“Guh! It’s like crickets out there!” … “It’s like they’re not even paying attention!” … “Don’t they know it’s a comedy?”
I’ve heard these comments and more uttered after an actor’s exit from stage. I regretfully admit I’ve said similar things out of my frustration. So I get it! You are giving high levels of effort and energy, after draining months’ worth of blood, sweat, and tears in an attempt to help the audience laugh or cry or at least feel something! When moments—that you know are funny, endearing, etc.—come and go without any notable reaction, it’s easy to get discouraged and frustrated.
It’s at this pivotal moment that we, as true theatre professionals, need to check ourselves. We can choose to complain about the audience’s lack of “appropriate” reaction, or we can plow ahead with the same high levels of energy and enthusiasm the show deserves (however difficult that may be).
If we choose the former, consider these two consequences:
Complaining about the audience to your castmates lowers morale.
It may feel like you are bonding over the experience. That may be, but shared complaint is not a bond that builds each other up. Instead, it becomes easier to think yourselves elite in front of a “stupid” audience. Try as you might, this attitude will find its way onstage in the form of indifference. You stop trying. “Pearls before swine,” you say, but you’re still trudging around in slop.
You try harder to “save” the show.
In baseball, even at the professional level, you see individuals trying to save a losing game. They start swinging for the fences in an attempt to be the home run hero. What ends up happening, though, is that their swings become exaggerated and sloppy. They swing at pitches that they should really just leave alone. Instead of doing their role well, they are trying to contribute for everybody, and they end up failing at their own role. An actor desperate to produce a reaction from an audience will fall into the same pit. He sacrifices truthful responses for exaggerated ones. He jumps on moments that he should really let pass. He tries to be the hero, but end up striking out.
Of course, going back on stage to face the audience once more can be difficult. You may not feel like giving as much as you’re not receiving much. Well, first of all, let me remind you of what it means to be a professional: A professional does what he needs to do, even if he doesn’t feel like doing it.
Next, let me wrap up with a few truths to keep in mind when the audience seems to be draining you of motivation:
- They paid just as much as last night’s amazing audience. Pure customer service, if nothing else, demands that they receive the same value.
- It is not actually the audience’s job to give you anything. Okay, they are giving their money, time, and attention. That’s their job. Your job is to give them the best show you possibly can. We talk about the audience “feeding” us energy. In what other profession does the professional expect to be “fed” by the client? No, we are the main course. We are here to provide sustenance and food for thought to an audience who is eager to consume it. Whether they chew with their mouths open or closed is none of our concern.
- You may need to fake having fun. But we’re actors! We can do it if we need to! I understand the difficulty. We want to have real fun on stage, and we know the audience can have more fun if they “give” us something to work with. My job sees me doing something in the ballpark of one hundred improv comedy shows in a year. I know the stark contrast between a generously uproarious audience and an audience that looks like they thought this was going to be an informational vacation timeshare pitch. One is more fun than the other, no doubt. But we can’t let the audience know that we know the difference.
- It is 99% likely that they are enjoying the show anyway. There are smiles, there are nods, there are whispers in neighbors’ ears. Each audience has its own personality. There are loud, boisterous people who wear their hearts on their sleeve, and there are reserved people who don’t want to be the center of attention, and are perfectly content and happy to listen to others in the room. Just as one type of person is not better than the other, and both can enjoy themselves equally, one audience personality is not better than another, and both can enjoy the show.
So let’s quit the talk about how the audience isn’t “giving” us anything. They are giving us so much! They are giving us an audience! They are why we do what we do.