How were they?

I’ve opened my fair share of novelty-act shows over the years, after my short performance I’ve gone back stage and been quizzed about the audience by performers who were yet to go on. I remember one partular act whould ask me the same question every show, day after day, week after week and I’d answer the same everytime, it became a slightly odd ritual.

We are subjective judges on how an audience reacts to our work. Circus is a particularly difficult art form to do this real time data collection, we physically cannot give the audience all of our attention, all of the time. We cannot impartially survey our audiences reactions while on stage.

Trying to judge if a group of strangers (who are often in the dark and mostly invisible to the performer) are enjoying our work by the noises they make (often covered my music) is probably not an effective data set worthy of any meaningful analysis.

On top of this, the person doing the data crunching is often the person who has just been collecting the data and is doing this post-show digestion after or during an adrenaline rush. Far from an impartial investigation on how one did and what the audience thought of us/our work.

I find the same when I’ve got off stage after group performances I’ve been in. Often performers who have been in the same piece, onstage at the same time have very different interpretations of how an audience was/enjoyed/understood the show. These opinions seem to have a lose correlation with their own success in the show, if ‘performer X’ had a good show (in terms of executing technique) then the audience was positive, if ‘performer Y’ had a bad show then the audience was negative.

If it’s impossible to get an impartial analysis from being on stage we probably shouldn’t give post show feelings based on our own experience too much attention. But where else can we turn to if we want to learn from our mistakes?  We are forced into a feedback loop which we know is flawed but is the best we can rely on given the budget, time and context which the average circus performer typically finds themselves in.

And this is to say nothing about the artistic quandaries about playing to the gallery.

“Every night, after every Penn & Teller show we’ve ever done, Teller and I go out and meet the audience…

Doing this for forty years has made us different from other entertainers. The only feedback other performers get is onstage, so if a crowd is quiet, other entertainers are bummed. But we go out and talk to people, and often the quietest crowds contain the people who are the most enthusiastic and kind when we meet them after the show, when it’s one on one. When I’m seeing a show, the better it is, the quieter I am. I can barely bring myself to applaud when I’m watching (Bob) Dylan. I’m afraid to lose my concentration, to break the spell. After forty years, Teller and I have grown to trust and enjoy the quiet audiences.

You could point out that this is a self-selected sample— that the people who come up to us and wait to meet us are the few people who liked the show, while the rest of the quiet crowd really hated us. You could say that, and you might be right, but you’d be a prick.

Jillette, Penn. Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales (Kindle Locations 2004-2014). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. “


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