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From the WitOut Archives: All You Gotta Do is Act Theatrically by Rob Baniewicz

Twice a month, WitOut digs through its virtual piles of old columns to repost something great you may have missed.

This post was written by sketch comedy writer and performer Rob Baniewicz, of Camp Woods and Meg & Rob fame.  

I went to a Catholic high school — a cheap one at that. This meant no sound system in a theater that held well over 200 people. I mean, there was a microphone… maybe two … but no body mics, nor any sort of system to pick up the sounds of a group or a chorus. And unfortunately, my high school felt the only financially viable shows were musicals, which, on the one hand, were guaranteed to bring in at least twice the crowd of 16-year-olds performing Stoppard but on the other hand, would elicit awkward cries of “What did he say?” when Caiaphas, in a deep, deep baritone sang, “Jesus must, Jesus must, Jesus must die.” I learned early on in my high school career that our lousy sound system could not be depended on to support the actors. This is what prompted me to connect with my voice and is something necessary for any sketch performer.

Let me start with a disclaimer — in my experience, I have found that a lot of improv folks come from a theater background. Consequently, in an improv show, I tend to hear most everything regardless if I want to or not. On the other hand, I’ve sat through dozens of self-obsessed sketches that are barely audible, the performers completely ignorant to the fact that there’s an audience in front of them. So forgive me if this seems like a no-brainer, but it needs to be said: people are paying to hear you, and even if they’re not listening, YOU WANT THEM TO.

To get started with some basics, let’s talk about remembering there is an audience and giving them the theater they deserve. My desire to project during a performance stemmed from the fact that I wanted my half-deaf father to hear me warble “Let’s Misbehave” during Anything Goes. Sure, my actions clued the audience in to the slinky sexual awkwardness that characterized my high school drama productions, but without my voice, I was merely a mime on a cruise ship.

So first, face the audience, dummy. No microphones is an inevitable side-effect of DIY performances and a fact that actors need to be flexible about when they’re doing shows in Philly. I can’t tell you how many sketches I’ve seen where I had no idea what was going on onstage, despite sitting only a few feet away. Talk to your fellow performers but face the audience. If you’re an ak-tor, you can call it “cheating out.” Moral of the story — don’t turn your back on the crowd who is there to support you.

Second, talk loudly. We’re doing these shows in bars, backyards, the Piazza and anywhere else that will have us. Figure out what your diaphragm is and use it (hint: it doesn’t go in a lady). You may feel like you’re yelling (and in some cases you are), but this is the only way to ensure that every joke is heard and thus, ensure that every joke is given its rightful opportunity to hit.

If you look at some of the more successful sketch groups in Philly — Secret PantsFeeko BrothersCamp Woods, and Animosity Pierre — they all have an inherent sense of the audience which enables them to perform theatrically. I know the idea of being theatrical may send a chill up some down and dirty sketcheteers’ spine, but a live show is theater, no matter what. To succeed is thus to act theatrically. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, if you can’t get up on stage and be heard, you might as well be performing to a windmill…

Man of La Mancha, anybody?