Small Audiences and the Art of Surrender

Have you ever had a dispiritingly small audience well into a run of your show?

Even though it had already toured elsewhere and been very well received in many locales, and the previous week’s audience members were praising it to the skies on social media?

Yeah, I’ve been there.

I’ve written about the importance and even magic of surrendering to what is when attempting to:

There’s another instance when surrender is equally vital for you to practice as a performer and producer. Just as in other circumstances, it can be paradoxically effective:

Surrendering to your sadness, disappointment, and heartbreak over having a tiny audience…could catalyze one of the most inspired performances of your show.

For me, it happened toward the end of a run of Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey at a festival.

I was waiting in the wings at “Places” and could hear that there were maybe 10 people in the seats.

There had been many more audience members at the previous performance a week earlier, so I had foolishly assumed there would be no more small houses during that festival.

This was my second run in Los Angeles (USA), where I had premiered the show in 2013. Back then the audiences had grown steadily, with rare fluctuations.

Now it was four years later, and 95% of my peeps had seen the show already…in 2013. The remaining 5% had come earlier during this 2017 run.

Total strangers and more recent acquaintances had also attended, which was wonderful, but audiences had not grown steadily, to my dismay. The numbers were always up and down.

I saw that I would have to promote the show and beg and bother people to come see it to the very end.

I was exhausted at that point, and frankly devastated.

So in that moment in the wing, I followed the sages’ advice and just let myself feel my profound disappointment and sadness. And I wept.

That’s not something I normally do right before a performance.

But I did it then. I cried as I waited for David Bowie to sing “Space Oddity,” which is the audio cue that plays as the house lights go down.

What do you know: the sages’ counsel turned out to be good! Any strong emotion will peak for 90 seconds, like the longest childbirth contraction, because that’s what our bodies and psyches can handle and no more.

Of course, the pain—physical and/or emotional—doesn’t magically end, but the times when it spikes at its absolute worst last for 90 seconds.

Thus, on that night backstage, my most intense, heartbroken weeping only lasted for 90 seconds.

Naturally, the sorrow didn’t disappear and the crying didn’t end abruptly, but I was amazed at how the release helped them to dissipate. Suddenly I felt more space inside my chest, and the tightness around my head relaxed.

I was sad but not tense, accepting the disappointment almost as if it were an old friend who was grieving and I was grieving with them.

The next part is probably predictable: I breathed more fully and easily, felt glad to be in the moment, and whispered my thanks to the 10 or so marvelous people out there who were joining me that night.

By the time Bowie began counting down, I was ready to give that small audience everything I had.

So I went out and did my job.

The audience was fantastic, of course, because I gave them a damn good show.

I did have larger audiences after that but the numbers still fluctuated tremendously for those last few performances.

It was what it was, and I always quietly thanked people for being there as I stood at “Places.”

The show renewed its tour in 2018 and 2019. Audiences were larger everywhere.

Now when I’m disappointed or stressed backstage before a performance of my show, there are steps I take, which I humbly recommend to you here:

  1. Accept reality. The audience is that small, or the booth op is that unskilled, or the liaison is that unhelpful, or the costume is that tight because you’ve been working out less, etc.
  2. Let any emotional labor pains flow. Allow the worst 90 seconds to move and even blow through your body. Notice how the intensity peaks and then ebbs when you don’t fight it.
  3. Give thanks. You get to perform your show for an audience that’s sitting out there just for you and your story! What a life.

I hope this is helpful. If you have more tips on how to deal with the discouragement of small audience numbers, please share them.

Also, please know that you’re in good company. I went to a revival of one of the most lauded solo shows in the US a few months ago. It was not only not sold out—they were selling heavily discounted tickets to fill seats.

The show was magnificent.

BONUS: Martha Beck’s compassionate and funny essay on the 90-second intervals of pain that allow us to feel better in the long run.

Experiencing Pain Is the Only Way to Achieve Happiness by Martha Beck

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