What is Patter and Why Is It So Important?
Article #6 in this running series.
Patter is such a seemingly trivial term for the talk between songs in a cabaret act. However, the multiple definitions of the word are not all as superficial as the word itself might seem. Patter in the dictionary is 1) the talk with which an entertainer accompanies a routine; 2) the words of a comic song or a rapidly spoken monologue used to introduce such a song; 3) the rapid-fire talk of a comedian; 4) a specialized lingo, the jargon of a specific group of people; 5) the spiel of a street hawker or a circus barker.
So patter encompasses in its very definition, notions of being entertaining, informative, funny, collegial, professional, and—without a doubt—verbal. Additionally, it’s used to sell. If we think of selling as conveying a message, in this case it’s used to convey the additional messages of your show, the ones that are not conveyed through the songs you have chosen.
Patter can take a number of different forms—from a one-line mood shift, to a joke with a clear punchline, to a profound saga that is almost a “number” of its very own. There is no one way of doing patter right, but there are many ways of doing it poorly, and so it is of value to look at what you’re saying, when you’re saying it, and why. The more uncomfortable you are on stage, the more awkward you are speaking extemporaneously, the more important it is to pre-plan your patter and rehearse it, even script it.
So what is it you want to say with your patter? Once you understand the character you are on stage and in the larger arc of your show, your patter helps to move along your bigger story through moments and smaller stories that carry you and the audience together on the journey. It sets up song moments when leading into a song, or puts a button on them right after. It reveals the character and the story arc in ways that complement and contrast what is expressed through the songs.
Most patter is done as an introduction into the next song. That Intro can do any one or more of the following things:
- Create a mood;
- Set the scene;
- Introduce one or more characters who you will be singing to or about;
- Give juicy tidbits that illuminate aspects of yourself that will be further revealed in the song;
- Tell a story that parallels or illuminates something about the song which we may or may not fully understand until the song itself is sung.
The biggest mistake most people make with intros is saying too much. They finish a story or a thought, and then they ramble on as if they feel they need to just keep talking. Or, they manage to create a mood with an image or a story that gets us perfectly in the right emotional place to be with the song, when the musical intro starts, they take us somewhere else completely with statements like:
- “I really love this song;”
- “This song is by so and so;”
- “This song is from such and such show;”
- “So I really want to sing it for you;’ and/or
- “I hope you like it, too.”
All of these take us out of the dramatic moment, and out of the arc of the show. None of them are helpful or necessary in the moment, and the last actually makes us self-conscious as an audience member, focused on our own response instead of on the cabaret artist.
If you want to credit one song (especially if it’s an original)—unless the writing of it is part of the intro leading into the song—you can do it after the song. If there are a few songs you want to credit, you can save them for your “Thank yous” or, better yet, have a program. There are only so many names and details an audience wants to try and take in, and they shouldn’t have to. I’ve even known a few artists who have programs, but some don’t give them out until after the show, so that people aren’t looking down during the show to see what’s next or to find a name, but they have all the information to take home.
Outros are usually briefer and more pointed than intros—maybe a line or two to put a button on the moment, shift the mood, or thank the audience or someone onstage with you. But don’t start until the music has completely ended, you’ve held your moment, and the lights have come back up if there’s a blackout. Outros can be very effective if, like intros, they do their job and don’t overstate the moment or the intention. They can even become the intro to the next song, whether the connection is direct or subtle.
Diversions and Intimate Digressions
Just as songs can be diversions, so can patter—anecdotes, funny stories, brief asides. Everything we’ve said about diverting songs (Article #5: “A Great Show Tells a Great Story” https://bistroaward.com/12007-2/ ) is equally true about diverting patter. And, it doesn’t take much to shift the mood, lighten an intense moment, darken a silly one, or just add an additional thought or a different perspective. It makes the whole richer, as exotic spices deepen the flavor of a stew.
Just as there are intimate song moments in most great cabaret acts, there can also be incredible moments of connection between audience and performer while talking. Talking to the audience is more direct, less lyrical, than singing, and it’s all you (no accompanist). So those intimate digressions can feel more direct, more personal, more self-revelatory. It can be unrelated to what came before or after, be sad, funny, or thought-provoking. As long as you are clear on your character and your story/message/intention, they will always be relevant.
I will take such a moment to speak to you now personally, in my own “intimate digression.” Imagine for a second that I have stepped away from the sections of this article to have a little moment with you. The mike is in my hand, and maybe I even sit on the stairs that lead up to the stage. And then I say:
“It is challenging to talk about these components of a cabaret act week after week and not put them in any kind of socio-political context, when our country is suffering an out-of-control government exacerbating an out-of-control pandemic which has locked us all down—including all forms of live entertainment—and, at the same time, a much-overdue reckoning with the hypocrisies and atrocities in the founding and history of our nation. I struggle with this all moment to moment, through waves of hope and despair. And yet, whatever our future, these elements of construction and communication that I am exploring with you are how we each find our way to our voice and to our own center, and how others experience us. And so, all of this will be terribly important whenever we can get back into a room together and share our cabaret souls. And so I forge on.“
Rolling with Mistakes
Mistakes can be absolutely delicious opportunities to humanize yourself as a performer. They are chances to laugh at yourself, and be warm and direct with your audience, and win their affection in the process. That is true whether the mistake is yours (starting at the wrong time or in the wrong key, forgetting a lyric or what song is next) or the mistake is someone else’s (a botched cue of any kind, a dropped glass by patron or server). All can be handled with humor, grace, and humility, and can lead to some of the most memorable moments onstage. In fact, I have often seen that right after making a mistake and owning it, performers are often more down to earth, and therefore more connected, both to the material and to the audience. It is a great shared experience, one of the gifts of live performance.
However, these kinds of mistakes are different from the mistakes people make in creating their patter. I’ve talked about a few of those already, those ramblings and over-explanations before starting the song. But there are a few big other patter mistakes I want to note. The biggest is probably starting an intro with “This song is about …” If you are going to tell us what the song is about before you sing it, then, essentially, you’re asking us to go through the experience twice. Almost invariably, this will not accomplish anything productive.
Another mistake is targeting a moment or a story to only one or a few audience members, that has no relationship to anything else you’re doing, and doesn’t illuminate any aspect of you or the journey of your show. Nothing is more alienating to an audience than feeling that some part of your show is a private moment and not for them at all. Keep your private moments private, or find a way to make them integrated and engaging in the whole of what you’re doing.
But Is Patter Required?
Do you need to talk? No. It is possible to have a character, a story, a dramatic line, an engaging evening, without speaking? Yes. Absolutely. But speaking can accomplish a connection with the audience that is worth pursuing and developing. If you choose in a specific show not to speak, I hope it will be an artistic choice, and not just from fear.
But if you speak, whether or not what you say is scripted or impromptu, the more you allow yourself to be truly connected to what you are saying and to the audience, the more your audience will care about everything else you do onstage.
About the Author
Shellen Lubin is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote." www.shellenlubin.com, www.mondaymorningquotes.com, @shlubin