We’ve all been there.
I didn’t really experience it in college, because my shows were all fairly well attended. (It helps putting up classics in an institution dedicated to classical education – whether begrudgingly or no you have a built-in audience). But even so, there was one original play we did – not one I was involved with but one my college did all the same – that had eleven people in its audience one night. Eleven. In a house that could hold several hundred.
Once I was out in the world, this sort of thing became commonplace. When you’re doing hole-in-the-wall independent theater you’re dealing with 30-50 seat houses in the first place. It’s a little bit of a blow to the ego to know that’s all you’ll be reaching, but in performance at least it’s easier to feel like you’re playing to a full crowd. And yet, many’s the time even these tiny venues couldn’t be filled, and I found myself playing to single-digit audiences.
I’ve been in new plays in Westchester towns where the townsfolk weren’t aware they had a theater, and only a handful of folks would find us on any given night (and yes, four paying customers counts as literally a “handful”). I’ve been in outdoor courtyard Shakespeare performances, decked out in ersatz Renaissance garb, playing to audiences of three humans plus the family of rats that lived in the planter where the courtyard’s lonely tree grew. The smallest audience I would have played to, in a tiny production back in Minneapolis long ago, would have been one – but she was a friend of mine, so I went out before curtain to explain the situation and we all went out drinking instead. (It was a lovely evening.)
You’re not just missing an audience when this happens; you’re missing an essential scene partner. Without their feedback, you become self-conscious. About the length of the piece. About whether the jokes land. About each little choice you’ve made, every line inflection, every gesture. It creates a feedback loop, and unless you’re confident in the work you’ve done up to that point it’s liable to throw you, to cause your performance itself to suffer. As long as you have done your work up until that point, the trick is to lean back into it and soldier on. After all, you’re only concerned with the show itself, and the size of the house is not your fault.
Unless you’re the producer, in which case it absolutely is your fault.
That’s a little harsh, of course. There’s lots of reasons for a small crowd, and back before the Quarantimes there was a vast and oversaturated market with lots of theatrical options and plenty of ways to get lost in the shuffle. There are, of course ways to not get lost in the shuffle, ways to promote your work and connect with your potential audience. But above all, you have to give your audience something worthy of their time. The underattended shows of my past varied widely in quality, and some of them were quite good. But none of them were stories that needed to be told, that spoke to their communities with any great urgency at the moment they were staged. They might have been long time pet projects, or arbitrarily chosen classics, or plays selected just to maintain a relationship with an author. And in the final analysis, it showed.
So if you don’t want your actors to perform to an empty house, make sure the words they’re speaking have some real meaning to what’s going on in the world. And if you do perform to an empty house, make sure you don’t wallow in self-pity about it.
Just on the off chance anybody needed to hear that today.