When I was 21, I performed for the smallest audience I have ever had. In a theatre with 150 seats I had two paying customers.
I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. I had a good poster, a catchy title and some okay reviews. In the actors union if the number of cast members out numbers the audience members, you can cancel the show and nobody gets in trouble. They had beat me by one. Defeated, I walked out and asked if they would like a show or if they would like their money and an extra hour of their free time. They excitedly said that they had been looking forward to the show for weeks, but that if I didn’t want to do it, they could see it another time. Their enthusiasm surprised me and gave me a boost of confidence. They came for a show and so a show they shall have.
If I am being honest, I think per capita they were the best audience I have ever had. They laughed hard at jokes and clapped loudly at the end. It felt safe and silly, like being a kid and doing a dance in the living room for your aunts.
Last year I was on the other side of the country on tour. I walked through the stage door and dropped my bags off in the dressing room. I heard my name over the loud speaker and made my way to the stage for a sound check. As I walked onto the stage I looked out at the empty theatre, hundreds upon hundreds of seats and in just a few hours every one of them would be full. Outside the theatre there was a line up of people who had been waiting for hours to get tickets. I couldn’t figure out what I had done right. I had a good poster, a catchy title, and some okay reviews … but I’d had that before and gotten nothing.
That night, as I got ready, I found myself getting nervous. I couldn’t get settled and comfortable. I think the size of the audience and the expectation was shaking my confidence, but at five minutes to show time, there’s no turning back. It’s like hitting black ice. You can’t control what’s gonna happen next, you just close your eyes and pray!
Standing at the side of the stage, the lights dimmed and I heard them call my name. Walking on stage is a strange moment, the sound of that many people all facing the same way and applauding can be very loud, and no matter where you are the lights are blindingly bright. As I began my show I was rocky and uneasy, and then I saw them. Sitting in the third row of the theatre, beaming away was the same couple from so many years ago. What I didn’t know at that moment was a year before, they had moved and when they saw my name in the paper they were the first to buy tickets. All of a sudden the rest of it didn’t matter, not the venue, not the people. It was just the three of us. We were back in that small theatre in my home town and the show was just for them. People often ask how I’m able to get people out to my shows and honestly I have no idea. I have had shows where people waited for hours in the rain for tickets and shows where I couldn’t pay a person to come see me. What I realized on stage that night on tour was that it doesn’t really matter. I love what I do. I always have. And I think if you love what you do, then it doesn’t matter how many bums in seats you have, you are already a success.