The cornerstone of any great cabaret is a capable host. As both a producer and a performer, I recognize that while good hosts make it look easy, being one is hard work! Here are five essential points for being a kick-ass emcee:
1. Cultivate a strong, distinctive presence.
You are the audience’s first point of contact and tour guide for the journey you’re about to take them on. Good hosts fill the room with their presence; great hosts bring something unique to the stage. When crafting your hosting persona, ask yourself, how would I define myself in three words? Are you dirty, sensuous, flirtatious? Snarky, sharp-witted, and stern?
Having a clear idea for your persona can then inform your costuming and material. For example, Qi-POW Burlesque’s beautiful Miss Jade is racy, bitchy, and lovably slutty, giving herself carte blanche to make sexual innuendoes and hit on audience member’s boyfriends. (That isn’t shade, I promise!)
“You have to create a funny, memorable character. Great hosts know how to find a handful of signature lines/jokes without making it seem like they just repeat the same material for every show.”
Dick Dijon, Producer/Emcee, Vaudezilla (Chicago, IL)
2. You drive the course of the evening. Captain the ship.
“The most important thing for new emcees to know is they are the master of ceremonies. The producer trusts them to keep the pace of the show moving, to keep the show entertaining and to gauge the audience correctly.”
Tito Bonito, emcee for the Bootleg Bombshells (Los Angeles, CA)
The emcee is there to tie the separate acts together into a cohesive show. This includes being on the ball with timing. Unless your producer tells you otherwise, you should be reconnecting with the audience as soon as the applause starts for the end of a performer’s act. If you’ve got a wireless mic, consider taking it with you and starting to speak from offstage while you enter.
“When I think about the good and bad hosting that I’ve seen in my life, the people who are really good, what they’re doing is managing the flow and atmosphere in the room.”
Anna Fur Laxis, Executive Producer, Qi-POW! Burlesque (Shanghai, China)
Pay close attention to the set-up and technical process. Don’t leave the stage until the next act is ready to go— always be prepared to stall! Sometimes performers have last-minute costume malfunctions, stage set-up takes longer than expected, or the DJ has a problem with the music. Jump on these occasions. Don’t wait. Even just a few minutes of dead air feels like an eternity.
It’s much easier for someone to give you a wave when things are a ‘go’ than to recover the loss of energy that comes from bringing the show to an unexpected full stop.
3. Get to know your acts and set the appropriate tone before they come on.
“Get performer notes from the producer ahead of time (day or two before the show)! They almost always have them and almost always forget to pass them on. Performers often spend a good amount of time giving them a blurb – don’t make them try to remember what they came up with on show day!”
Colin Acumen, drag king and producer
As far in advance as you can, reach out to the performers and ask them about what they’re going to do. Having a good idea of what their act is like will 1) allow you to prepare enough material in case of complicated set-up and 2) inform the kind of tone that you should set before the performer comes on. No need to wait for your producer on this one— if you have access to their email or Facebook, you can reach out to them directly. At the very least, make the rounds before the show once you get to the venue and speak to the performers personally. Ask about their music, choreography, and general tone of their act, then make sure to tailor your introduction to their number.
“The really great hosts are the ones who understand that hosting is not something you can just pick up and do off-the-cuff. It takes planning and preparation. The jokes need to land (and be BRIEF), the intros need to be crisp, and in an ideal world, you wouldn’t need notes. Great hosts also know how to mix things up. A serious/message act should not be presented the same way as a hard-rocking or comedic act.”
“A good host knows that if the next act is high-energy, then they’re going to build it up and whip the crowd into a frenzy. If they know the next piece is a low-key performance, they’ll bring the audience in.”
My friend Erin FM, stand-up comedian and experienced host, notes:
“You owe it to your performers to set up the crowd for them. If the last act bombed or ended on a down note, you have to bring them back up before you can hand the audience over to the next performer.”
4. Connect with the audience.
Look directly into the eyes of your audience members. Seek out different people in the room for different lines. Novice emcees sometimes freeze under the glare of the spotlights and end up delivering all of their lines above people’s heads.
“I would say the biggest DO as an emcee is to make sure that you’re engaging your audience. If the audience doesn’t feel connected to you in some way then they won’t be interested in anything else that is being presented on stage. Talk to them, make them feel like you’re actually interested in whether or not they’re having a good time, this can be hard to do without holding up the show but it’s important!”
Alexander Cameron, drag king (Cincinatti, OH)
Talk to the audience. Ask them questions. Some questions you can ask include:
- Who’s never been to a burlesque/drag show before?
- Are there any birthdays or special occasions in the audience?
- Who are you here to see?
Or questions related to the content of the show. For example, during our most recent Cosplay! burlesque, Miss Jade asked the audience members which fictional character they fantasized about the most. (#teamsnape)
In between acts, glance around the room for the most interesting characters (clothes, reactions to the performance, general energy) and don’t be afraid to interact with them. Questions you can ask specific audience members:
- Name and job?
- Where are you from?
- Who is that? (indicating their date for the evening)
Good hosts have a roster of one-size-fits-all jokes, while great hosts are able to riff on the spot. You don’t have to have extensive theater training to be a great host. Some of the best hosts I’ve ever seen developed quick wits through bartending and serving. If you really want to get great at saying funny things on the spur of the moment, consider taking an improv class or two.
5. Serve the show.
Fantastic emcees keep the audience engaged, provide an energetic crowd for the performers, and entertain the audience in their own right. Start working on your own hosting bits well in advance of the show. Good hosts don’t always have to be stand-up comedians, either— I’ve seen great hosts who play the ukulele or guitar at some point during the line-up.
Serving the show means respecting your performers and audience. Be courteous with the timing of your material, make sure to clear up any questions such as where a performer is from or how to pronounce their name before the show, and don’t host drunk or high (it isn’t a necessity, just an excuse).
Alexander Cameron adds:
“The biggest DON’T for me is being rude or making fun of people. I’ve seen emcees spend a lot of time focusing on throwing shade at other entertainers or audience members and it’s a huge turn-off for me. Joking is fine as long as it’s not hurtful but I’ve seen people get personal and it made the show uncomfortable for everyone involved.”
Your professionalism backstage is also appreciated. Like any member of the cast, show up on time and be reliable. If a performer is busy getting ready for the show, let them be! Don’t interrogate your producer while they are preparing for their own performance. Keep the backstage transmission of radio waves of anxiety to a minimum.
Remember: great hosts are made, not born. The most important thing for any performer is to self-reflect and continue to hone his/her craft. A great cabaret would be nothing without a great host, so a big thank-you to all of the hosts out there who help us do what we do. You are the spirit gum to our mustaches, the double-sided tape to our pasties. We need you!
How about you, fellow performers? What are your essential do’s and don’ts for emcees? Comment below to share. Until next time!