Photo credit: Ivan Phillips
Your audience is always watching even if you can’t see them.
Years ago, I was hanging out at one of those sweaty summer suburban festivals where the food consists of elephant ears and the carnival rides look like they’re held together with rust. Amid the squirt gun games and cotton candy haze, I noticed a wiry woman on a small stage singing remarkable renditions of Joan Jett songs. I walked over to the stage and realized that lo and behold, here was Joan Jett in the flesh, writhing, strutting, and blasting through her energetic song catalog. She had an audience of maybe a dozen people standing in a dark corner of the festival, but she performed as if she were commanding an arena packed with thousands.
She looked like she was having fun. I marveled at her obvious joy and wondered how she conjured up such passion when she was performing for a small cluster of people she probably could not even see very well in a poorly lit corner of the festival.
A few weeks ago, I found out for myself.
As I have discussed on my blog, during summer weekends, I perform at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor living theater in Wisconsin that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. The character I portray, a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright, hosts an improv show with a charming and lovable guild master named Thomas Halfcake, portrayed by Benjamin Cormalleth. During our show, known as the Court of Common Pleas, we invite audience members onstage to be charged and tried for comical crimes such as kicking a fetid turnip or smiling without a license. We conduct a mock trail that always ends with our condemning the audience volunteer to perform a silly action onstage, such as howling at the sky as punishment for their “crimes.” The show relies entirely on our ability to create a bond quickly with an audience and strengthen that bond over the course of 30 minutes.
Ben and I have worked together as cast mates for three years now, and we both love the experience of cavorting in the dusty streets of Bristol, making people happy from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Do you remember what it felt like when you were a kid and summer days meant playing outdoors from morning until nightfall? For us, being part of the cast evokes that sense of fun. Whether we are on the streets or onstage, we are energized by the spontaneity of improv.
Normally we do our show at noon on an intimate stage known as the Lord Mayor’s Forum. We can easily project our voices and attract attention at this centrally located spot. But on one recent Sunday, our show was switched to a different stage located at a busy crossroads. When noon rolled around, we took to the stage and sized up the audience — which consisted of exactly one cast member who had appeared to catch our act. Otherwise, we had zero patrons filling the benches. Maybe the layout of the stage was not inviting. Maybe the location was not ideal. But it was showtime, and we were on our own.
I glanced over at Ben. He looked as happy as he always does. Without saying a word, he flashed me a smile that said, “Let’s have fun.”
So we had fun. We dug into our characters to swap jokes about being a nefarious barrister and a charming baker who form a most curious pair. We performed improv bits. We dialed up our make-believe Elizabethan-era accents and projected our voices even louder than usual. We laughed like kids on vacation without a care in the world. It really didn’t matter how many people were in the audience or whether they were paying attention. We were enjoying the moment.
At first, no one seemed to notice, or at least it looked that way to me. The Faire patrons kept moving along the lane. But they were watching, even if we didn’t know it. Soon, a family sat down in the front row, curious to find out why these two guys onstage dressed in robes, stockings, and hats were cutting up so loudly. Then the audience began to grow as a few more families and couples decided to check us out. Then more people wanted to find out what the other people were watching.
We quickly had an enthusiastic crowd. Audience members shot their hands into the air when we asked for volunteers. A woman who looked to be in her 70s cracked jokes with us and shouted “God save the queen” with Ben. Two children joined us onstage to be tried for the crime of being happy brothers and sisters. They had so much fun that their parents had to coax them to leave the stage when it was time to call a new volunteer. By the time the show was over, the audience was in a groove with us. We had drawn them into our orbit.
As our 30 minutes came to an end, Ben and I floated off the stage. We both knew something magical had happened — one of those special moments that we would carry with us throughout the summer.
What if Ben and I had phoned in our performance just because we didn’t think we had an audience? We would have let down the patrons who were paying attention even as they walked by the stage without seeming to give us a second thought. We would most certainly have never filled a seat.
And we would have let ourselves down. But instead, we gave ourselves over to the natural joy of savoring a summer moment at Bristol, an experience we love.
It doesn’t matter how many people attend your show, watch your speech, listen to your podcast, or read your blog. Someone out there is paying attention. You don’t always see them. But you owe them your best effort. And you owe it to yourself to love what you do.
Here are other posts I have written about my experiences acting at the Bristol Renaissance Faire:
“Own the Stage,” September 3, 2015.
“Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.
“Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.
“How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014.