Frontrowphobia is a thing

Sydney-based comedian Alexander Richmond has been pondering the performer’s kryptonite. Richmond has been writing and performing for seven years and in that time he has noticed how audience behaviour affects his performance as a comedian.

Alexander Richmond at The Laugh Tub | photo by Jeromaia Detto

Richmond is currently in Adelaide performing his award-winning show The Marvellous Snake Boy. He is thrilled to have received a Fringe Weekly Award in the Adelaide Fringe Festival following the premiere of this show in the Sydney Fringe Festival in 2018.

He coined the term ‘firstrowphobia’ to describe the reluctance that some patrons have to sitting in the front row of a comedy show for fear of being picked on by the performer. He has worked out how to treat this unique phobia in his current show.

How does your show put patrons at ease and help them to overcome firstrowphobia?

To begin with, I try to destroy the 4th wall immediately at the start of the show. Without giving too much away, I do not enter from the stage itself and my aim is to show the audience that from the first minute, the stage is just as much within the seats they are sitting on as it is the raised platform.

From there, I rely heavily on the audience to talk to me and converse with me, encouraging them as opposed to lambasting them for what they give me. My character is incredibly demure, naive and innocent meaning that I’m never forcing people to get involved, but rather politely encouraging them. This is key to the audience feeling as if they are on a stage, but a safe one where they are not going to be picked on by saying something silly.

Do you think audiences in general understand appropriate theatre etiquette?

This is a difficult question to answer because ‘theatre etiquette’ itself changes very much dependent on what kind of theatre you’re seeing. Certainly the performers of a Bell Shakespeare Hamlet are hoping the audience sit down and keep quiet, whereas most comedy shows are very expectant of their audience making a lot of noise and showing their level of enjoyment through loud, boisterous laughter and applause.

I suppose the proper theatre etiquette is in the audience being communicated to as to when the performer requires their response, and in that it is a very one-sided relationship, broken only by the occasional heckler. Then we have the two extremes of this which I think many people end up falling into.

Alexander Richmond is Snake Boy | photo by Rachael Millanta

First is the heckler I mentioned before who uses the opportunity of a live show to be disruptive. They see the difference between watching a movie and a live show as their chance to wobble the performer and score their own comedy points (I am making generalisations here though).

On the other end of the spectrum is the greater concern, which is polite theatre-goers coming to comedy shows, sitting at the back and staying quiet. Ironically, these theatre participants can wobble a comedian even more. A silent, unseen audience member is a performer’s kryptonite.

I would say that most audiences do understand the appropriate etiquette, however, I think many choose to remain in a safe space of their own while watching comedy shows as opposed to trusting the performer to give them the permission. There is a lack of trust between both parties.

What are your future plans for Snake Boy?

I am constantly editing and improving the show based on how audiences are reacting and participating. I think it’s very important to always be willing to change a show like this and throw away bits that aren’t working to keep it fresh. I will be doing a very short run (one day) at the Sydney Comedy festival and hope to tour it some more across this year and 2020. I did eight shows at the Adelaide Fringe this year and would really love to do more next year.

The Marvellous Snake Boy | image by Daniella Pilla

Richmond’s final shows are on this weekend, 23 – 24 February at 9.45 pm at The Third Space at Live From Tandanya, 253 Grenfell Street, Adelaide.

Prior to achieving success with The Marvellous Snake Boy, Richmond
started out doing university revues at Sydney University, and concurrently performed in multiple productions with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and the Musical Theatre Society.

In 2016, he made his Sydney Fringe debut with a musical comedy show PeaceByPeace: The Rise and Fall with the comedy collective group Baby Boy Bolognese. Richmond continued to write, perform and direct shows with Baby Boy Bolognese at multiple fringe and comedy festivals performing shows such as eSports Dog (2017) and Dodo Park (2017).

In 2018, he toured his first solo show One Man Titanic to Sydney, Perth and Adelaide festivals. In January last year, he attempted his biggest show yet and wrote the book for the original musical Holt the Musical! which performed a sell-out season at the Seymour Centre.

When not writing or performing live shows, Richmond also helps run the comedy night at the Wayward Brewery’s The Laugh Tub, and has a fortnightly movie review podcast Hear No Movie, See No Movie.

Richmond enjoys his time on stage as well as behind the scenes but his greatest aspiration is to become a television writer. This year he was accepted into the masters program for screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

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