“It is an objective of the artist to entertain and delight the audience; the host to establish trust and put people at their ease…”Jonathan Fox quoted in Jonathan Fox and Heinrich Dauber’s Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Pub., 1999. p.124
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that an improv Host can elevate or suffocate a performance, especially in the short-form tradition where their presence and guidance can steer a show headlong into joy or frustration. I suspect that many of us are more likely to notice ineffective or uneven hosting as when this task is performed well it can feel seamless and perhaps even a little invisible. Such a sense of ease should not suggest that excelling in this role is by any means easy. The able host must expertly juggle multiple complex duties and hats and so it’s worth looking at some of these functions in turn…
1.) Cheerleader. I like this title as it conjures images of enthusiasm and support, but your version of this function needn’t also take on the high octane exuberance and screaming – unless that’s your style! I’d note that I’m not a huge fan of the highly under-stated or casual host that feels like they just stepped off their couch and onto a stage that suddenly appeared in their living room. If the improvisational event becomes too mundane I think we’re throwing away some of the magic of the ritual of performance. Regardless of the tone you’re hoping to achieve (Playback Theatre’s earnestness will require something different than a roaring competitive short-form match) the host generally assumes the responsibility of establishing this tone. Their demeanor sets the stage – literally and figuratively – for the action that will follow, and so it is important that they send clear messages of playfulness and engagement. Whether you work on the healing arts or popular entertainment side of the improv spectrum, I would posit that the host needs to frame and nurture a space that is safe for creativity and abandon: this may look like a heartfelt invitation to share or an energized rock concert that gets everyone excited. I would include any efforts to warm up the audience under this heading: this component of the show should clearly reflect both your greater intent and also the realities of the audience in front of you (it can be rather off-putting when a host uses the same elevated energy that they would for a crowd of hundreds when there is a smattering of dozens in attendance.) It’s similarly important that the host elevates the event and the players; by this I mean that they should be visibly rooting for success and celebrating victories. On rare occasions I’ve seen a more pugnacious persona work in a hosting position but this takes a deep understanding of your audience and how to build rapport. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point if you’re new to the craft.
Host: “Well done team! That is undoubtedly one of the most difficult games in our roster. Let’s go to the judges to see what they thought of it…”
2.) Editor. In its simplest sense I use this term to indicate that a host should have the ability and skill set to call down a scene or vignette, especially if it is wandering the woods aimlessly in search of a button. In a more aerial sense, the host should also be concerned with the overall pace and shape of the show as it is unfolding. The way in which you approach this task will likely vary from venue to venue. On campus I have developed strategies to gently sidecoach or assist student players, offering up cloaked time warnings to nudge the action along: a “10 seconds” generally means that this should probably lead to your button; “30 seconds” is a more gentle invitation to start looking for an out, and “55 seconds” or any other seemingly random number is my cue that something on stage needs attention – players may be upstaging each other, or speaking too softly, or crowding the stage… Most professional houses don’t deploy such a stealthy method but the host can still utilize subtle signals that gift the players the benefit of their experience and vantage point. After all, the host often gets to watch the scenes alongside the audience and has an outsider eye able to assess if the action is faltering or causing discomfort. Standing or moving towards the stage space can offer a similar nudge towards buttoning the scene especially if accompanied with an arm at the ready to cue a blackout. Communicating with the booth to flash the lights or slowly start a fade is an oft-used tool at festivals to push an improv set towards an ending. Checking in with players at intermission or during postmortems about staging difficulties can help iron out these wrinkles in future performances too. And on a pragmatic level, the host should also keep a close eye on the length and rhythms of the show as ends of acts can make or break the audience experience, hence the import of editing scenes that are struggling needlessly so as to allow time to move onto something with more fresh potential.
Host: “Okay teams, this next round is going to be a true two-minute challenge round…” [read: “We’re running a little over so I’d like to pick up the pace in this next round to buy us back some time…”]
3.) Translator. The label of “improv” or “unscripted” can be applied to a wide variety of performances and it is not uncommon for our audiences to stumble into something that they might not have experienced before. A thoughtful host should aid in this process of welcoming and serve as a translator and ambassador for nervous neophytes in the auditorium. While I hope that most audiences don’t need the obligatory definition of what improv is anymore (“So who here has seen the show Whose Line Is It Anyway…?“) in most cases they may need some help knowing what you are doing with your improv. For those outside the bubble, “We’re doing a Harold” or “Who’s ready for an… [insert opaque long-form title here]” probably isn’t sufficient to set them up with a blueprint for success, particularly if our intent is to appeal to a broader audience demographic (which I’d argue is key to our survival as an art form.) The host should help define important features or facets of our work and productions which, in turn, better equips the audience to enjoy the improv on its intended terms. If you’re aiming for a laugh riot, an irreverent satire, or a sincere exploration of the human psyche, that target should probably be named up front. If you want ongoing audience suggestions and interactions, or are just going to start from zero while maintaining the fourth wall separation, the audience would benefit from this information. If your venue has house rules in terms of content (from the stage and the audience) then give your attendees the benefit of knowing these as well: we can’t fault them for breaching standards they didn’t know. The business of defining the show, setting expectations, and presenting the ground rules for participation or collaboration are probably not the most glamorous host functions, but when these are executed with care and finesse they can add significant dynamism to the overall experience and so shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued.
Host: “For this next scene I’ve selected a rarely-played game from our archives as I think this team is up for the challenge! You’ve seen some great improv tonight, but I think it’s time we added some improv music into the mix…”
4.) Architect. While the editor function is largely responsive I view the related role of architect as more proactively engaged in the bigger picture. My favorite short-form hosts are deeply vested in their game roster for the night, often selecting scenes well beforehand that they feel will allow players to stretch and excel (while remaining flexible enough to change things on the fly if the given circumstances requires it.) Ever with an eye to the greater shape of the show, they prioritize variety by mixing “standards” with some calculated risks, audience favorites with games that appeal to the players, more open scenic structures with those that are inherently gimmicky or restrictive. If they have a hand in casting (in short- or long-form traditions) they work to provide balance and joy, avoiding needlessly combative or stale combinations in lieu of groupings that will complement each others’ energies and skills. I also view this hat as being the “adult” in the room as needed. They should keep the players and company free from harm, whether it is calling down a scene before that “impossible feat of skill” might injure the players, or addressing and containing a belligerent audience member who thinks they are at a stand-up show. They should keep the audience and theatre staff safe too, whether it is acknowledging content parameters or material that may have strayed off the mark, or addressing and containing a belligerent audience member who thinks they are at a stand-up show. I believe strongly that if a corrective voice or action is needed (and a member of house management or security is unavailable, absent or unsuitable) that the host is best positioned to be this person as they serve and represent both the company and the audience. This protects the players from having to wear any negative energy as they continue to play. For this reason alone it can be problematic when you have some of your least experienced or least resilient players serving in this role.
Host: “And as we go to intermission I’d encourage you to take advantage of our restrooms (located through that door) or our concessions stand and bar. Unless you’re that gentleman in the third row who I think we’d all agree has had plenty to drink already…”
In some instances a short-form host also takes on the role of Caller and there are many common dynamics and strategies that apply equally to both of these functions. I’ve addressed “Factors to Balance as a Caller” in my earlier entry here.
The face of hosting can look quite different in long-form and narrative shows where the requisite duties may also be split between multiple members of the company. But even in a more limited role the responsibilities of the host are critical and deserving of attention and, dare I say, (greater) appreciation. I’ve worked in companies where the emcees were literally paid less than the fellow improvisers they guided and elevated. This hopefully archaic practice reflects that hosting can easily become a rather thankless or underappreciated task despite its unquestionable role in our improvisational endeavors. An audience may not always appreciate the subtle magic that the host enables, and in fairness the host probably shouldn’t be the most interesting or attention-grabbing thing in an improv show, but those who are collaborating on the stage should certainly acknowledge the artistry and generosity required to keep us safe and make us all look good.
Connected Game: Good, Bad, Worst Advice