The Art of Picking a Volunteer from the Audience

That moment when someone from the crowd walks on stage with the performer, everything changes, from some memorized script to actual interaction. Total dynamic change.

A representative of the audience, from the audience, is on stage. Someone the audience can identify with, sympathize with, cheer for, and often are just happy it’s not them.

Everyone in the audience knows it could have been them. And, I believe, at some core level everyone kind of, sort of, wishes it was them.

For the performer, this is where the magic can really happen. That one moment that takes from a mere show to a spectacle. From just the ‘same ole same ole’, to a unique presentation just for this day. Never done before, never to be done again.

Who you pick is vital.

What is the purpose of the volunteer? I am a pragmatist. I want a volunteer to actually do something real. I don’t like that gratuitous volunteer, I feel the audience knows it’s all pretend. Have the volunteer really be needed.

Volunteer-KidsDo you want someone to be the rube? The Hero? A prop in your production? The girl to awkwardly flirt with? The naughty kid who wrecks the routine in a funny way?

For me the volunteer picking can happen as the audience walks in and takes a seat. If I can watch the interaction, who is loud, who is a leader, who is a follower?

One option- Pick someone from a large group. A theater may be a room of strangers, but if a table of 10 walks in, getting a volunteer from that group insures 9 people fully engaged. Plus the owner will be glad you gave the best customer of the night preferential treatment.

I do school shows, I often ask the kids which teacher I should bring up. I can get a real sense for the teacher who is loved, and which ones are substitutes. (I often ask someone before the show if there are substitutes and avoid them, just because they are not known as well.) But the kids rooting for their teacher will feel accomplished when their teacher goes up. Even the principal (or CEO) that EVERYONE knows. Also helps that I need three or four teachers so almost every class is a winner, what a nice change of rules, “you know what? Let’s get four teachers up here.” Nice to have a routine where the number of volunteers is flexible. We can do a bit with 2 teachers or 10 or simply all the teachers. Having more than one onstage takes a huge burden off the shoulders of the volunteers.

Go against typecasting. If you need someone to dance, pick someone you think can’t dance. If you need someone strong, get the smallest woman in the room. Surprising things happen. When picking a volunteer, fairness is not an issue. First one to raise their hand, person following the rules, even picking from the largest group. None of that matters if you can find a better volunteer (and I use that term loosely) with other methods.

Kid volunteers

Sometimes you need the kid to do exactly what you say, no room for shenanigans. Other times you want the unexpected. Have the kids do something other than hold up their hands. Audition them. Have them roll their hands like wheels on the bus. Have them touch their nose and stick out their tongue. Pick the “Happiest kid in the room”. So hysterical to see kids trying so hard to be happy. Which is a great mindset for everyone in the room to have when watching your show, but it is so funny to see the kids do it. Then if you want the one that follows the rules you know who it is. If you want a rule breaker, you know who it is. And you also have a good idea of the kids you don’t want anywhere near your stage.

One of my favorites is “I always pick kids that are sitting down, (getting them to do so instead of just standing up and walking to me rushing the stage) raising their hand, and saying absolutely nothing.”

Usually some kid or 5 will say “absolutely nothing” that’s the one I want. Smart enough, outspoken enough, and deserving. Sometimes I can’t always see exactly who that was, but fair isn’t important.

Often at schools, kids will point to their friends. One kid pointing, I’m not impressed, 6 kids pointing to a kid….that’s the class clown, or class actor. Sometimes they are great, but honestly I have been let down by that kid who feels so much pressure from friends they clam up on stage.

Volunteer-Adult

I do a bit where I get all the kids to stand up and pretend to be tap dancing elephants. I am looking for someone who will use imagination on stage, pretend a lot, and is not shy.

First kid to stand up after this odd request has my attention. The kids that are looking at me the whole time and not showing off for their friend next to them has my eye. The kid that is using his whole body is on my list. And when they sit down, I look at the final contenders and see who is still looking at me. That really is key.

This is where I like to pick the kid who looks like he doesn’t always belong. The odd man out. Super-cool looking kids are too worried about the perception of others to express themselves. But the socially awkward one often shines in this moment. And I really think it is in a very good way for them during and after the show. I have had great success with some autistic kids, special needs, and some with behavior problems. I remember this kindergartner with no inhibition. Perfect volunteer. His teacher was in tears to see him acting like a normal kid up on stage. I didn’t even know he was special needs until she told me after the show.

Other minor tips – pick people on the edge of a row. Why waste valuable show time waiting for them to crawl over your audience?

Pick someone with a unique piece of clothing. Why waste time explaining in detail who you want, just to have the wrong person stand up? The girl with the pink bow in her hair.

When you want to pick a girl, girls wearing pink have a HUGE advantage. I don’t want to say “That girl there.” Only to find out it’s a boy with long hair. It’s happened, it’s awkward for everyone. Yes, some boys might wear pink, but odds are less than a boy wearing long hair.

Adults are a different story.

As much as kids would rush the stage to get their moment in the spot light adults run from the light like cockroaches. I do think a lot of them want to be on stage, but don’t want to be seen wanting to be on stage. Even when I am in the audience, I want to be onstage, but feel that I might look desperate for attention. Which I am. But no one needs to know that. So I will never let anyone know.

Uh oh.

Volunteer-Choosing

When you announce that you need a volunteer, you must be firm and direct. If you ask someone in the crowd and they reject you…everyone else knows that NO is an acceptable response. And you will be pulling teeth to get someone up.

One method is to point generally but speak specifically.

“I want you. You would be great. Can we give them a hand for volunteering? Thank you so much for coming up to help.” All this is said before anyone has stood up. I am pointing loosely at two or three people, quickly bouncing eye contact from one to another. Each will think for a moment that I am talking about them. If they want to come up, they will believe I am talking directly to them. They will stand. And walk to the stage. Never knowing they were not specifically chosen.

It’s a risk, but I have had great success with that approach. If it doesn’t work, pick one and call them out directly.

Another method is just walking out and taking the hand of someone and pulling them up, with grace and dignity and thanks and appreciation. But with no escape possible.

Drag them up.

Who to pick with adults

Again, what you need should dictate. Some jugglers need a rather strong man or two to help get up on a giraffe unicycle. Sometimes they are doing something very specific and important.

Get the insider info. A few questions to almost anyone in the organization can give you the clown, the shy one, the one to avoid, the one with massive stage fright.

Picking the CEO, everyone knows them. They seldom say no. They usually can be quickly coached before the show to make sure they will go up. They will go up. They didn’t get to be the big cheese by being shy.

Picking the number 2 guy, is great because you can discuss the number one guy there on stage.

Picking the secretary of the number one guy is good. She, or he, is known by all, but is at the same class level as most in the room. She’s one of them.

Find out who is the class clown of the group beforehand. Sometimes you can simply have a name written on a piece of paper and pull it out. We need John Smith on stage right now. He will come.

Volunteer

Sometimes someone will volunteer themselves. With adults, it’s almost always bad. They are the ones who go too far. Say the wrong thing. Have a message. Oh man. But honestly it’s hard to reject them when you just told the room you need a volunteer. If there is no way to nicely set them back, I take them on, ALWAYS telling the audience, “When they want to come up I get nervous.” In a whisper. This sets up that if this guy goes off book, get ready for anything. But get the audience on your side. If he turns out to be great, then your warning only serves to highlight how expectantly good he was.

Sometimes you pick the one with massive stage fright. They may not have known how much they were going to be affected while walking up. Pay attention to how they look. I’ve seen people turn white, and beet red. I’ve seen serious nervous twitches. Maybe you pick the drunk one. Maybe you pick the kid who is just not going to do anything you want, and make it awkward. Have something they can do quickly. Act like that was what you wanted, and send them off with a round of applause, and get another volunteer for the bit you wanted to do. “So Johnny here is going to do a dance I just made up. Shuffle left shuffle right. Arms in the air, turn and turn. And bow. Let’s hear it for Johnny!!!!” Onto the next volunteer. For adults, a simple whisper in the ear. “Would you rather sit down? You don’t have to do this.” They say “Yes, I want to leave.” “Jen just told me she has a bad ankle and can’t do the mambo like I need. Let’s give her a hand for coming up.”

Picking someone who doesn’t speak English is hysterical. You think it is going to bomb. It’s scary. But your failures make the show real. Everyone empathizes with you. I had this girl at a school show, she had been in America for three days from China. Another student came up to translate. I told him to stay close, but I would try my best to get her to understand me directly. With mime, and simple words she got most of the routine. And SHE was the hero, because SHE understood.

Remember the rules of improv. Always say yes. Never deny. Your volunteer is right no matter what. “That was great. Now let’s try this other way too.” Whatever happens build on it.

 

Ask questions, this does two things.

First it lets them feel comfortable with being on stage. The answers they give are right. They have a short sense of being right on stage.

And it’s great fodder for comedy. You can make fun of their job, or better yet make fun of your job compared to their job.

Listen to the volunteer. They will say funny things, they will say the unexpected. Figure out how they feel. Listen and react.

This is a moment of improv. Beware of the perfect improv line. You will want to use it every show. It seldom works twice. I have tried so hard to recreate the magic. Just enjoy the moment and let it go. If you don’t let it go, your hands will be full of a dead joke and there will be no room for a new, fresh, better, in-the-moment, joke.

Volunteer-Kids Show

With volunteers, failure is hysterical. You don’t have to do the routine you planned. Be prepared to drop everything. If you ask them to pick a card and they drop every card on the ground and you can’t do your trick…no one cares, every card is on the ground, the audience is laughing at you, at the volunteer, at the situation, but as long as you hold on to your sense of performing…they are laughing with you. They love to see you get out of the mess. They love to see you struggle. I remember a classic bit, I was on stage with a volunteer and told a joke about M&M’s. The whole crowd laughed ten-times louder than I ever expected. I just slowly looked around the room. “I have no idea what just happened.” They laughed louder. I kept acting confused and bewildered. The laughing continued. Turns out that the woman I had on stage had dressed like an M&M earlier that day at the conference.

Another time, while doing my juggling routine, I said, “Pick up the torch!” She looked around. The torch was right there (unlit). It was the only thing around to pick up. She kept looking. “The torch! Pick up the torch!” The audience is howling. Turns out she was English and was looking for a flashlight (torch).

You are the action hero hanging from the edge of a cliff…how is he getting out of this one? And if, when you do…you are the hero.

Speaking of heroes, please make your volunteer the star. Make them the hero. Let them get a laugh if you can. Comment on how you don’t like it when they are funnier than you. That lets the audience know you know. Let them do something amazing. No one cares that the magician can do magic better than the novice. No one cares that you can make them look silly with a preplanned routine. But if you make them the star, they will never forget you.