3 Ways to Have a Good Show, Even If You Have a Small Audience

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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The Fastest Ways to Connect with the Audience

In most improv classes, you learn how to connect with your partner – how to mirror their energy, make your partner look good, build off the last thing that was said, all the stuff we like to say to you about good scene work. But what they don’t usually teach you is how to connect with the audience.

And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than watching improvisers up on stage who are doing lots of jokey improv and who aren’t connected to the audience at all. It’s painful, empty and annoying, almost like you’re watching people who have an inside joke that you’re not part of. It may even be funny, but you leave with that feeling that something was missing.

What makes improvisation so exciting is that is a shared experience between the players and the audience. That’s why a recorded version of an improv show will never be as good as actually being there.

Unfortunately, a lot of improvisers either choose to ignore the audience, pretending they’re not there, or worse, they treat the audience like an adversary, making it us against them.

Instead, we need to treat the audience like the third person in the scene. This doesn’t mean we need to play or pander to them – we don’t. If we learn to connect with them more, this problem will take care of itself.

Here are my top three tips for the fastest ways to connect with the audience:

1. Be Honest — Nothing will connect you faster to audience then revealing some truth about yourself or being vulnerable. We have lots of opportunities to be honest and vulnerable in improv – whether it’s in a scene as a character or in a monologue in a Harold or Armando – and every time we reveal a truth from our lives, the audience gets more on your side.

For example, let’s say you’re playing a character, and in real life, the last time you went on a date you farted while you were having sex and you felt embarrassed about it. So take that shame you felt and put it into an initiation at the top of a scene. You could say something like “Oh my god, I can’t believe you just did that!” or “The reason I didn’t call you back is that I farted when we had sex,” and see where that takes you.

Being honest won’t always generate a laugh. Sometime they will be awed, sometime they will be silent, and sometimes they’ll gasp, but they will always be connected to you because you are doing something they are terrified of doing.

In a recent episode of Improv Nerd, my guest, Dan Bakkedahl was brutally honest about quitting Second City, leaving the Daily Show and his insecurities. My favorite movement was when we both admitted we were afraid of Charna Halpern. In life, being that vulnerable may look like a weakness, but on stage it’s a strength.

2. Reveal Emotions — As an actor and an improviser, expressing emotions will connect you to the audience. Whether you’re expressing joy, sadness, fear or anger, using strong emotions helps connect you to the audience, because, again, you’re doing something they are terrified of doing in real life.

In the interview part of Improv Nerd with Dan Bakkedahl, he expressed both tears of gratitude and tears of sadness, as well a range of other emotions. When we did our scene, where we played two hair dressers, he again showed a range of emotions for that character. By expressing these emotions, rather than lightly staying on the surface, the audience was hooked.

Too many improvisers don’t allow themselves to get really mad or really sad in a scene. They stop their emotions half way, covering them up by making a joke. Instead, the more real your reactions, the more the audience will identify with you.

3. Use Humor – Humor can break down barriers both on stage and off and laughter naturally connects people. That’s why they’re willing to pay to come to your show in the first place. The problem is improvisers rely way too much on this and since comedy is subjective, what you think is funny might not be funny to other people. If you put all your eggs in the humor basket, your shows maybe me funny, but you are short-changing yourselves and your audience. If there is no truth in what you are doing up there, and your characters aren’t emotionally invested in their situations, your audience will walk away thinking they were missing something — and they would be right.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.