Not too long ago, a friend took me to a Willis Earl Beal show. Knowing nothing (behind the times, as usual), I assumed assumptions: He would be a songwriter with a guitar. Such was not the case. The show was much more interesting than that. He performed solo, accompanied only by backing tracks composed on his laptop. Perhaps as an audience member you might assume that’s not much to gaze upon in wonder, but just wait. He did so much with every element he brought to the stage, and it was a very engaging show, indeed.
He was funny and said weird things and I loved him.
And, kids, as we are here today to learn, here’s your primer on building more drama into your performances as a musician, based on the Willis Earl Beal show I recently attended. Basically, it boils down to two things: 1) Take charge. You’re totally allowed to change the rules. 2) Use costuming and props to great effect.
Change all the rules: You’re in charge of this show.
We, the audience, all knew how this show was supposed to go. I mean, you stand around like a group of stilted hipsters, beers in hand, listening and enjoying, waiting for the song to end, then you clap. Right? Well, Willis had other plans for us.
After the first couple songs Willis said, “You don’t have to stand until the end of the performance.” By the next song, we were all sitting on the floor. After that, he forbade us to clap. “Ain’t nobody gonna clap for you in life.” So there went that. We were sitting there on the dance floor, silenced. Where was I? What kind of show was this? Were we allowed to clap for him at the end of his set? Things were confusing.
At this point, he totally had me. I was engaged. If he’d allowed all of us to go the normal route of song-clap-banter-song-clap-repeat, I would have been mechanically in audience member mode and probably would have been visually bored by the one-guy-and-a-laptop aesthetic. Also, in retrospect, if we had been standing it would have been so much easier to be bored, sidle slowly away, but really I didn’t even think of doing that. I didn’t want to. We were all planted there, comfortable on the floor and enjoying ourselves.
So now that we all knew what was expected of us, we did what we were told. We sat on the floor and consciously did not clap, silent after each song. His tracks played on, one after the other, his laptop accompanist giving him just the right amount of quiet after each track to murmur something about the next song into the mic. He was funny and said weird things and I loved him.
Costuming/props: Luxuriate in them.
First of all, let’s talk about the afghan-sized square of fabric he carried around, emblazoned with his hand-drawn sadface. He used this as a cape. How many things can you do with a cape? Geez, you can wear it across your shoulders, you can drape it over a mic stand, you can use the mic stand as a sort of flag pole: The possibilities are endless.
The trick with all of this is to draw it out slowly. Luxuriate in it. Maybe do two or three things throughout the course of a single song. Remove the mic from the stand, draw the cape over it expertly, lever the pole of the mic stand horizontal to the floor, revealing the sadface for all the audience to see. Do it without fidgeting. Do it deliberately, with intention.
So Willis Earl Beal wore tight dark jeans and a black tee-shirt, which also displayed his sadface. There was a fancy big belt buckle which was most definitely unbuckled at one point. My friend asserts that his pants were also unzipped at one point, but though I tried, I can not verify this. The reason I cannot verify this is because he had the lighting set very, very low. Yeah, it’s dumb for me to just be realizing this now, but you can totally ask the lighting guy (who is probably also the sound guy) to dim the lights if that’s the mood (i.e., controversy over zipped/unzipped pants) you want to create.
Oh, and let’s not forget the batman mask. He was also wearing a batman mask which covered his eyeballs. This made for quite a dramatic look indeed, especially when he removed it during the third-to-last song or so. (The superhero revealed his true identity to us! I totally wasn’t expecting that!) And after he removed it, he kept his eyes closed.
Moral of the story: Do more with less.
You’ve got all the ingredients to creating an engaging, dramatic performance, you just have to select them carefully and use them effectively. Find your sadface cape and draw it across the metaphorical microphone stand of your dreams. Unbuckle your metaphorical belt buckle slowly and with intention. Decide what type of show you want to put on and demand (you know, nicely and appropriately) that the audience participate on your terms. They’ll feel taken care of, they will pay attention, they will love you, and they will clap extra hard at the end of your set to make up for the lack of clapping done in-between songs.