Dealing with difficult audience suggestions

Dealing with difficult audience suggestions

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla. Hoopla run improv and stand up courses, shows and an improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email: [email protected].

We usually have our end of course shows on a Wednesday but last week it was a Saturday, and it was a lot busier than normal with some of the audience slightly “lively”. Two pint glasses dropped on the floor and smashed before 8pm, always the sign of a good night.

There were lots of suggestions that were really helpful and inspiring for the cast, and that’s what you want, especially when they are performing for the first time.

However every now and then one would pop up that was a bit more risky, like halfway through the first half somebody shouts out:

“Jimmy Saville’s sex basement.”

The audience laughed with a sharp intake of breath. There are different ways to look at that as a suggestion when you are hosting.

Does the person, and the rest of the audience, really want to see a scene involving Jimmy Saville on a Saturday night? Especially when it is the performers first ever time performing improv? No, I don’t think so.

Maybe, just maybe, an experienced cast could take that suggestion and treat it with respect, play at the top of their intelligence, show morality, consequences and make a serious point out of it.

But really I don’t think even the person giving that suggestion actually wants to see that scene. What they want instead is to get a laugh from having given the suggestion. So as a host that’s what you give them, the laugh. You just have to stay relaxed, treat it as a joke (which it is), maybe play with them a bit, and then just ask for another suggestion.

This enables everyone to feel like they are in a safe place. The person has given that suggestion in the first place as they feel anonymous in the darkness, and the spontaneity they have seen on stage has rubbed off on them. So if we loose our cool over a bad suggestion we accidentally alienate the audience, as it looks like one rule for us and one rule for them.

So relax and acknowledge unhelpful suggestions, let them have a laugh for the suggestion, but don’t actually use it!

Here’s some other classic tricks for managing audience suggestions:

Can I get a load of suggestions?

If you ask for ‘a’ suggestion you often ending up having to take the first one. If you ask for a ‘load’ of suggestions you will get lots and you can now pick the most inspiring one if the first one isn’t, don’t spend too long doing that though.

You don’t have to take the first suggestion

It’s nice to take the first suggestion, but you don’t have to. If the first suggestion isn’t going to inspire your cast, or is going to freeze them up, then better to just laugh it off and get another one.

House Lights

I did this on Saturday. If your audience is getting slightly too rowdy then raise the house lights a little bit, the lack of anonymity soon quietens down the uninspiring suggestions and everyone else feels a bit safer again.

Reward good suggestions

React enthusiastically to suggestions you want. “Yes!!! Captain Pickle and the Balham underdogs! Yes! You can come for free every week. More like that please.” Eventually everyone catches on to what sort of thing you need.

You can do a mini-version of an unwanted suggestion

If the host doesn’t want to give the suggestion to the actors, they can do a little mini version of it themselves or do a little improvised bit about around it. This means it’s been played with but in a safe way without breaking the main show.

I’ve even seen Showstoppers do this once. They took a suggestion of London Underground, did the opening number only, then Dylan said that’s that and then prompted the audience to give him something inspiring. He then took this new suggestion (The Lost City of Atlantis) to inspire the actual complete musical. I love Dylan.

Ask for suggestions that inspire you

You can guide the audience into giving things that inspire you, I’ve found the following phrases quite helpful:

Please can we get a…

“exciting location you would like to see on stage”
“a place of adventure”
“an emotional relationship”
“an epic title of a story”
“a location to inspire our actors”
“a dream occupation”
” a life event”

All of those sort of things seem to give actors inspiration. I’ve found just asking for one word to be slightly flat, even when doing A to C on it, but that’s just my personal preference. I especially like emotionally loaded suggestions.

Naughty Schoolboys

When someone shouts out “Jimmy Saville’s Sex Basement” in a show they are basically just being a naughty school boy or girl in that moment, it doesn’t mean they are trying to be unhelpful or disruptive to the show, so you can still have fun with blocking their suggestion.

You can play the same suggestion multiple different ways

The same suggestions to come up a lot. I’ve ended up on the Titanic in about five different shows. The first time was the classic “I’m King of the World” type thing. The next I was one of the band playing until the end. The last time I was one of the engine room guys. For each suggestion there are lots of ways of playing it, especially as you are playing with different people each time who will also have their own take on it.

Film Noir

What the fuck? Why does this one come up so much? This is the only one that annoys me. Every time you ask for a suggestion of a genre someone shouts this out, as if they are the first person to ever say Film Noir in an improv show. In actual fact the first was Socrates at the Ampitheatre of Athens, and Aristotle told him to fuck off.

Which brings me on too…

Use up the suggestion you don’t want in your example

I love this one, I can’t believe I’m giving away these dark arts of hosting now!

For example:

“Please can I get a suggestion of a life event, for instance giving birth?”
“Please can I get a genre, for instance film noir?”
“Please can I get an object, for instance a spatula?”

Thus removing the option to say the one you don’t want.

I love suggestions

I love getting suggestions from the audience and improvising from suggestions. I think improv is one of the few truly interactive art forms out there, and suggestions are a lovely moment where the audience get to participate and shape the show.

Most of all I think the audience wants to see great improv, so do whatever you can to create the environment, mood and inspiration to enable that to happen.

Lots of love,


Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla. Hoopla run improv and stand up courses, shows and an improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email: [email protected]


Share this article