When Artists Lead an Audience

“Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?”

With those caustic words, Roger Waters introduced “Run Like Hell” in concert in 1980. Waters continues to taunt and provoke his audience 37 years later when he performs music from his Pink Floyd catalog and solo career, often by injecting venomous statements against President Elect Donald Trump from the stage.

When he taunts an audience and redefines his music in a political context, he leads them into a different relationship between performer and audience, one characterized by confrontation, stimulation, and discussion. I live in a family of artists. We often have conversations about the role of the artist to make an audience uncomfortable — to confront, to reveal, and to invoke anger even. It’s sometimes necessary to create discomfort if you’re going to lead an audience.

There is a time and place for leading an audience by challenging them, and consequences to be paid for doing so (as Jim Morrison demonstrated in 1969 at the infamous Miami concert that led to his arrest for public indecency). And, there is a time and place to make an audience feel warm, uplifted, and comfortable. I want to uplift people and make them feel comfortable when I act each year in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. But I don’t want to uplift necessarily when I write fiction, and neither does my wife, Janice Deal, in her short stories. We both want to lead an audience in our writing, as does our daughter, Marion Deal, in her writing and public speaking. Leading an audience means looking deep inside yourself and taking a risk. You know you’re succeeding when you evoke a reaction. It just might not be a happy reaction.

Case in point: back in the 1970s, Alice Cooper made popular shock rock by putting on concerts that featured imagery and theater that some might consider grotesque, such as a decapitated baby dolls and guillotines. Critics hated Alice Cooper and thought his concerts to be stupid and gimmicky. And even their audience sometimes recoiled in horror. But Vincent Furnier, who headed the band and adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo act, knew what they were doing.

The band’s onstage behavior was intended to create an audience reaction by synthesizing forms of horror and fantasy, burlesque and rock and roll, shaped by Furnier’s own passion for movies and visual storytelling. He satirized the then-noble notion of rock star as poet and social change agent by creating a villain who sang hit songs only to be executed onstage. He made an artistic statement and was leading the audience in another direction toward a glam rock movement would propel artists such as David Bowie to fame.

In the book What You Want Is in the Limo, an excellent narrative about rock and roll in 1973, Michael Walker discusses Alice Cooper’s rise to fame. Alice Cooper tells Walker, “We never went onstage with the attitude of, ‘Gosh, I hope you like us tonight.’ We’d take them by the throat and shake them and never, ever give them a chance to breathe.”

During one concert in 1969, the band’s in-your-face style so offended an auditorium full of 3,000 people that they all fled the show within about 15 minutes. But one man in the crowd, Shep Gordon, stuck around, mesmerized by Alice Cooper’s ability to move an audience. He went on to manage the band. As Alice Cooper told Michael Walker in What You Want Is in the Limo, Gordon was “clapping like a seal. ‘You cleared the auditorium in fifteen minutes!” he marveled. “Three thousand people in fifteen minutes . . . I don’t care if they fucking hated you. It’s mass movement. There’s power and money in that.'”

Gordon also recalled, “I had never seen such a strong negative reaction. People hated Alice, and I knew that anyone who could generate such a strong negative energy had the potential to be a star, if the handling of the situation was right.”

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Own the Stage

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Photo credit: Elizabeth Singer.

At some point in your life, you will need to learn how to work a stage properly, whether you are a student presenting a paper to your classmates or an executive sharing company news with your employees. Make no mistake: you are on stage, however informal the setting or small the audience. The key to owning the stage is using your body wisely — including your eyes, voice, and gestures. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate, as I have learned while acting on summer weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. On August 30, an opportunity to act in a scene with my daughter encapsulated the elements of owning a stage.

As I have discussed on my blog, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright — a self-important and crotchety character who is constantly having his nose tweaked by a mischievous young rogue named Avis Nightjar, portrayed by my daughter, Marion.

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The crotchety Nicolas Wright. Photo credit: Mary Goljenboom.

The Faire cast is given extensive preparation and then an incredible amount of leeway to construct dramatic (usually comic) scenes that we perform on the streets of Bristol to delight the patrons as they explore the city. On August 30, Marion and I acted a scene that required us to use a very small stage consisting of a few wooden steps leading to a square platform that accommodates one or two people at most. The riser, known as the “stump stage,” is so small it does not appear on the Bristol map. But its convenient location at a busy intersection made it the best place for our dramatic bit, which consisted of Nicolas Wright publicly charging Avis Nightjar with a list of ridiculous crimes ranging from poltroonery to hooliganism.

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Avis Nightjar, rogue extraordinaire. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

We built the scene to involve Bristol patrons. Throughout the weekend, Nicolas Wright let it be known that Nightjar would be put on trial Sunday at 6:15 p.m. He canvassed patrons to ask their opinion of her guilt or innocence and invited them to be present at the stump stage to learn the outcome of her trial.

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Wanted. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

When the time came to declare the verdict, Nicolas Wright, with the help of a fool named Jaclyn Faltrades (portrayed by Terri Williams), attracted a large crowd to gather around the stump stage. Wright, standing on the stage, formally read to Nightjar a list of her alleged crimes (a moment that I borrowed from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when the character of Tuco is read an extensive list of crimes for which he has been convicted). He then asked the crowd to render their opinion.

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Day of reckoning. Photo credit: Brian Berg.

Wright played up the moment with over-the-top bluster, making himself look foolish, and Nightjar watched from one of the lower steps with an innocent expression on her face. Of course, the overwhelming majority voted for her innocence. Wright allowed a pregnant pause to linger in the air while he pondered the vote, making eye contact with as many patrons as possible while he thought through his decision. His smile suggested a softening of his heart. Then he pronounced the verdict: guilty.

The crowed booed and hissed, and Nightjar cowered while Wright raised his arms for order. Wright asked Nightjar if she had anything to say for herself before he sent her to the stockade. The trial then took an unexpected turn, just as Marion and I had planned it: Nightjar stepped up to the platform, stood alongside Wright, and turned the tables on the barrister by threatening to expose a number of shady business deals of his. As she talked, Nightjar became more animated, waving her arms and smiling while Wright grimaced and shrank back. The crowd started to laugh, clap, and cheer for Avis as Wright sputtered and demanded she cease talking.

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Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

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Photo credit: Wayne Hile

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” is one of those pearls of wisdom that career coaches are fond of sharing to inspire others to succeed. The notion makes sense: only by stretching your comfort zone can you learn and grow, whether you are a student, a software designer, or a Navy Seal. But for people to get comfortable being uncomfortable, the right elements need to be present, including a supportive environment, a purpose, and preparation, as a recent experience of mine illustrates.

As I have mentioned on my blog, during summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a friendly but comically pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright. Playing Nicolas Wright means constantly learning new skills, including improvisational comedy, face-to-face patron interaction (he greets patrons on the street all day long), and even stage combat. Auditioning for the cast was an enormous leap of faith for me, and once I came onboard in 2014, I discovered that being part of the cast is a constant process of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. One recent Saturday, I pushed myself beyond the boundaries of comfort: I told a story.

Storytelling — the way it’s done at the Bristol Renaissance Faire — is new territory for me. I am at ease speaking in front of an audience, but storytelling is an art that requires the right pacing, body language, and voice control to create theater. The storyteller also needs to know how much detail to include to enrich the drama and how to involve an audience. For me, learning how to tell a story qualifies as becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, an experience heightened by my fear of forgetting a key plot point or character name. But with the encouragement of my daughter Marion Deal — who is also on the Faire cast — I faced my fears, took a deep breath, and took my first step toward storytelling by telling a brief parable onstage.

After stumbling through several awkward practices, I unfurled the tale of the of Taoist farmer one sunny Saturday afternoon on the Queen’s glade, a section of Bristol where patrons and cast mates alike entertain the Queen Elizabeth each day with songs, stories, and poems. I remember the moment vividly: Sir Edmund Tilney, master of the revels to the queen (portrayed by Dennis Carl), took me aside and indicated that there was room on the schedule if I cared to perform that day. I swallowed hard and said, “I would be delighted to tell a story.” Part of me hoped he would forget our conversation, but after a few minutes, Tilney nodded to me and presented Nicolas Wright to the queen. I approached the queen, portrayed by Jennifer Higgins. She nodded gently. In one of those moments where life and art intertwine, her reassuring nod filled me with a confidence that I channeled into Nicolas Wright as he told the parable of a farmer in China who accepts good and bad fortune with equal measures of calm acceptance.

Turning to the audience gathered on both sides of the court, I worked through the parable with a deliberate pace, making eye contact with patrons, pausing when I felt like I needed to accentuate a word, and remembering to smile. The stage at the queen’s glade consists of a simple but elegant set of overlapping rugs set before the court on the ground. You don’t have the benefit of an elevated platform when you entertain on the glade. So I made sure I walked about the rugs a bit (without looking like I was pacing) and projected as loudly as I could to reach as many people sitting on the benches to my left and right. The more I projected, the stronger I felt. The warmth of the sun was like a golden balm. The audience fed me energy with their smiles. I did not stumble although I can point to many ways I could have done better. Afterward, a woman who had been in the audience approached me. “Thank you for that moment,” she said. “I don’t often hear parables such as the one you told. Your story really made me think about accepting life with grace.” I smiled at the patron, thanked her, and did a little dance inside my head. I certainly had not raised the bar for storytelling, but I had made a mark.

My personal breakthrough was no lark. And the moment was not a result of my effort alone. Some elements needed to be in place for me to have the courage to embrace the uncomfortable:

A Supportive Environment

If you manage others, they won’t learn how to take personal risks unless they know you have their backs. The Bristol directors and cast always have my back.

All Bristol cast train under the direction of an open-hearted and encouraging team of directors, starting with head of entertainment Kristen Mansour, who is fond of reminding everyone during cast meetings, “Leap, and the net will appear.” We do not learn under the withering criticism of a genius tyrant such as Steve Jobs or in the punishing environment that apparently pervades Amazon. We learn through positive reinforcement.

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How C2E2 Celebrates the Superfan

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Three years ago, I blogged about the first time I attended the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, then in its second year. This fan culture event was overwhelming, and it was difficult to know where to begin talking about the experience. On April 26, I experienced C2E2 from a more personal perspective: my 12-year-old daughter Marion was among the throng of attendees who dress up as their favorite fictional characters ranging from Princess Mononoke to Dr. Who. Marion was adorned in a trench coat and black wings to honor Castiel, an angel in the CW Network series Supernatural. As I noted on a LinkedIn blog post, being with Marion helped me appreciate first-hand a superfan loyalty that is rooted in self-expression and spontaneous community.

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C2E2 has quickly become a premier destination for fans and companies to gather and celebrate each other over the course of one weekend. C2E2 attracted 53,000 attendees in 2013, up from 40,000 the year before, and the event has taken up more space in the Chicago McCormick Place convention center to accommodate the growing number of merchants and entertainment properties participating.

If you opt into the C2E2 email newsletter, your experience begins well in advance of the actual event. The pedestrian-looking newsletter and website serve up a steady stream of announcements about the show, such as autograph signings (for a fee) by comic book legends such as Stan Lee, a panel with Game of Thrones cast members, or the unveiling of an interactive booth for online game League of Legends.

But you really don’t begin to understand C2E2 until you walk into McCormick Place on the day of the show and take stock of your surroundings. Even before you enter the formal C2E2 convention area, you encounter the superfans expressing their passions. Continue reading