A Short Chat with Matt Smith about Auctioneering

A Short Chat with Matt Smith about Auctioneering

Improv teacher Matt Smith has been with Freehold since its founding. In addition to being a universally-adored improv teacher, Matt is also a highly sought-after fundraising auctioneer. We sat down with Matt to discuss the connections between improv and auctioneering, big auction no-nos, and who the culture shock he felt while attending auctioneer school in St. Louis.


How long have you been doing auctions?

Well, I don’t put it on my resume anymore, because it makes me feel old. But I started auctioning in 1989 or 90.  I did an auction for the Youth Theatre Northwest, where I was teaching at the time, on Mercer Island. I did that for a couple of years, and I did my kids’ school auctions for a couple of years. Then I got more serious about it and started doing it professionally after going to auctioneer school.


Where does one go to auctioneer school?

That’s a good question, thank you very much. There are a few auctioneer schools that I know about. The one I went to was the Missouri Auction School in St. Louis. It’s moved around a bit–it used to be at the stockyards, and when I attended it was in a hotel room. It’s about an eight-day course. I got about a day’s worth of good information there. Most of it didn’t apply to me because it’s for commercial auctions, which are different. But as a cultural experience, it was great.

I’m kind of a Seattle person. I lived in New Orleans before, but I’ve never really spent a lot of time in the South. There were a lot of good ol’ boys. Cowboy hats. There were all these people in the class, mostly men, chanting in a big room, in earnest [imitates rapid-fire auction chanting]. Trying to get it as fast as they can. Just practicing and working on the chant–the Missouri Auction School chant. It was cool being there, it’s really a different sensibility. 


You were already doing improv at this point?

Yes, I’ve been doing improv since about 1985. I’ve been at Freehold since a year or so after it started. I’m not one of the founders, but I’ve been involved since year one. I just never stopped teaching. So, how many years is that? That’s about 34 years, which is why I don’t put it on my resume anymore.


So, what do you think are transferable skills from improv that are applicable in auctions?

Well, thank you very much. As a matter of fact, if you look at the top eight fundraising auctioneers, four of us came from an improv background, and another is from a theatre background. It really is connected to improv. There’s a longer explanation, but basically, one of the things you learn in improv is how to keep people’s attention while you’re telling a story. You learn storytelling techniques so that you don’t lose people. Improv is designed for that. You can’t block or do anything that halts the movement of the story. Plus, it’s positive. There’s nothing negative about improv. It’s taking energy and moving it forward. As an auctioneer, it’s like a dialogue where you’re doing all the talking, but you’re in dialogue with the audience. All the words coming out of your mouth are channeling all the energy. It’s a real sense of moving forward.


Do you ever host an auction for an organization you don’t care feel aligned with or enthusiastic about?

Not very often. There have been a couple of times, once for a large church. I had to find the positive aspects of the church and what they were doing. It’s not my business how they teach the kids in their school–so I had to separate myself from that. But for the most part, 95% of the auctions I do are no-brainers. They’re about helping kids, music or theatre groups, or senior centers. Those are usually easy to get excited about. I’m not taking on those odd ones anymore because they’re not a good fit for me. And they can find someone else.


Do you have a favorite part of the auction evening? Are there parts you look forward to more than others?

Not really. But I’ll tell you what happens. Sometimes I’m exhausted about ten minutes before it starts, because I’m super involved in helping. Lately, I’ve been getting jobs helping people learn how to host, maybe for their first year or so. I’ve found that just by walking around, I can save their ass. Sometimes it’s something simple like changing the silent auction bid sheets to make them clearer. Other times, it’s more important, like changing the way they present something, connecting the results to the computers, etc. I’ve got a radar for it. So I’m exhausted, but we haven’t started yet.

Raise The Paddle is the most important part of the year for some organizations, you know what I mean? So, one of the ways I approach an auction is, number one, I don’t ask. No one should say “So, I hope you’ll give big,” or “Come on you guys. Reach into your pockets.” No one should do that because it’s discomforting. And every time somebody asks you– there’s an automatic cringe mode, an automatic defense mechanism that comes up. 

So I try to get people by just making the compelling case. “This is what happens when you raise your paddle.” My friend David, his thing is “Thank you for what you’re about to do.” That’s the moral: “Thank you for what you’re about to do. Otherwise, don’t ask. 

A big difference between a fundraising auction and a commercial auction is in a commercial auction, you represent the seller against the buyer. And the buyer is trying to screw you up. However, in a fundraising auction, the buyer and the seller — our goal for the evening is to blur those lines until there is no line, because the buyer is the seller. This isn’t me giving to you. This is me giving to me, this is us giving to us. Freehold does a nice job of that. 


Can you tell the reading public a reason to be excited about the freehold gala in May?

Oh, that’s a good question, but I don’t know that our goal is exciting. I think our goal is: Let’s dig in. It’s about digging in as actors, artists, and people. We’re recommitting to what we’re doing here at Freehold. We want you to know where your donation goes and to see a performance by someone who was incarcerated. My job is to help make that happen.

That’s getting the shovel and digging, and when we do that, we keep it going. By the end of the evening, everyone in the room feels more deeply connected to the organization, and the organization is more deeply connected to the people. That’s why we do it. Ideally, we wouldn’t need an auction, but it brings people together who might not see each other except once or twice a year. They get to chat, drink, and raise money to push Freehold forward. This isn’t for us. We don’t need any tricks to get you there. We just need to remind you that what we’ve been doing is still going and growing deeper and deeper.


You’ve been teaching improv for a long time. How does it stay exciting for you?

For me, it changed my life. I was an artist without discipline, support, or a medium for a long time, and I don’t think I’m alone. Many people find themselves in that spot. When I realized that I wanted to be funny and wanted to find out if I was, I discovered that improv was something you could learn. You could actually learn how to do improv, and who you are could come out naturally in that setting. After doing it for about six months, I realized that I had learned all these things so that I could go on stage and be funny. That was my motivation for learning them.

Now that I understand my obligation to use humor, I’ve realized that it’s not about being funny. It’s about how I listen, how I respond, and how I open myself up to my partner. It’s about how I make my partner feel good, how I help others open up, and how I recognize and stop the things I naturally do to keep myself safe. We’ve created very creative ways to keep ourselves safe by blocking, walking away, and so on.

I’ve taught countless classes, from basic to advanced, and I can teach both levels simultaneously to the same people seamlessly because of who’s there. So I never get tired of teaching the same material. If someone is getting it, that’s all that matters. There’s nothing better than that.


Last question. I took your class in 2018. Why was I your best student?

Because of your courage, your animal magnetism, and your genius. Those three things came together.


Thanks Matt.

Thank you. 


There are still spots open for Improv with Matt Smith. Class meets on Mondays, starting April 8.