Stuff To Ponder: Curtain Speeches

I was reading an entry on the Creativity Post by Thomas Mark about how important audience attentiveness is in live performance. It was interesting, but I wasn’t intending to post on it…until I read the last paragraph.

A crucial moment for establishing the relationship of audience and performer is immediately before the performance begins. Let me explain. People arrive, find their seats, and begin to turn their thoughts from daily affairs to the performance ahead. At last, the house lights go down. Everyone falls silent. That is the magic moment, the short period of greatest attention and receptivity and anticipation,… At any rate, that’s what should happen. Unfortunately, what actually does happen far too often,… Instead of allowing the performance to begin, the chairman of the board or the executive director or someone appears with a microphone and makes a fatuous speech. “Welcome ladies and gentlemen . . . blah blah blah . . . [insert a lame joke here] . . .blah blah blah . . . CDs available in the lobby . . . blah blah blah . . . The annual patron’s reception . . . blah blah blah . . . Our gratitude to our sponsors . . . blah blah blah . . . Turn off your cell phones . . . blah blah blah . . . Thank you, and enjoy the performance.” Not so easy, any more. Anticipation, attention, and receptivity have given way to irritation and impatience. The magic moment has been irretrievably shattered, leaving performers and audience to pick up the pieces as best they can. This kind of disregard for the conditions of artistic performance by the very people who organize the event is unpardonable. When it happens audiences and performers are entitled to complain vigorously.

Now, as someone who does deliver a curtain speech, I felt the need to take up the subject. I will concede that the curtain speech, poorly done can add a sour note to an evening. In light of all the interruptions that occur during a performance, the incessant ringing at Avery Fischer Hall being the most publicized recent example, such announcements are certainly appropriate, if not always effective.

Many locales require fire and emergency announcements be made and doing these in person rather than by recording is usually most effective. I saw a performance in NYC earlier this month and the fire/cell phone/recording prohibition announcement was made via a recording. While the volume and clarity was excellent, people were still standing and chatting while it was going on.

Having someone make the announcement does help to transition the audience from the arrival phase of the experience to the performance experience. I would agree that delivering the announcement after lowering the lights does interrupt the audiences experience since the lights also signal a transition. I generally go out while the house lighting is still at full. Though some times we bring them down to 3/4 or 1/2 to signal my arrival.

Obviously, there are other ways to provide the same information. The artistic design of some shows precludes my appearance and the salient points are delivered by an audio or video recording or even a performer.

Overall, I think a personal welcome to the audience is helpful to the organization, especially if well-considered. I generally talk very briefly about the show and why we chose to present it as a way to prepare people for the experience.

A lot of work is invested in performances and performance venues have many guidelines for the behavior of the front of house staff in order to provide a good attendance experience for audiences. But often very little effort has gone into the preparation and delivery of the curtain speech. Given that the attention of everyone is on the speaker at the same moment, it is most assuredly contributes to the experience.

Content matters. I actually start thinking about what I am going to say the day before the show, make notes and pare it down to 2-3 minutes max. I am not always successful in making silky smooth transitions into the show, but I do keep it brief and get off the stage.

Very rarely do I mention the next show and only solicit donations obliquely by thanking the audience and expressing my hope that they will continue to support our programs. Maybe I would get more donations if I was more direct and I think I can still find some good phrases to use that will indicate our need for donations without being overtly pushy. Honestly though, I don’t really know that making a general appeal before a performance is terribly effective as a fundraising technique.

In the moments before a performance, I think the focus should be on the immediate experience and not on future concerns. I have posters and a television screen and ushers with brochures in my lobby to push my future shows. In the 2 minutes before the show starts, the audience should be guided toward why the experience will be enjoyable. I am sure I am not the only one who has found themselves slightly disappointed by the movie they are watching after seeing preview trailers for the exciting movies coming the next summer.

People certainly don’t want to be thinking about your financial woes just as they are about to see a performance (though the curtain speech may be a good time to address them if the situation is widely known by the public.)

Many audience members can’t discern between for-profit and non-profit organizations and their respective performances. It’s great that people don’t feel the quality of non-profits are lacking, but it also means they may not particularly feel their lives would be worse should the non-profit disappear. We certainly don’t want to have people identifying long boring, speeches and appeals for money as a distinguishing characteristic of non-profit events.

I would be interested to know what other people think. Is there a better way to do curtain speeches? What things should be left out or are better accomplished in some other manner? What things not typically found in curtain speeches should be included?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Stuff To Ponder: Curtain Speeches”

  1. Excellent points!
    Perhaps we need to rethink the importance of the curtain speech..Transforming the audience from their public mode into the intimate setting of the stage in front of them is tricky at best.
    I advocate a lot less…visit the sign up in the lobby, buy the CD…blah blahh blah and more time should be spent in revealing the Director’s intent for the audience’s experience . Perhaps laying the “bricks” on the road they are about to travel…. Give them a thought to ponder that will open their minds to the story about to unfold… Can you slip in the “required info” as you go along? Sure, just keep the mood and the interesting “storyteller” tone intact and they will follow you…


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