Have you ever been back stage before a show and peeked out at the audience to see only a tiny crowd and your heart sank? Yes, it’s disappointing. We all want to play to packed houses all the time, but the reality for most improvisers and actors is sometimes that just doesn’t happen.
Each group and theater has its own guidelines about when to call off a show, but sometimes it’s not always so black and white. Often, if the performers are there and the lights are on, the show is going to go on, even for a handful of people.
That’s what happened last Sunday night at our Jimmy and Johnnie show. We had six audience members — not our usually crowd. I get it, it was a holiday weekend in the summer. The stage manager came back to us and said it was our call about whether or not to perform. John Hildreth and I had to decide. I hate these kind of decisions. We had an opening act, Mr. Suave, and I asked my friend Shad Kunkle, to perform with us.
Fuck it, we thought, if we have six people in the audience and four people from the opening act, we have ten people. Let’s do it, we thought. And you know what? We had a fantastic show. It was so much fun.
So how did we do it? Here are some tips on how to have a good show, even when you have a small audience:
- Commit to the experience of having fun
Yes, doing improv shows or a play it is supposed to be fun regardless of the size of the audience, but when you regularly play to a large crowd, you get a little spoiled. So, if you are feeling disappointed, feel your feelings and then see if you can make an attitude adjustment and commit to having fun with the other people who are on stage with you. Sometimes I’ve found that if I look at this as learning experience it can help me get in the right in frame of mind. And because there does not seem to be as much pressure when you are performing to small audiences, you are more relaxed and can take more risks, which can actually be rewarding.
- Acknowledge the small audience in positive ways
If you are an actor in a play, you will be most likely not be able to break the fourth wall or directly address the audience. However, typically in storefront theaters, someone comes out before the show to welcome the audience. It is important for that person to acknowledge the size of the audience and show some gratitude for them being there. Make them feel special. Bring some excitement to this part because if the audience feels a positive energy, they will emit that back to the actors. Also, the stage manager should be aware of where the audience is sitting. This is crucial. If they are all spread out in the theater, ask them to move together towards the front. Everyone will get a better experience that way.
- Adjust the rhythm of the show
When you play to large audiences on a regular basis, you can get dependent on the audience’s energy to drive the show, so you don’t have to work as hard. If you have been doing a play over and over, you may expect certain parts of the show to get the same reactions from the audience. You need to let go off that. Small audience are a little different. It’ll be up to you to keep the energy up. With a larger audience you have to time savor the moment a little more, but sometimes with a smaller audience, that drags down the show. So adjust in the moment. Picking up the pace just a little can make a big difference in the show.
Have you ever played to really small audiences? What other tips do you have to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.