There was a time when my opinion was very strong that there is no such thing as a bad audience. Part of my thinking was that, if we blame the audience for weak response, we are letting ourselves off the hook. I liked to think that a performer could develop such skill and expertise that he would never get a poor reaction. This opinion was also influenced by circumstances wherein I heard performers, as they walked off the stage, say, “It was a bad audience,” when I was thinking, You did a weak show. It seemed to me that some were using the audience as an excuse and failing to see their own need for improvement.
After the past five years of performing in theater settings, my opinion has changed. When doing the identical show night after night, in the same place with nothing changing but audiences, it has been clear that audiences do have a character of their own.
Most nights our show receives loud and enthusiastic applause. There are times when everything we do, and every pose we make, evokes a cheer. Then, on other nights, applause is subdued.
Are we doing anything different on nights when the audience is quiet? No.
The show is the same as was seen by the noisy crowd. The matter of receiving standing ovations is, at times, confounding. Many nights people stand and applaud during our final bows. Some nights people leap to their feet at the moment the bows begin.
Then there are other nights when the audience just sits there. Not only is there no standing ovation, they do not even seem to realize that such a thing would be a possibility.
Does no standing ovation mean the show that evening is of inferior quality? No. It is the exact show audiences saw on previous nights and responded with a prolonged ovation while on their feet. They only thing different is the audience themselves.
We video every performance and study our shows night after night. It is obvious that the same show can get varied response. Some nights people laugh a lot, other nights they do not laugh much. Some nights the building seems to “rock” with excitement and enthusiasm. Other nights it is as if the crowd thinks it is a library show rather than a theatrical experience.
What can we conclude about this?
#1. Lack of loud and overt response does not mean the audience does not like the show.
Many times, when a show is over, people from the same audience that was not expressive come to us and say, “Wow, I loved the show. It was the best magic show I ever saw!”
I confess that at times I have thought, If you liked it that much, why didn’t you let us know. Over time I have come to realize that people have different personalities and this leads them to show appreciation in different ways. Actually, I have caught myself, while watching other magicians perform, forgetting to applaud. I feel bad about it. It would be unfortunate if the performer saw me and thought I did not like the show. It is my nature to enjoy sitting and observing. I am not the kind who jumps up and down with excitement. At the same time I am immensely enjoying a show, I may be parked in my seat in a contemplative manner.
I have come to realize that I need to make an extra effort to clap loudly while watching peers in action. I sincerely do want to encourage them. I know what is like to have an audience of quiet people and I do not want my fellow performers to have to experience the same. I work to resist my tendency to relax and analyze what I see on stage, when the performer would be helped by more audible and visible affirmation. I make an effort to applaud, cheer, and typically try to lead a standing ovation.
My own reactions remind me that the same people who think it is a great show may not give a great response. Volume of applause is not necessarily an accurate gauge of appreciation for a performance.
#2. The performer’s motivation must not be based on audience reactions.
We need to believe in what we do and have confidence about what we do. If we know, within ourselves, that it is a great show, that is what we must convey. We must not allow a quiet audience to lead us to a compromised presentation.
Some performers do allow a quiet audience to reduce the quality of their own work. Since the crowd does not seem to be enthusiastic, the performer does not feel inspired to give his best. This is a mistake on several levels.
First of all, it cheats the audience. The fact that they are not a noisy group does not mean they do not merit a great show. They have the same ability to enjoy the performance as do others. The fact that they are not ‘wild and crazy’ does not mean they are not having fun. Their appreciation can be strong even though not strongly expressed. A performer must not take the risk of wrongly judging people, and then giving them less than they deserve.
The second way it is a mistake is it can hurt the performer. One never knows who is in the audience at a particular time and how that one person can impact a career.
This past summer we had a night when attendance was low and the audience was fairly quiet. Nevertheless, we gave them our best and did so with an upbeat attitude.
After the show I learned that a certain man, who I had noticed sitting in the audience, was an agent for a major booking company. I had noticed him because he was sitting by himself off to the side, and, although smiling, seemed bored by the show.
It turned out he was not bored at all. Instead, he was the analytical type. He was studying everything we did and he loved what he saw. He returned to his agency and recommended us. The end result is a contract that will bring us tremendous financial reward and, during winter months, put us on stages around the country. I am very grateful that, on that night, we did not take the attitude of it is a bad audience, we do not need to try very hard.
#3. Trends and averages are important.
Even though the volume of audience response is not necessarily a gauge of their appreciation, it is at least a clue. More than that, it is usually a good indicator.
If every audience is quiet, a performer should question what he is doing. If there is never a standing ovation, there may be something about a show that needs to be changed or improved. If a joke never gets a laugh, it probably is not funny.
To some degree it may be wise to say to ourselves, “There is no such thing as a bad audience” in order to keep ourselves challenged about ever getting better. We do need to take responsibility for becoming the best we can be.
The balance in this is to not let weak audiences discourage us, but to also never allow them to be an excuse. An occasional group that only sits and smiles is not a problem. Especially if the rest of time people are clapping and cheering. If people never clap and cheer, then there is a problem.
Abraham Lincoln is known for having said, “You can please all of the people some of the time, you can please some of the people all of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.” As performers we should hope to please all of the people much of the time, and be grateful we can please many people most of time. We must accept the fact that there will be times when an audience is not as much fun as usual and even hard to please. When in front of such an audience, we must stay true to who we are and focus on doing the best we can do.
There is such a thing as a bad audience. There is never a time for us to put on a bad show.