This piece specifically addresses the typical revue done in Chicago, which is usually only 30-50 minutes long. Only Second City tends to do revues in two acts.
The information is culled from over twenty years of working in improv and sketch comedy. There are similarities in philosophy in what I present here in Second City’s Improv Almanac and Bernie Sahlin’s book on creating revues. I recommend you read them. I also think the best teacher is doing shows, applying the theories and seeing them in action.
Often, I will see a show where I like the cast, I like some of the material, and the show just doesn’t work. I leave saying polite things, but there’s no excitement at having just shared something special. There’s something missing. I think the audience feels this, too, but probably has an even tougher time pinning down why. The actors may just chalk it up to a tough night or an unresponsive crowd.
Many times, the problem lies in the order of the material. Many groups focus on the individual scenes of a show and forget about the show itself. Or, I’ve seen them focus so much on style and transitions, that they forget to focus on the content and flow of the show. Essentially, what they perform is a comedy recital, not a revue.
STRIKING A DEAL WITH THE AUDIENCE
“Let’s establish who the performers are and then surprise them with what else they can do.” – Paul Sills
In every relationship, there’s a deal going on – often unspoken – on what the two people expect from one another. I’ll be the guy you can go have a beer with when your boss is pissing you off and you be the guy I go to when I need a good laugh.
There’s this notion that the audience needs to be warmed-up, like they’re athletes getting ready for a workout. It’s not so much that they need to warm up, but need to be allowed the chance to warm up to you. They need to get a chance to meet you and like you. Then they can relax and really enjoy themselves. If they aren’t sold on you, it’s that uphill battle, again.
In a revue, the audience is looking to strike a relationship deal with the ensemble.
A show, like a scene, can be broken down into a beginning, middle and an end. In a scene, it’s important to establish with an audience the who, what and where so they can be in on action. The same goes for the whole show. In the first few minutes, if not seconds, of a show, the audience is looking to strike a deal with you. They want to know who you are, what you’re about, and that you care about them. They want to be your partner on this journey. They want to be assured that they have spent their time and money well. If you don’t gain their confidence at the start, you may have an uphill battle. Or you go through the show thinking, “we’ll get them with the next scene, that always kills.” You’ll never feel like you’re on sure ground with them. After the show, you may go on to blame the lack of rapport on things like the space, the tech, the time of day, the audience itself. Those have some validity, but what’s certain is that they never got on board with you.
Audiences want to laugh. They showed up, didn’t they? They are looking for opportunities. But they see and judge everything, especially in the beginning of a show. I have, on several occasions, turned to someone next to me in an audience after less than a minute and whispered “we’re in trouble.” And we were. How did I know? I look at several factors, so does the audience, but they may not be as cognizant of it… Did the show start on time or close to it? Are the performers any good? Do I like them? Are they trying too hard or not hard enough? Do they have confidence in the material? Is the material any good? Do I know what the hell is going on? Do I care?
Do I like them and do I care are probably the most important. At the start of a show, I’m looking to see if I want to invest in what’s happening on stage. If it’s coming across as amateur night, and totally lacking on all counts, then I’d rather be spending that hour at the dentist’s.
The sketch revue didn’t just happen. It’s roots can be traced to early Broadway and Vaudeville. It was honed in the early part of the century and when revues started to fade on Broadway, big musicals came storming in. Musicals stole from revues and are structured like them. They tend to start off with big, friendly numbers that introduce us to the main characters and the world they live in. If we don’t like them, it’s going to be a long night. That’s why the opening number also tends to be very upbeat.
The first three scenes of your show are the most important.
The first scene, the opener, is your first introduction of the cast to the audience. It’s important that the players are all well represented and portray characters that aren’t too far off the mark of their own personality. This is where you strike a deal with the audience saying this is who we are, get to know us, we’ll take care of you. Other key components of an opener is that it’s high energy, well staged and well executed. Many shows open with a song. This is smart, as long as the song is also upbeat, uses the whole cast, and is performed well. A sloppy song up front will have an alienating affect on the audience. You’re better off going with a high energy ensemble scene than a song if your company isn’t up to the musical task.
The second scene should be something quieter, more intimate. Even a monologue or someone directly addressing the audience could go here. The idea is to explode on stage to kick up the energy in the room and then to focus the audience’s energy with something softer. A two person relationship scene is common in this slot.
The third scene is another opportunity to meet the ensemble, but here, more extreme characters can be brought into play. Since the audience already has a sense of who you are, they’re now ready to happily follow along with you with your oddball character wearing the fake beard and rainbow fright wig.
I have also seen variations on this where the opening is essentially a series of very short scenes or black outs. Or where the first two scenes are high energy ensemble pieces. They worked well, too and set the appropriate tone of the show with the audience.
The first third of your show is where you want to plant strong, accessible material. Accessible material is the more conventional stuff that people can relate to. That doesn’t mean this is where you put “airplane food, men leaving toilet seats up” stuff. Don’t pander. Don’t put in anything that doesn’t represent your style. But do put in the best of what you do that’s the easiest to grasp. This is where you are building trust with the audience.
Right in the middle of your show is a good place to put another cast scene. This should be very different from the opener, but also upbeat. It can be another song or an ensemble piece that uses the whole space. It’s another opportunity for the audience to connect with your group as a group. And it’s an opportunity for you to give them another jolt of energy to carry them through to the end. You can also look at this as an opportunity to raise the stakes, as you would in a scene, and put in a cast scene that really showcases the talents of the group. Here, in a cast scene in the middle of the show, it’s less important that everyone be represented as equally as in the opener.
BETWEEN THE MIDDLE AND THE END
Two-thirds of the way into your show is a good place to put riskier material. Now that the audience knows you, loves you and trusts you, they’re more willing to go along with you on trickier stuff. This is a good place for hot topic issues that might turn off some people or for the weird surreal Dada stuff that you really love to do. This is a good place for any scene that breaks typical theatrical conventions. Deconstruction scenes are good here. Now you’ve gained the confidence of the audience, even if it’s not their cup of tea, they’ll go along with you to see where you are going. And, in their mind, if they don’t like the scene where you eat ketchup out of straw while a ballerina in a leather jacket punches a newborn calf, they know they’ve liked your other stuff and will wait to see what’s next.
The last third is where you really want to leave them with a lasting impression. This is where you put the best material. The scene right before your closer should be the funniest scene you have in your arsenal. This is often called the “runner” or “run out.” I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because it really picks up steam and runs you into your closer.
The closer – like the opener, should be full of energy and be well performed. It’s another slot where many groups will put a song. It’s important that the closer have a satisfying conclusion. It’s the closer for a reason. You want the audience to feel complete. The whole cast should, again, be represented. That doesn’t necessarily mean equally. The closer should be more theatrical than the opener. This is where you pull out all the stops.
Things to LOOKOUT! For
- CONTENT – Unless you’re gunning for a theme, have a variety of material. Not just in content, but form and style, too. Unless you’re a two-person group, a series of two-persons scenes will get tiresome. Even if you are a two-person group, you need to vary the form of the pieces and the dynamics of the relationship. Otherwise, you’re just doing the same two-person scene over and over, again. Or you’re doing stand-up. We get it, that guy’s smart and the other one’s dumb. Move on!
- If you do have a few pieces that are similar, you may not have to ditch all but one. If you have three pieces that deal with proposing marriage, or seeing a doctor, you can put them all together in a suite of scenes. But make sure they each have a distinct take on going to the doctor or on popping the question. There might also be a way to connect them. Maybe the doctor character can all be the same guy. In that case, spread them out.
- Typically, avoid ending a scene and starting a scene with the same person. Unless that person is playing the same character, you want to wipe the slate clean. If the person left on happens to have a great range and a fresh style, this is not so much a problem. But if it’s a performer who, although competent, is limited, you’ll want to avoid relying on them so heavily.
- Don’t keep actors hanging out on stage too long or abandon them backstage. Use an actor two or three times in a row at the most and then keep them out of at least one scene. When you do keep someone out on stage, make sure they are not the lead character in all their scenes. Don’t keep anyone out of more than two or three scenes in a row. The audience wants to keep in touch with the people they met in the beginning.
A QUICK NOTE ABOUT SELECTING MATERIAL
When putting a show together, first develop a generous amount of material and then select those scenes with which your revue cannot do without. They are your strongest scenes. They are also the most definitive of your company’s unique voice. They are the ones everyone is in most agreement about. These are your cornerstones. Now, you can build a show around then. Material developed from this point can be geared towards what’s already there – thematically, stylistically, and in content, including possibly expanding or recurring characters. Every successful revue creates a world in which the audience wants to live, or least spend time in. Your set pieces help structure that world and the other scenes, including transitions, help put muscle and flesh on that world.
In ensembles, there will be some people stronger than others when it comes to performance skill. Try to keep the casting as balanced as possible, but if someone doesn't have a lot of range, it's not a crime to use them a little less than the performer with a wider range. Just make sure everyone gets their moment or two to really shine.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A SHOW IS LIKE A SCENE, WITH A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE AND AN END
OPENING (THE FIRST THREE SCENES)
– STRIKE A DEAL WITH THE AUDIENCE
– GAIN THE AUDIENCE’S CONFIDENCE
– THE FIRST SCENE IS HIGH ENERGY, WHOLE ENSEMBLE, CHARACTERS CLOSE TO THE PERSONALITY OF THE ENSEMBLE MEMBERS
– SONGS ARE GREAT TO USE, BUT ONLY IF YOU CAN PULL THEM OFF – A SONG, NO MATTER HOW GOOD, IF PERFORMED POORLY, WILL MAKE THE AUDIENCE UNCOMFORTABLE
– FOLLOW OPENING WITH A QUIETER, MORE INTIMATE SCENE, SUCH AS SOLO PIECE OR RELATIONSHIP SCENE (BE LOUD TO GET THEIR ATTENTION AND THEN WHISPER TO DRAW THEM IN)
– THE AUDIENCE SHOULD GET A CHANCE TO SEE THE WHOLE CAST AT LEAST TWICE WITHIN THE FIRST THREE SCENES OF THE SHOW
– ANOTHER ENSEMBLE PIECE
– HIGH ENERGY, QUIRKY, GIVES A JOLT OF ENERGY
- PLACE RISKIER STUFF HERE
- RIGHT BEFORE THE CLOSER, PLACE YOUR FUNNIEST SCENE (NOT NECESSARILY THE BEST – THE FUNNIEST)
- ENSEMBLE PIECE WITH STRONG STORY/RESOLUTION
- PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS
- BRINGS THE WHOLE SHOW TO A NATURAL CONCLUSION
- OFTEN A BOOK END TO THE OPENER, IF NOT IN CONTENT, THEN IN STYLE AND IN WRAPPING UP THEMES AND UNFINISHED BUSINESS