Dusty Limits is a singer, actor, director, writer, lyricist and compere and one of the most celebrated figures on the ‘new cabaret’ scene. Described by The Stage as ‘the compere without compare’, he has hosted shows everywhere from Joe’s Pub in New York to backroom bars in Berlin. He has directed numerous productions, including the London Cabaret Award-winning ‘Black Cat Cabaret’ at the Café de Paris.
1 How long have you been a host?
Depends how you define it, but I’d say nearly 20 years.
2 How did you become a host?
In 2003 I found myself – through a series of very remarkable coincidences – hosting the legendary Bongo Club Cabaret at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a case of jumping in at the deep end and mostly making it up as I went along. The first few nights I was pretty terrible, far too polite, and not really understanding how central hosting is to a show like that. And then I remembered the stories of Aristide Bruant (regarded by some as the first true ‘cabaret compere’) and tried to channel him while staying myself, and it transformed everything. It was a ‘struck-by-lightning’ moment. I sat down and thought through what had and hadn’t worked and tried to apply that to the next night’s show, because the best kind of learning is experiential, especially in this job. But the crucial thing was the epiphany, via Aristide, that a host’s job isn’t to politely introduce the acts, it’s to create a connection the audience and keep the connection alive. A good host has to be in charge, while at the same time keeping everyone happy. The analogy I always use in my workshops is with the host of a party.
3 Did you have any previous hosting experience?
I’d done group shows with friends back in Australia, but I hadn’t really held a show together on my own. And I’d done a few bits and pieces of hosting for a show called ‘Trinity’s’ (with Paul L Martin) so I vaguely understood how to introduce the acts and chat to an audience. But the Bongo Club was where I learned the craft and found my persona, and doing nightly shows for three weeks was the perfect training.
4 Mistakes promoters make with hosts?
Can I say ‘underpaying?’ LOL. The most common mistakes are little things, like giving you a running-order with the wrong names or, for example, the performer’s name, not their stage-name. Or – keeping in mind that the host is the gatekeeper of the show – not giving proper billing. It should be clear on the publicity that the show is hosted by ‘so-and-so’.
Oh, and monitor speakers. Make sure the host can hear themselves, even if they’re not singing. We need to know how we sound out front so we can pitch our performance appropriately. This is one of my absolute bugbears! If a sound tech tells me there’s no monitoring, something inside me dies.
5 Favourite shows they have done, worst experiences?
For reasons partly nostalgic the Bongo Club Cabaret will always be my favourite. The venue was wonderful, we had amazing acts from around the world. I was in charge of programming the shows and got to see the most extraordinary diversity of performers you can imagine. Our audiences were loyal and appreciative and the show had a great ethos. I still miss it. I felt like I’d been adopted by a magical tribe of artists.
Boom Boom Club also holds a special place in my heart. Those shows were absolute madness and felt like how I imagine the wilder cabarets of Weimar Berlin must have felt. And the work I’ve been doing for years now with Black Cat Cabaret has been hugely rewarding and is ongoing.
Worst experiences? I won’t name names, but there have been a few gigs where the sound was terrible or the lights didn’t work or there was nowhere to change (not even the proverbial toilet) or where there was no room on the stage because of a huge band set-up, which makes it almost impossible to do your job. And of course the inevitable corporate gigs where the audience isn’t really there to see a show, they’re there to get drunk at the company’s expense. But that’s why those shows pay well so it’s a case of swings-and-roundabouts.
6 What is the most crazy thing you have had to do on stage as a host.
Too many to recall, though recently I did find myself being beaten on the bottom with a plastic truncheon by a model dressed as a ‘Tom of Finland’ character. Not quite sure how that came about, it just sort of happened. I’m not complaining.
7 What do you love most about hosting.
When you really connect with an audience who are there to enjoy a show, there’s a kind of energy that is hard to describe. It feels a bit like when a roomful of friends are all singing ‘happy birthday’ to you (except in my case that would actually make my flesh crawl, so maybe it’s a bad analogy). It’s when I feel like I’ve done my job properly, and by that I mean I feel like I’ve helped things go smoothly, built and sustained the energy in the room, made the audience feel like they’re part of the experience, and, most importantly, made it easier for the other artists to shine. The host’s job is to serve the show as a whole, not just themselves. Again, think of what a good party-host has to do, even if it’s their party.
That last part is very important to me. Hosting is what I call an ‘invisible skill’. If it’s done well, you almost don’t notice it. But you definitely do if it’s done badly.
Aside from all that, and it’s not about hosting per se, but putting together a show, especially a variety show, is very satisfying. Giving it shape and direction and seeing the result. I’m a theatre director and try to bring some of that into my work.
I’ve also had some great chats with the front row that have made it feel as though I was meeting a new friend. I’m actually an introvert who is terrible at that kind of thing in ‘real life’, so it’s gratifying. If a bit neurotic.
8 what do you hate most about hosting
When it feels like my job is less about creating synergy in the room, and more about crowd-control. The former gives you life, the latter is just plain exhausting. If you feel like you’re not really doing your job, you’re just getting-through, it’s horrible. But that comes with the territory. And people, note: there are such things as ‘bad audiences’. Fact.
Another pet hate is having to fill for ages because of technical problems, especially if they could have been anticipated. But that’s why one of the essential qualities of a good compere is the ability to think on their feet and to work a room. Because there will always be a night when the sound-desk short-circuits or the stage needs mopping or an act hasn’t shown up, and you have to cover that. I always say, everything you need as a compere is actually already in the room with you. You just have to find it. I hosted a show once that consisted entirely of big bands, and for tech reasons I had to fill for about fifteen minutes while they set up the next band. I got into the audience and just worked them like mad. Chatting, flirting, getting to know them. When I finally got the nod that the show could continue, I got back on stage and a chap yelled out: ‘do some magic!’ And I said: ‘I’ve just filled for fifteen minutes with no actual material. That’s fucking magic.’
9 How do you handle difficult members of the audience? How to handle a heckler?,
I shall preface this answer by saying it’s easily the longest answer on this questionnaire, and also, while it’s very important, I’d hate for anyone to think that comperes spend half their lives dealing with hecklers. It’s actually pretty rare.
In my experience, ‘difficult members of the audience’ is practically synonymous with ‘drunk people’, and cabaret, by its very nature, encourages drinking. Cabarets are liminal spaces in which people let go of their ordinary inhibitions and I wouldn’t have that any other way.
The crucial thing is to remember that those people are looking for attention. Very often they are just carried-away by the show and they want to be part of it. That might reflect a massive error of judgment on their part, but you have to deal with it.
You can ignore them, engage them, or shut them down. When I teach workshops on hosting, I always stress that you are like the host of a party. So think about how a good party-host would behave.
Ignoring often works. Just pretend they’re not there. Focus on the people who are attentive. The ‘difficult person’ (henceforth ‘DP’) will realise they’re not getting the attention they wanted and they’ll calm down. This doesn’t always work (see also ‘how drunk/high are they?’) but it usually does.
‘Engaging’ can mean anything from chatting to them like a friend, mocking them cruelly, or sidelining them with charm and whimsy. It really depends on who they are, and you have to try to assess, in the moment, what kind of DP you’re dealing with. Engagement can work, but it can also backfire, in that they will feel that their ‘contributions’ are now part of the show. The character I play on stage is arrogant, sly and a complete snob, and there are ways I can play that to put people in their place. I realise that sounds horrible, but it’s true and – especially with British audiences, who have a kind of conditioned class-response – it’s effective. But loving them into submission would be an equally valid strategy. Hecklers are rowdy children who need both love and discipline. What would your character do?
At this point it’s crucial to say two things. First, you mustn’t take it personally, though it can feel that way. I’ve made that mistake and let my temper get the better of me. Never again. If you lose your temper, you’ve lost the battle. Breathe through it.
The great Amy Lamé gave me some of the best advice as a host I’ve ever had. She said ‘connect with the people who are paying attention and ignore the ones who aren’t. But whatever you do, keep in mind it’s not personal’. I have a mantra, which is ‘do your best, but don’t over-invest’. This is really just a job and at the end of your shift you’re going home to your bed.
Second, you are not alone. I cannot stress this enough. If you’re standing on stage by yourself in a bright spotlight in front of 200 people, you can feel incredibly alone. But for every DP there are dozens of people who are actually on your side, and it’s okay to enlist them into your private army. If the heckler is spoiling the show for the people around them, you can say ‘you do realise that everyone around you paid for their ticket and you’re ruining it for them? Isn’t that right people?’ British audiences will tut-tut or hard-stare a heckler but very rarely intervene unless they are encouraged to do so. But the moment that a heckler realises they’re not fighting just you, they’re fighting you and your army, they usually pipe down. The odds are against them.
And then there’s the nuclear option. That’s when things are really going off the rails, because the DP just won’t take the hint or starts to get aggressive because they’ve been questioned. That’s when I’ve said ‘I’m sorry but this is unacceptable. You’re spoiling everyone’s evening and I’m afraid the show will not continue unless you either shut the fuck up or get the fuck out.’ But I’ve had to do that maybe 3 or 4 times in 20 years.
To go back to my party metaphor, ask yourself how you’d treat the situation if this were a DP at your party. If so-and-so is misbehaving and breaking your glassware, you have to find a way to defuse that. You’d start with ‘darling, I think you’ve had enough to drink’ and end with ‘Right, I’m calling the police’. Somewhere in the middle usually does the trick. (In fact, I’ve just decided to use the line ‘I’m calling you a cab’ and see how that works).
All this sounds very negative, but cabaret is about not so much ‘breaking’ the fourth wall as dispensing with the whole idea of a fourth wall, so it’s in the nature of the art-form. And though I’ve had some awful heckles over the years, I’ve had some wonderful heckles that have yielded some of the best ad-libs of the night.
Remember: the person with the microphone has the power.
Side-note: handy tip regarding ‘hen/stag nights’, but with wider application. Isolate the organiser of the group, not the hen/stag, and deal with them. Everyone else in the group will take their cues from them. Bob’s your uncle.
10 Favourite unexpected interaction with an audience member
Oh wow. So many I could choose but it has to be when Amy Winehouse jumped up on stage to join me in singing ‘Eternal Flame’. True story.
11 How do you manage the dreaded raffle…raffle wrangling advice
Oh God, file under: ‘things all hosts dread having to do’. Raffles and auctions can kill a show stone-dead but they might also be essential to the event e.g. a charity fundraiser. The tricks are: 1. Explain clearly at the outset the reason for the raffle and how the process works; e.g. do winners come to the stage to collect their prizes? Or do they collect them at a later juncture (which is infinitely preferable). And then 2. Go at it at great speed. If nobody claims their prize straight away, bin the ticket and draw another one. You snooze, you lose, and no, I don’t care that you were out back having a smoke. (This may not be possible all the time so you have to double-check with the raffle organisers).
12 Have you ever had a crowd you couldn’t gee up and what did you do?
Audiences fall into two categories. Those who paid, and those who didn’t. The former are easier to excite because they paid to be there and so they want to have a good time. They’ve already invested so they’re more disposed to want to make the night a success. The latter – corporate audiences, mostly – maybe not so much. But one thing I’ve learned is that a quiet audience isn’t necessarily a bad audience. My rabble-rousing days are over, and these days I’d much prefer a crowd that’s attentive, even if they’re not very demonstrative.
The same rules apply either way, though. Treat them as your guests. Don’t try to force them to have a good time, because that just doesn’t work. If they’re quiet, match their energy to start with, and then – once they trust you – ramp it up. Take them with you. (I just realised this sounds like how you make a puppy trust you. So there you have it: think of your audience as puppies. Copyright Dusty Limits).
You can also use a very basic psychological strategy, which is to play one half against the other. It’s cheap and it’s cheerful and it works. You’re tapping into tribal instincts. Get a game going. Play with them. People love to play, especially if they feel like they belong to a team and aren’t just out there on their own. Group energy is ultimately what makes an audience more than a group of disparate individuals.
But ultimately, even if the audience is low-energy, just get on with it. Once again: do your best, but don’t over-invest.
(As an aside, when introducing acts, try to match the energy of the act you’re about to bring on. You’re setting a scene. Not everything needs to be pitched high-energy. Find some light and shade.)
13 If you aren’t given material beyond theme, how do you write your own?
Well, I have a fair amount of material I’ve scripted for hosting or for solo shows, which I can slot in, depending on what’s appropriate for that particular crowd. A lot of it is quite explicit or morbid, so that won’t work for corporates.
In prepping for an event, I make bullet-points for the things I have to cover, including any announcements and thank-yous at the end. If I still need more material, I draw a mind-map and free-associate until I have something I can work with. (Warning: name-drop): The great Rob Newman once told me that the key is to ‘write and write and write and then write some more’. You’ll only be able to use a fraction of what you write, but it’s better to edit what you already have than not have enough to start with.
14 How do you edit it on the fly by the audience reception?
That’s a very difficult question. I could probably write a psych dissertation on this but I am not sure it would be helpful.
The thing about hosting is that you are flying by the seat of your pants a lot of time. You’re processing a huge amount of information all the time you’re on stage. Your internal ‘applause-o-meter’ is in overdrive. You’re constantly trying to gauge how things are being received and you only have your instincts to rely on because there’s no time to step out of it and regroup. Your mouth may well run ahead of your brain and not every thing that tumbles out of it will work. It’s nerve-wracking.
Have your notes, have a pen, so that you can scribble things down in the wings in anticipation of the next section.
There’s a saying that applies perfectly here: ‘over-prepare, and then wing it’. Though with some hosting gigs ‘over-prepare’ is an option we’d love to have. But definitely have plenty of material you can fall back on, and if it’s tested, trust it. But, if, for example, you think your stock material might be a bit too blue for a conservative crowd, write some safer jokes. Or just talk to the audience. You’re not required to be a stand-up comic. You’re a host. Different animal.
It’s funny, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years, ish, and yet only relatively recently – by playing a different character, who spoke very slowly – did I realise that all this time I’ve been speaking too quickly. Jokes were getting lost and I wasn’t giving myself enough time to think ahead and do that mental editing. Your brain can do the editing if you give it space to, you just have to hold the audience’s attention while you’re thinking on your feet. Just breathe through it.
15 How do you like to interact with the stage hands, do you bring them into the show or keep them in the background or does it depend?
I do interact, if it’s been discussed beforehand. Not every SM has a burning desire to be in the spotlight, but there is something very lovely about that kind of interaction. It is another way in which cabaret defies convention – in this case that stage hands should somehow, magically, be invisible. Very often in this industry stage hands are also performers themselves, so there’s plenty to be made of that and audiences seem to enjoy it.