Starting Strong

    Everyday Stories August 16th, 2012 By Dustin Fisher

    When I heard Speakeasy DC was looking for blog contributors, I asked Meredith if I could whine about my insecurities surrounding my stage anxiety. “Mike Kane already does that” said the Meredith inside my head (it’s cool, Mike and I are friends. Kinda). Then I asked if I could write about what goes on inside my head during a performance. “Sure, but it’s not like anybody will read it” said the Mike Kane inside my head. And it’s not like I’m a professional storyteller or anything – will that matter? “I don’t care. Now get over here and change your daughter” said the wife inside my living room.

    I am not a creature of habit. I get to work anytime between 8am and 2pm, I work out between five and zero times a week and I drink Coke and Pepsi in equal quantities. When storytelling, however, there are a few rules I live by to improve the chances that my story won’t suck will succeed and/or I don’t sob uncontrollably before or during the performance.

    The most important rule I have taken away from my time as an unprofessional and unaccomplished stand-up comedian is to start strong. Instincts (and people) will tell you that finishing strong is most important, to give the audience something to remember. While that is true in fireworks and rhythm gymnastics, I prefer to put my best stuff at the beginning if I can. Because an important aspect of performance storytelling, which is not as present in fireworks and rhythm gymnastics, is audience interaction.

    Much like most of you reading this, I take my shots seven minutes at a time in a sea of ten other people. I don’t have the luxury of building a relationship with the audience over the course of an hour like Jim Gaffigan and Vijai Nathan. And like a baby duck being born, the story imprints itself onto the audience in the first 30 seconds. This is why it is important to get them to like me early, more so in stand-up than storytelling, where the audience often feels a responsibility to openly judge performers as a mode of enjoying themselves.

    An important distinction is that I want them to like me as a performer, not necessarily as a person. Though it’s tough not to take “I’ve met popsicle sticks funnier than you” personally.

    If I can successfully imprint on the audience with a funny, insightful or vulnerable opening, there is often transference of appreciation for the material to an appreciation of me. The audience, without even knowing, will say to themselves “Hey. This guy is funny” and they will begin laughing at me rather than my material. Which is good, because I often have some really weak material to drag the audience through, and it’s a lot easier to do when they’re under the impression that I’m funny and more good times are ahead. If I saved that good material for the end, I may leave an impression but I wouldn’t want to do that at the cost of the first six and a half minutes of the set. Also, if I’ve already bored a hole through the audience, that awesome 30 seconds may come out to the roar of dead silence.

    Of course, this is assuming that I only have 30 seconds worth of material to stretch into seven minutes. And yes, I’ve done that before. In fact, some may say I had to stretch to that 30 seconds. Having more than one funny thing to say is preferable to all these other options.

    In short, I try to make sure to start strong. At least that’s the theory. This doesn’t take into account thinking things are funny when they are not, delivery of said material, or following a story about cancer. Some things you just can’t prepare for.

    Also of note is that I have no idea how much audience interaction there is in rhythm gymnastics and I apologize to any rhythm gymnasts out there who may have taken offense.

    If you want to see Dustin’s technique first hand, he will be performing at SpeakeasyDC’s 2nd Tuesday in September on the theme of First Responders: Stories about being on the front lines.

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