The non-audience growth
Vail, CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: “Irrelativity” is on the road as Barry Smith tours his solo shows through the U.S. and Canada this summer. This dispatch is from Toronto, Canada.
The Toronto Fringe Festival started last week ” 140 different theatrical productions from all over the world, including improv troupes, drama, musicals, experimental theater performed in a local public swimming pool (no kidding), a White Stripes parody band, poets, clowns and an 80-year-old man doing a play about circumcision ” somewhere in this mix is me, telling my little story about living in Jesus’s basement. With pictures.
Opening night in Toronto was a potentially grim affair. It was a late night opening, as I seem to be getting my share of “11:15 on a Thursday. The fest had just kicked off the day before, so it wasn’t really fully under way yet, and even though I’d gotten a bit of press mention (listed among a group of shows that you “might want to consider” seeing), I wasn’t feeling good about my prospects of, you know, having an actual audience.
As it turned out I was correct. I had an audience of 10. Four of these people were fellow performers ” friends. Two of these people were reviewers, each one from the two main papers, the ones that really counted. Shit! Oh, and there were four other people who must have stumbled in accidentally, maybe thinking that a show called “Jesus In Montana” was actually about Jesus. You know, in that Jesus-y sort of way.
Ten people, spread out nice and evenly throughout the 90-seat venue. Ahhhh, like they aren’t even there …
The freakout potential was high. I mean, these two reviews are basically what will determine my fate for the rest of my six shows in Toronto, yet there’s hardly anybody in the crowd to laugh at the funny bits.
But I didn’t freak out, because ” and I never imagined I’d be writing such a sentence in my life, but ” “Something happened in Ottawa that changed my life.”
A few weeks earlier, in Montreal, I was having lunch with Keir Cutler. He’s a Fringe Festival veteran who’s written and performed loads of shows over the years, so has had plenty of time on stage in the unpredictable Fringe environment. He told me that when your show is going well ” when the house is full and people are laughing and loving you, that’s it’s really kind of easy. The show just sorta does itself. But when things aren’t going so well ” when the audience is small or aren’t laughing or are sleeping or coughing or walking out, THAT’S when you have to work really hard for them, and that’s when you grow.
I listened closely and took it all in, because I’m up for any advice on this topic.
Then, a week later, in Ottawa, I got to see what Keir was talking about. My first three Ottawa shows were very lightly attended, so I was working hard to win the crowd over, coming up with new, bold and enthusiastic gesticulations previously unimagined. My fourth show sold out, and I noticed that my performance for that show was a little bit … better. I could actually feel how I had improved during those three shows. I mean, if you do something over and over, you can’t help but improve a little bit, right? Unless you’re working really hard to NOT improve, in which case you’ll find yourself getting better at not improving.
There is no substitute for repetition. Say it a few times. Out loud.
So, as I took the stage in the last hours of a Thursday night and looked into the 83 percent empty theater, I knew exactly what to do ” I had to give the best show I was capable of giving, as if there were people sitting in the aisles laughing at my every eyebrow twitch.
Sounds so simple, I know, but to actually be on stage and really understand it, well …t hat’s what this summer tour is all about for me.
The Toronto reviews came out the next day. Five stars from both papers! The best situation imaginable!
My next show, two days later, sold out. And though I may not have “grown” much during that show, (because there were a lot of people who were laughing and stuff) I was OK with it. And I still have five more shows to go in Toronto. And, after that, a whole summer of performances in which I get to grow in unexpected ways.
Read more about Barry’s tour adventures ” with pictures ” at http://www.barrysmith.com.