When you’re performing, connecting with your audience is a major consideration. There are people whose audience connection and engagement is so strong that they can get by with weaker technical skills for other parts of what they do. Audience engagement can be the centre of how you perform. In most circumstances I prefer to focus on the quality of material and how I use my voice, but there are many ways into this.
The person who taught me stagecraft was of the opinion that primarily what a person needs to do is fill the space with their own personality. If you’d got a strong enough personality, everything else would flow from there. He was certainly able to work on those terms. Much of that approach depends on confidence. You’ve got to be able to walk into a space and demand attention, not just with your voice, but with your whole self. You’ve got to know in your bones that you are entitled to be there and that it is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention to you.
Winning an audience over is an act of will that can feel a lot like magic. It’s a relevant ritual skill, as well as a performance skill, and I think it’s well worth considering on more magical terms. To captivate an audience, you have to assert your will. When an audience is cooperative, that feels fairly rational as a process.
I have taken less cooperative audiences by force on a few occasions. Noisy pubs are the worst in this regard, where you have a lot of people who have come along to chat and who treat the performances as audio-wallpaper. Even an audience like this can be made to fall silent. I’ve done it as a solitary singer, and at poetry events, and on one occasion when we were out with the band. In some ways it’s easier with an exposed voice rather than instruments because most people aren’t so used to hearing that.
Uncooperative audiences can be intimidating, but stepping out there with the intent that they are going to be quiet and listen is an essential starting point. You can’t expect an unruly audience to become polite and attentive, but you can demand it of them. Audacity can get a lot done.
Given the kind of material I take out, the best measure of audience engagement for me is often silence. Not merely that people stop talking, but that they don’t move. The absolute stillness of an audience means that you’ve successfully enchanted them. It’s an entirely different process with comedic material because there, the small sounds of amusement through to the unmissable guffaws will give you a lot of information. Then there’s the material that demands toe tapping and that calls upon bodies to move, and even if they don’t jump up and dance you can feel when an audience is responding that way. It’s all in the sounds, and it’s much easier to judge sound as a whole than to try looking at individuals.
Be it in ritual or on a stage, there’s often nothing more powerful than silence. Most especially, the silence that falls sometimes at the end of a piece where no one wants to move or break the spell. If you can hold an audience in stillness and silence, you’ve got them.
It’s difficult to pin down the precise mechanics that make this possible. However, magic is in essence about putting intent into the world, and good performance always feels magical, so perhaps it makes most sense to approach this as an act of magic and prepare accordingly. Believing in your own power is a very good place to start.