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
You can’t hide the fact that you have a small audience, so you might as well acknowledge it. In an improv show it can actually become fun if you do it in positive way. Don’t be afraid to break the fourth wall at the start of the show by showing some gratitude for the audience members who are there. Make them feel special. You may want to ask everyone’s name or go into the audience and shake their hands. You can say, “We usually don’t do this, but tonight we felt like we have an opportunity to get to know everyone.” You can really have a lot of fun without being sarcastic about it. This will make it even more special for the audience. Be aware of where they are sitting, too. This is crucial. If they are spread out in the theater, asked them to move together towards the front. Everyone will get a better experience that way.
- Adjust your energy
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. Small audience are a little different. It’ll be up to you to keep the energy up. Make sure you keep the show moving. Don’t let scenes go on too long — edit, edit, edit. Also, try to put out a little more energy throughout the show, so it doesn’t feel like it’s lagging. Finding the game quicker can boost the energy, too. Even if it’s a really simple game, go for it. I think the goal is to keep the freight train running on the tracks.
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.