Programming a Cabaret Show
A cabaret-style show at a convention has somewhere between four and ten acts, as well as a compère who sets the tone for the show and introduces the acts. Usually there is an interval.
Programming a show isn't only about booking the best acts that can be had for the budget; it's also about creating a show where everything works together as a whole to produce a mounting sense of awe and wonder and excitement in the audience.
Structuring a show well is about manipulating the energy levels and excitement of the audience.
| A very standard show structure
The house lights go down slowly; the audience start to notice, stop their conversations and watch the stage. Anticipation builds slowly until the compère comes on and starts to warm up the audience, perhaps asking them to practice clapping and hooting and hollering. Once everyone is hyped up, the compère introduces the first act and BANG! A short, fast-paced high energy first act sets the tone for the rest of the evening. After the first act, we sit back for some longer and gentler material, that works slowly back up to an exciting close to the first half. There's a short interval. After that the audience settles in for the second half, which recapitulates the structure of the first half: starting big, getting more gentle but then building up the energy even further to a big WOW, finally finishing with the most astounding act of the night. After that, the compère is surprisingly brief in doing some quick thanks, perhaps a curtain call, and then the house-lights go on. Everybody streams out of the theatre smiling.
Reading this, you may notice that everything is designed to focus the energy levels of the audience, to take them from the state they are in at the beginning of the show, in a gradual way through some deliberate transitions up to a very high energy ending, after which the show ends quickly to allow that energy to stay with the audience as they start to leave and go home.
There is no reason a show has to have this exact structure, but to create a successful show, the producer needs to plan with the audience's focus and energy in mind.
A show that's all manic all the time will wear the audience out; you need some variation and some time for reflection as well as all the high tempo material. Lower energy possibilities include the slow and the beautiful, the dark, the moody, the quiet, the serious, and most aerial and contact juggling acts.
However, you can't lurch wildly from loud exciting to quiet and serious without making some effort to be sure the audience stays with you on the journey.
A low-energy act should be delivered next to other acts that have a similar energy level, or else the compère will need to spend a long time preparing the audience by cooling them off, perhaps introducing the act by asking the audience to be very quiet. Quiet acts need a longer than usual period of silence at each end of the act, allowing the audience to settle.
Putting out modelling balloons or toys on the chairs as people come in is an easy way to get everyone excited - if that's what you want. Careful attention to the playlist before the show starts can also help achieve the mood you want.
You want the audience to be spell-bound by the show. You don't want them to get bored, start looking around, checking their phones, or getting carried away with heckling.
This means that you need to get the audience focussed at the beginning and then keep them that way.
A loud and exciting start, or a compère warm-up session, are two traditional ways to get the audience focussed.
Enemies of focus include:
- Keeping the energy level too high for too long
- Keeping the energy level too low for too long
- Complicated stage rearrangments between acts
- Long winded thank-you sessions
- Powerpoint presentations
The interval is another enemy of focus, but then so is going on long enough that the audience needs the toilet. Invariably, after the interval you need to work at acquiring the audience's focus again.
The acts people will remember most are, in order: The last act, the first act, the last act of the first half, the first act of the second half.
These are the positions where you need the strongest acts. If you put all the strongest acts in the second half, your weak first act is the one that will stick in people's minds.
As many as possible of the bookend positions should have an act with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than (for example) highly technical material performed to generic background music. For your show to have a good beginning, it needs to open with an act that has a good beginning.
You may not have a clear idea of what your acts look like until you see them in the technical rehearsal, so that's a good time to think about what you see and rearrange the running order so it works better.
There is nothing at all wrong with a show containing
- contact juggling
- very technical juggling performed by people who stand still in the middle of the stage and have no costume
- very low skilled high comedy buffoonery
- quiet slow paced acts
but if a show has more than two of any of those things, it may seem unbalanced.
It's easy to make the second half of a show mirror the first half: for example, by using a similar structure for each half, programming a diabolo act second in both halves, having the compère refer back to jokes from the first half, etc. Done well, this can help tie the show together. Done less well, it can help make everything very formulaic and boring.
Variations on a theme
A variation on the standard structure involves starting the show with a strong enough act to set the mood all on his/her own; then the compère stays off until after that act.
Shows from established companies often have acts all with a similar style and much more muted variation in tempo; in which case the need for a compère is reduced, and some other filler can be used such as short "chorus pieces". This requires more planning and expense than is often available for a juggling convention show. The BJC 2010 Circus Space / Circomedia show used this trick: their first year students performed the chorus pieces, allowing a relatively large number of less experienced students to get stage time. The effect is more immersive than in a show with a compère; but without strong artistic direction, could easily flop.
Stage setup issues
Some acts need a lot of time to get the stage right for them, or they need the setup to happen without the audience seeing. This means they may have to be the first act in one half or the other. If the act isn't appropriate for that position, maybe they aren't appropriate for the show.
A long stage transition will have an effect on the audience's energy as well.
Some acts involve a lot of work very low to the ground. For example, roller skating, hacky-sack, or routines where the performer lies down at some point. These acts are not suitable for a venue without either raised staging or tiered seating.
Acts with very small props such as yo-yos might not work so well in very large venues where the audience further from the stage cannot see the intricate skills being displayed.
Some BJC shows have got round the visibility problems by using video screens to make sure nearly everyone can see what is happening on the stage. Although this is better than people not being able to see it is not as good as everyone having a clear view of the stage and acts that work well for the venue.
Aerial acts will require some careful discussions with the stage manager and the venue staff to make sure it's feasible and safe to rig them, and that the venue are satisfied with the safety arrangements.
A venue with a low ceiling, a low proscenium or low hanging lights may not be compatible with many juggling acts.
The compère is one of the most important elements of the show. They can bear a large part of the responsibility of making sure the energy level of the audience is right for whatever comes next, particularly if you've got an unusual structure - for example, if you are starting with something very quiet or very manic. If an act flops and loses the audience, it's the compère's job to bring the audience back on board and focus them again.
A good compère has flexible material. They can cover for problems back stage by filling; if an anticipated stage rearrangement takes less time than was planned, they can move things straight on. They don't have a crazy desire to get all the material from their regular act into the show by hook or by crook.
Ideally you want someone who has worked as a compère before, and you certainly want someone who has used a microphone before, or at least someone with time to be taught microphone skills before they go on stage.
Compère problems spotted at juggling conventions and cabarets have included:
- A comic whose material was chiefly nasty humour derived at the expense of audience members.
- A pair of inexperienced local comics whose poor microphone skills resulted in ear pain for everyone.
- Overly long fill for some stage setup resulting in an excited audience getting bored just in time for the last act.
- A gimmick where the compère's "character" was so slow speaking and quiet that it killed the audience dead every single time.
- Deliberately hyping up the audience, just in time for a slow-paced act needing the audience to be quiet.
- Running on stage and laying into loud comedy too soon after the end of a very beautiful solo singing act.
If you can explain your ideas for the show to the compère in advance, they can plan ahead. A lot of compères may not have seen a juggling show before or even compèred one, so briefing them on what to expect from audience and acts might be beneficial.
A good compère can cover up many sins in the programming of a show. A bad compère can ruin the best programming you can come up with. If you can only afford to be spendy on two of your people, pick the headliner and the compère. If you have a strong act who would also make a good compère, it may be better to replace their act with a weaker one and take advantage of their compèring skills.
The show will appear more professional if you ask all the acts to wear an appropriate costume. This is any kind of clothing that distinguishes them from a member of the audience. Even if you have recruited the performer on the day, charity shops or more flamboyant convention attendees can usually provide something more suitable than jeans and a t-shirt. In a pinch, a shirt and some black trousers are better than nothing, or the gaudiest piece of club wear available in the charity shop.
Just because someone has amazing technical skill does not mean that they will be amazing on stage. Performance skills, pacing, music choice, choreography and movement have an enormous effect on the audience's reaction to an act - even at a convention where you expect the audience to appreciate the technical difficulty. Sometimes, pointing a less experienced performer at some good performing skills advice (well in advance of the show!) can make a big difference.
Flights and train tickets can cost a surprising amount of money, so a local act can be much cheaper than someone from further afield. On the other hand, it's a shame if half of your audience have seen the act before.
Length of Show
There is a limit to how long people can comfortably watch a show, no matter how good the show is. This threshold varies from person to person. It can be tempting to cram all the acts you like into the show, but you don't want people leaving the show saying "Great show, shame it lasted so long". Be careful commissioning long acts unless you are confident they can engage the majority of the audience for the length of their act. Most acts should know how long their routine takes and you can check this during the technical run-through. Your venue might have issues if the show goes on to long.
Most convention cabaret acts are between 3 and 5 minutes. 10 minutes is long. 20 minutes is VERY long.
For a one-day convention around 8 acts is usual. For the past few years BJC public shows have had around 10 acts.