text and imagery.

​Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.

Follow Matt on social media:

Twitter: @MrMattRoper
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Facebook.com/mrmattroper
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