There is something that improvisers will say after a night of performing that may just be to soothe our anxiety, but also may, in fact, be true: “You did great, it was just a weird audience.” You’ll hear this phrase when an improviser had a particularly great night, but the audience was low-energy. Some people even admit that the energy of an audience affects their performance — while immediately following up that “it shouldn’t; we should be able to give a great performance regardless of what the audience gives back to us.” But improvisers are, after all, human, and sometimes a little encouragement from the audience goes a long way.
I often feel very self-conscious walking offstage after a show where the audience won’t give you any feedback. Scratch that — I feel like a failure. Even if I’ve given a decent performance, I can’t shake that feeling… They didn’t laugh, I will think. They weren’t invested in our story. We did not succeed.
Sometimes it’s actually a legitimate reason that the audience is low-energy. A couple years back, I was performing in the second half of an hour, and a performer in the first half decided to be racially insensitive onstage. My team was backstage for the last few minutes of the set, so when we stepped onto that stage, we had no idea what was in store for us. You could’ve heard crickets — the entire audience had shut down, and rightly so. I remember after our performance, we went backstage, and our coach, who normally would give us a few minutes before joining us to give notes on the performance, was already there, waiting for us. “That was not your fault,” he said. He explained what had happened, that the audience had just gotten their feathers ruffled hard.
On the other end, sometimes you have a great audience. It’s not just the size of the audience that matters — in the above scenario, it was a full house, whereas I’ve played with that same team for an audience of two and had such a great experience, because that lone couple in the audience was vocal in their enjoyment.
The good audiences are the audiences that, simply enough, will laugh when they think something is funny — they won’t just laugh at anything, but they sure aren’t waiting to be told to laugh. It’s like the scene in FINDING NEVERLAND where J.M. Barrie plants orphans in the audience to make the rest of the crowd appreciate the play. The older, stuffy audience doesn’t understand the tone of the play; they need the young, societally unaffected children to show them what it’s all about.
It’s always a delight to be able to pinpoint a regular in the audience of the HIT just by the sound of their laugh. It is a great reminder that there are people out there who want to see you succeed, who want a good time and are ready and willing to reward you with a hearty laugh if you provide the context.
Last night at the HIT, there was a member of the audience who must have been new — or at least I just don’t recognize their voice yet. Whoever it was, they were having the time of their life. The fact that they were enjoying themselves so much, and that I could recognize that onstage during the performance, lifted my spirits so much.
Everyone needs someone like that, both on the stage and in life. Everyone needs that encouragement, to remember what it’s all about. We all walk around, unsure of our “performance” amongst acquaintances because we feel they will silently judge us. Maybe they won’t understand the punch line of your existence, and will stare back at you in stony silence. When we find those precious few who clap for us, for the way we live our lives, however simple the scene may be, it feels good. It’s not about finding that one trick that will make someone laugh, it’s about the joy you experience when they do laugh. And we begin to look to those people to tell us if we’re screwing up. They are the beacon of light in a stormy world — they will illuminate a clear path, while not being afraid to also show you the rocks.
I suppose that makes life feel more like a performance. A lot of people view it that way, sure. But for me, having someone engage with you, to feel comfortable enough to laugh when they want to laugh, or open up when they want to open up, is such a good feeling.
Maybe I should replace the word “laugh” with “connect”. In improv, laughter is just an indication that the connection has been made — making connections on stage is what connects us to our audience… and in life, it is the same.