How to host a show

Here are some thoughts about hosting shows, based on a workshop I gave many times, and written up in 2006 for an article published in Kaskade Magazine (issue 86, spring 2007). It mostly focuses on variete shows (gala shows, open stages, open mics/Renegade shows) at juggling conventions, so uses juggling shows as examples, but the same can apply to hosting comedy shows, panel or games shows, etc.

If you can’t be bothered to read it all, in 2006 I recorded an audio version of this as an episode of the Juggling Podcast. You can find that here (right click and save a 36mb, 70 minute mp3 file).

(The image above was going to be a photo of me hosting a show, but I couldn’t find one due to me not being able to take one of me on stage. Instead I’ve included a photo I took of the audience while hosting a show, in this case the Opening Show of the EJC 2010 in Finland.)


Ever seen a show where all the acts were really good but in the end you didn’t enjoy the show as a whole? It was probably down to the host of the show not doing their job properly. Simply introducing artists on stage… how hard can it be? Could you do better?

Here’s my guide on how to be a good compere. I’ve developed these ideas over 4 or 5 years of hosting shows (both good and bad) and watching other comperes at work (both good and bad). When I get up to host a show I usually have nothing scripted, nothing written down, no plan in mind. Instead I just keep the following issues in mind and things usually go smoothly. This is condensed down from a 2 hour workshops.

The first thing I keep in mind are the three functions of a show host. They are there to inform, control and entertain. In that order of importance. Being entertaining is the last thing a host should be thinking about, a simple mistake the majority of virgin hosts make. I’ll get on to this later.

Inform

An audience that knows what is what and who is who is a happy audience. If they hear something that is relevant to themselves they will show their appreciation too.

The first thing you should do on stage is tell people about the show they are about to watch. Here’s an example:

“Welcome to the British Juggling Convention 2006 Public Show!” – makes sure everyone knows the title of the show, and lets people who are in the wrong theatre to leave. At this announcement the audience will applaud…

“The BJC visits a different city or town every spring, and has done for the past 20 years, but this is the first time we have come here to Cornwall!” – makes the locals feel welcome among all the jugglers… and you are sure to get another round of applause from the locals too…

“This show brings together some the best jugglers and performers, not just from the UK, but the whole world! That’s right, we’ve scoured the face of the entire earth, finding the hottest new act, the greatest numbers, the biggest names from the juggling world, and you’ll see them on stage tonight. We have performers from Britain, Europe, North America and even Japan!”

Of course, if you are just hosting a show at a smaller convention, or even a renegade show, tell the audience what they are doing there, and what they are about to see. If a renegade show, tell people exactly what a renegade show is, many people will never have been to one before, and may be a bit confused when they see random people trying to be entertaining.

Let people know what to expect from the show. One person who didn’t was the host of the opening show of the EJC 2006. It was after the world cup final so was only ever going to be two acts long; Kuka and Kris Kremo. About half the audience knew this already but the other half were never told by the compere until the very end of the show. After Kris Kremo’s forth standing ovation the host just said “That’s the end of the show, folks” and half of the audience left very disappointed. If he had said at the beginning “Due to scheduling issues this show will only have two acts… but we’ve got two of the best acts of the entire convention to kick things off for you” I believe nobody would have been unhappy at the end.

After introducing the show introduce yourself. You’ll be on stage for longer than all of the acts combined and the best way of connecting to the audience is to tell them your name. The reason why I didn’t name the host of the EJC opening show is because he never told us.

Introducing the acts. This is the main reason for a compere to exist in a show but it is amazing to see how many do it so badly. Or not at all, in some cases. I’ve sat through entire shows and at no point knew who I was watching on stage. Almost as bad is a compere who gets the name of the acts wrong or mispronounces them. In the EJC opening show Kuka were called Kaku. During the Tuesday night open stage Devilstick Steve pronounced every single act’s name incorrectly too… Devilstick Steve? Yup! The host of the show was introduced on stage by an announcement over the PA system… and they got Devilstick Peat’s name wrong!

I always say at least three things about all the artists I ever introduce on stage: their name, where they are from and what they are about to do one stage. I talk to each artist individually before the show and get these details clear and repeat their name back to them a few times to make sure I get it right. I also ask for any other information they want me to give about their act and write that down too… or things they don’t want to be said (I’ve been asked by artists who will do magic in their act not to be introduced as magicians, for example). Sometimes I don’t talk to the artists before the show begins but during the act before theirs. This keeps things really clear in my mind and I don’t have to consult a piece of paper all the time.

Again, this is your most important job on stage. If you don’t think you can get all the information right under pressure you can always read off a paper. Don’t hide the fact that you are reading the name of the act off a tatty piece of paper folder in the palm of your hand; the audience will notice and think you are “cheating”. Instead use a clipboard or a clean white sheet of paper… make it presentable.

Other things to tell the audience so they enjoy the show more:

  • Tell them all the boring rules after the first act of the show. Switch off mobile phones, no flash photography, all that stuff. Don’t put a downer on the show during the first link by listing things “not to do”.
  • In the introduction to the last act of the first half of the show tell people there will be a break following that act. There are so many good reasons to do this I don’t have time to go into them all here.
  • Two acts before the end of the show tell people there are just two acts left. Some comperes don’t tell you the show will be over until after the last act. This always leaves me feeling disappointed there isn’t more. Some will tell you the following act is the last in the show… almost as disappointing for me!
  • Alternatively say at the start of the show “There will be 6 acts in the first half, a 15 minute break, then 7 more acts.” The host of the Thursday night show at the EJC this year did that… and everyone was happy and relaxed.
  • Tell people what they can do during the break of the show… if the bar is open, where they can go to smoke, etc. Also tell them they have 5 minutes less in the break than they really do.
  • Tell the audience if something goes wrong. People will notice if the PA system goes on the blink and trying to pretend everything is fine is just insulting to the audience. More on this later.
  • Educate the audience too. If you think a large part of the audience won’t understand something about a following act do your best to explain the history of the artist. Or at least tell them they might find it confusing, and when they are confused they are happy with it.

Control

There are lots of people who make a good show work. There will be the backstage crew and the lighting and sound technicians. There will be the organizers and the person who booked the acts or a director of the show. There will be people doing things who you will probably never even see or meet or know exist.

But once the show begins there is only one person who is really controlling the show. You, the compere. This is certainly true in the mind of the audience as you are the person who LOOKS like they are in control. When you say something, that something happens. The only thing you should use this control for is to make the show as good as possible.

“Good” is defined by the aims of the show, but it will include the planned length of the show. Here is how to work out the length of a show. Ask all the artists how long their acts will be. Take that time and double it. That will cover all your links, introductions, and set changes. Then add on how late you think the show will start. Then add in the length of the break. Add another 10 minutes for good luck and you’ll be left with a number a lot bigger than the show organizers first expected. This does not include time for your own four comedy juggling sketches you want to sprinkle throughout the show either.

It is your job to make the show run on time… this can be the hardest thing about a show to control! I was the first and the last act of the Berlin Juggling Convention show in 2005… it lasted over 4 hours, mainly because the compere kept doing more and more of his own material between the acts, and nobody told him to just get on with it.

Another thing you can control is the audience. Tell them to clap and they’ll clap. Tell them to shout and scream and they will! Because it’s fun! Be wary of telling people to be quiet though. But if the audience is upset for any reason (like having to sit through a 20 minute artistic experiment with a single diabolo handstick) don’t start shouting “How are you enjoying the show? … I can’t hear you! Come on, let’s have some cheering!”

The next thing you control are the artists. As the host you can probably have influence over the order of the acts, if you want it. Here are some examples of the things I tell ALL the artists before any show I do. They keep me from being caught out on stage:

“All of you are going to come on stage from the same side of the stage.”

“When your act is finished, don’t run off to the dressing room or be too busy slapping each other on the back. If the audience is still applauding I will get you back up on stage for another bow. Or maybe not… but be ready.”

“When you are bowing, listen to the audience. By the time the audience have finished clapping be out of sight. Nothing is more embarrassing than walking off stage in silence.”

“During the curtain call, when I say your name, walk to the front, take a bow, and line up stage left. Then take my lead on when to hold hands, walk forward and take a bow. Then follow me off stage when I go. And be ready to go back on stage when I say.”

This last point is the real test of a compere; when the audience is most enthusiastic (or bored and already leaving) and there are up to 20 artists milling about on stage. I’ve been an artist in shows where curtain calls are perfectly choreographed and everyone, in theory, knows exactly what to do. When it goes well it is fantastic. But for most one-off shows there isn’t the time to practice this and it usually ends up a complete mess. On the other hand, if I am hosting a show I never bother with practicing the finale. By telling the artists to take all their cues from ME everyone will acts together and the end of the show is a much more enjoyable and stress-free experience for everyone involved.

Finally a compere should also control the technical side of the show. I always introduce myself to all the technicians before the show and ask them if it OK to instruct them from the stage. So if I want I piece of music played I say “Track 3… hit it!” Or if I want less or more light I can direct that from the stage too.

Telling the technicians you are happy to talk to them from the stage before hand also prepares everyone for when things go wrong… and the chances are things will go wrong! In bigger shows there will be a stage manager to control all the lights and sound and lighting and moving things on and off stage but often there is not. In smaller shows the thing that goes wrong, while not being your fault, will be your responsibility. If there is something left on stage that hasn’t been cleared and you want to introduce the next act… deal with it! Ask someone up on stage to clear it or (if it fits with your style) kick it off the front of the stage yourself. If the PA system blows up it could be up to you to decide if the show can continue as normal or if you need to fill time for 5 minutes while technicians sort it out. If you are unsure ask the stage manager or technician if they can sort it soon. If it will take more time than you think you can fill, it’s better to tell the audience that the show will resume in 10 minutes and just take a break.

Entertain

As I said at the start of this workshop, entertaining the audience is often the least important part of being a good compere, so I won’t tell you how to be entertaining. To be honest, this isn’t something I can teach in a single magazine article, and I probably couldn’t teach you anyway. If you are a performing artist you’ll already be entertaining in your own way. You’ll have your own routines, your own skills, your own jokes or your own style of comedy. I can’t tell you what will work on a certain audience and what won’t, it’s something that comes after a lot of experience, and a lot of bad shows!

All I can share here is the way I categorize comperes that I see in variete shows. First is the “Neutral” or “Good” compere. They will introduce the acts well, control the audience and be confident on stage. They don’t try to add any entertainment value to the show, they leave that up to the acts.

The second is the “Positive” or “Great” compere. They will fulfill all the functions of hosting a show, informing the audience, controlling the show and, as a big bonus, they are entertaining their own right. They add a lot to the show.

The third is the “Negative” or “Bad” compere. Sometimes this could be someone who simply isn’t suited to being on stage. More often it someone who has past stage experience and thinks their job as a host is just to be entertaining between the acts. It doesn’t matter how entertaining they are, if they don’t introduce the acts and aren’t in control of the audience and the show, they are detracting from the enjoyment of the show. Sticking with my examples from the EJC 2006, the Friday night open stage was a typical example of this; two guys who, in the appropriate setting like a street show, would have been hilarious! They just didn’t understand that doing 10 minute sketches between each act just wasn’t what the audience wanted to see. Another example that comes to my mind was Thomas Dietz and Marcus Furtner hosting a convention show in Dresden. Between them we have one of the greatest jugglers and one of the greatest devilstickers of their generation. Their comedy would have gone down well in a renegade show, but as hosts they killed the energy between every act by concentrating too much on their own material and not enough on the artists.

My message is that you should concentrate on the first two functions of hosting a show to begin with. Once you know you can do those well you can think about adding your own material. But be sensitive to the length of the show, the mood of the audience and the content of the individual acts.

Things not to do

I’ve gone into detail about how to do your job well. Here are some common mistakes made by comperes… the things you should avoid if you want to be a good host.

Often a convention will ask you to host a show and but you won’t be sure of your ability. So the organizers will ask another person. Along the way someone will have the idea for you both to host the show together. Never, ever, ever, ever try this. Don’t work with a partner! Unless, that is, you are an established double act with a lot of performing experience. In this situation admit that the other person working alone would do a better job and let them get on with it. Best case they do a good job and the show is a success. Worst case they do a bad job and the show is a failure… but at least it wasn’t you up there failing! But if you work together you are pretty much 100% guaranteed to do a bad job and fail. You will work out “comedy” routines and forget about actually introducing the acts. You’ll be unsure of who is going to say what when. You’ll look at each other and trip over each other’s lines. One person will do most of the talking and the other one will look like they are there for no reason or just end up following the other host on and off stage. They will start blaming each other for the bad responses from the audience… or start performing to each other rather than the audience. Best to work alone!

I’ve seen one mime manage to host a whole show successfully. I have seen about twenty mimes try to host a show and fail. Unless you are a very, very good mime and have a very clear way to announce the following act silently, just don’t do it. Humans like people who speak to them, especially when they actually want to know something. Silence kills energy in a show… so talk!

Be yourself. Don’t try to be another character on stage when you are a host… unless you have perfected it over years and it’s 100% believable by the audience. The audience wants to see YOU and your own honest reactions to the artists on stage. If a human being says “I believe this next act to be the greatest poi swinger in the world” the audience will trust them. If someone playing a character says the same thing the audience will think, consciously or not, “but that person is acting… do they really mean what they say?” If your whole presence on stage is a lie (that’s what acting is, right?) there is no way for a knowledgeable audience join in with your enthusiasm if there is any doubt that is a lie too. That being said, I’m not my normal self on stage when I’m hosting a show, but everything I do and all my reactions are based on my own character. I pretty much turn off my inhibitions, turn up my personality to 200%… and go with the flow!

Common Questions

In my workshops I always get asked a few questions over and over. These include:

“What happens if an act is really, really bad?” – Tricky! It depends on your own style. I try to be respectful of the artist as far as possible, but subtly acknowledge the fact that the audience was unhappy and quickly move on.

“What happens if there is a drunk person in the audience?” – Deal with it. You are in control, remember? If you aren’t good at dealing with hecklers, say in the introduction to the show “as this is a public show, please respect the artists and don’t heckle”. If the drunkard is really disrupting the show, ask (either from the stage or via the organizers backstage) for security to remove the offender. I’ve had shows ruined by drunks just because I wasn’t confident enough to have them removed from the venue, which in hindsight would have sorted the problem easily.

“What happens if the stage collapses?” – Deal with it. For example, get the audience to move their chairs aside and continue in the center of the hall with the house lights on. If you want there to be a solution to a problem you can probably find one. As the host it will probably be up to you to make any solution happen at all.


I love to read comments and feedback about my blog posts. Please email me, I reply to every message: luke@juggler.net


Comments are closed