If you've been to an SCA feast, you've seen it happen: someone gets up to perform. The audience listens and applauds. Someone else gets up. He's ignored. Did the audience suddenly become rude?
Probably not. One performer managed to connect to the audience. The other did not. How can you perform successfully at a feast?
Before the Feast
First, pick the piece you will perform. You'll have to be loud, because people will be noisy. For singers, that means your range will probably decrease - test out songs at full volume.
What will your audience like? Often, the things you hate to perform because you've done them a thousand times are what your audience loves. That's why you've done them so often, after all! They are familiar with them and can participate. I once witnessed an entire feast hall stop what they were doing to sing along to "Loch Lomond."
Audience participation songs, stories, or playlets are great ways of drawing in your audience. Remember, most of them will be eating, so you might want to sugges that they clap or stop their feet or bang their goblet. Storytellers might ask random audience members for names of characters or otherwise involve them in a story.
Pick something of the appropriate length. Modern attention spans usually cannot handle medieval-length dinner entertainment. They will not listen to 25 ballad verses or the entire first third of "Beowulf." They may not understand, and thus will be bored by, your poem in Middle English. This is especially important for storytellers. It's hard to be a good storyteller and harder to be a good brief storyteller. But after about 5-10 minutes of narration, all but the most mesmerizing speakers will have lost most of their audience. And lost audences tend to talk and make noise and distract whoever's left listening to you.
Pick an appropriate topic. Remember, there may be children present, so you may want to limit yourself to 'PG-13' topics. If you are a very strong performer (why are you reading this?) and are confident in your abilities, you can probably perform nearly any topic. If you're less sure of yourself, try upbeat pieces about happy love, tricks or jokes, or rousing war songs. People at feast are there to have a good time, and your piece will amplify that. Also, it'll be easier for you to look like you're having a good time if the piece is about good times, and the audience will empathize.
Once you've picked the piece, practice. This is the cardinal rule of performers of all kinds. You already know that you should know all the words and/or notes to your song, story or poem. Are you done practicing?
Not hardly. How will you stand while performing? Will you move around? What will you do with your hands? Your face? Your voice? Dyamincs (changes of loud and soft) can add great dramatic effect to some works. Practice your entire performance where you can move about comfortably and unembarassed. What will you wear? Will it interfere with your movements?
Are you done? Not yet. Perform for a small, supportive group: friends, family, other bards. Did they like it? What didn't they like? Could they understand you?
Now you're ready to take on the feast hall.
At the Feast
First, note how the hall is set up. Are the tables scattered all about? That's bad news. Try and find a central spot. Is the typical U-shape being used? Great - you'll be in the middle of the U. Maybe rows of tables in front of a High Table? You'll probably be up near the High Table.
How large is the hall? You're going to have to project your voice over the crowd and in spite of terrible acoustics. This is not yelling. It is 'speaking (or singing) from the diaphram.' If you're not sure of how to do this, listen for a herald or performer whose voice cuts through the entire site like a resonant trumpet. Ask them how they do it. I've seen some performers try to make up for a lack of volume by circling the room as they perform. This is a bad idea. While everyone will hear you, they'll only hear a fraction of your piece and will hear nothing of the rest. Learn to project.
Be confident. If you don't think you're any good, you can bet the audience won't. This 'psyching up' is very important. Some butterflies in the tummy is normal, but you have to move about the performance space with confidence. You have to project the idea that you are now the center of attention and, damn it, you're worth the attention!
Get out onto the floor and introduce yourself. Don't just open up with no preamble. You might give a bow or curtsey to the High Table, give your name and ask them if they'd care to hear 'The Captian's Daughter' or whatever your piece is called. You might address your remarks to the populace. After your intro, explain any audience participation that might need explaining. I often invite the audience to sing the chorus, since some people think it's rude to sing while the performer is on-stage. Then, if they're still quiet after the second chorus, throw in an 'Everybody!' before the third.
Start your piece. Look at your audience. Even if your piece requires that you gaze lovelorn into the sky, don't do it for the entire time. Look at the people. Make eye contact if you can, stare just over their heads if you can't - they won't be able to tell. Since you're probably performing in the round, make sure you turn to direct your voice to different areas of the room. If you're projecting enough, everyone should be able to hear you, but the folks behind you won't be getting the same effect as those in front. Be an equal-opportunity performer.
Don't figet. It's often hard to know what to do with your hands. If you can, clap. (This often also gets the audience clapping). Gesture, but only if there's a reason to. Randomly waving your arms in the air will detract from your performance. If there's a reason, you can clasp your arms either in front or behind you. The first posture often denotes insecurity (think of people wringing their hands). You can use these if your performance calls for them. If you just don't know what to do, just let your arms hang naturally by your sides.
Never apologize. Never admit a mistake to the audience - they might not have realized you goofed! If you totally blank on a verse or line, skip it if you can. If you can't, take a deep breath, pause and see if it comes to you. You can stall by repeating the refrain (yeah, you meant to do that!). Never stop and start over - you just lost the audience. If you still can't remember those lines, smile and cover:
"Uh, yeah...there was a sort of a hole in the manuscript here...I think the Captain's Daughter gets into the rum and drinks too much...then..." deep breath and continue with the next verse about the gallant sailor. One bard I know has adopted a modern folk singer's "Loading final chorus...please wait," although that level of modernity might be verboten in your area. If you think you might blank out, have a blank-out remedy ready. If you're good-humored about it and can laugh at yourself, the audience will laugh too and keep listening. But as soon as you stop making noise and start racking your brain for that last rhyming word, they're gone.
Finish up and pause. Hopefully, the audience is still with you and they will clap. Smile, bow, thank them. Smile, bow and thank the High Table. Leave gracefully. Once you've sat down, you can collapse, moan about how awful you thought you were, etc.
Best of luck at your next feast!