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Careers Clinic: Should we pull our failing show?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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A friend and I have formed a comedy sketch duo that has been doing well on the pub circuit for a year or so. We’ve also had some extra gigs via her brother, who is in an up-and-coming band and gets us on to do their warm-up.

When the band got booked on an outdoor ‘fairgrounds and festivals’ tour and asked us if we would keep doing our bit, we jumped at the chance.

We’re now three gigs in with 10 more to go and it has been a lot harder than we expected. Routines that go down really well in the clubs are just falling flat outside. Sometimes we get heckled, but most of the time the crowd just loses interest.

The band doesn’t seem too concerned and is happy for us to do the rest of the dates – perhaps because after us, almost anybody would go down well. But from our point of view, should we keep ploughing on or knock it on the head and save what reputation we have left?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I didn’t need to be a fairground fortune-teller to work out where your story was going as soon as I saw the words ‘comedy’ and ‘outdoor’ in close proximity.

It’s not that comedy can’t work outdoors, but to a much greater extent than with music, a whole range of elements like the size of the crowd, the time of day and the number of outside distractions can have an adverse effect on routines that work perfectly well in the darkness and intimacy of a more traditional venue.

Should you decide that outside doesn’t work for you and go back to what you do best? If you do, nobody but you and the people who have already seen you will remember (and believe me, they won’t remember for very long). But if you do make that choice, it poses the question of what happens next time you try something new that doesn’t quite work. “Just stick to what you know” sounds like a wise piece of advice, but it isn’t very useful for a business that wants to expand – and that includes performers who want to reach new audiences.

If you choose the ‘show must go on’ option, think about what has and hasn’t worked so far, and why that might have been. You may have to steel yourselves for at least one more ‘unsuccessful’ show on the tour, but you can turn that into something more useful if you can persuade one or two people who know a bit about performing to stand in the crowd (preferably near the back) and give you honest feedback on what is coming across – or not, as the case may be.

Much as you may feel like making yourself invisible at events where things haven’t gone as well as expected, try to get out and see any experienced outdoor performers – comic or otherwise – who are working the venue or the surrounding streets and see what you can learn from them. Make a special effort to see as many children’s entertainers as you can. They are often masters at coping with surrounding noise, restless audiences and adverse performing conditions.

Swiping material is just plain wrong no matter how well it works, so please don’t do that. But it is surprising how many of the underlying performing techniques will help you deliver your own material more effectively, even if your act is more adult-orientated.

I hope those suggestions will allow you to have better gigs for the rest of your outdoor tour. And once you are sure the act will go down well again, it’s time to stretch yourselves even further to avoid getting complacent.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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