This post was originally posted in December of 2009 during the run of THE EIGHT, a play I was performing in. I'm reposting it here, even though it was an multi-actor play, because I think it offers some nice insights for the potential solo performer. ~BDM
I performed my monologue in THE EIGHT tonight and the audience was not into it. It wasn't that they were not into my performance, particularly, but they were not really into the whole show. They were really quiet, there was lots of shuffling, occasionally I'd see the glow of someone's phone shining up into their faces while they texted (I will politely step away from addressing this last piece of deplorable behavior here, because it needs a full ranting post of its own someday).
Here's what I observed both through my own experience of being on stage as well as watching my fellow actors handle the situation.
First off, it should be established that we are doing a monologue play. What this means is, essentially, a series of characters are paraded in, one after another, each giving a 4-9 minute speech directly to the audience. It should be noted, that in this sort of performance, with its lack of mutiple actors interacting with each other behind a fourth wall, on display for the audience, as it is in traditional theatre productions, here the audience actually is the other character the performer communicates with. In a way, it is a very direct sort of performance, in that the audience is activated. They are part of the performance: participants as well as observers of the performance.
It should also be noted we are performing comedy. Comedy is the easiest form to gauge as a performer if your performance is effective or not (i.e. it is making a genuine connection). In very stark terms, you know: they laugh if it is funny and don't if it is not. This is just a barameter, though. Sometimes it really is funny even if the audience doesn't laugh, after all, the audience is a mass, and therefore follows the laws of the masses ( which in the theatre has it's own rules: crowds laugh easier if the house is darkened and the stage is illuminated, there must be 10+ people in the audience to instigate "contagious" laughter, and a slew of other ones...).
We performed these monologues last week and people laughed and laughed, so barring some weird anomolies, we can reasonably assume that both the material (the play itself) and the presentations (the performance of the the play) are effectively funny.
So, when a performer expects one reaction (laughter) and gets another (silence) several things happen:
1.) The first response of most performers is to try a bit harder. This is similar to when a person simply speaks slower and louder if they think they are not being understood, such as when giving directions or (ironically) speaking to a foreigner who doesn't know your language. In acting, it often shows up as pumping the piece with a little more energy, or increasing volume. The thought is, fundamentally, "What's going on here? This is not what I was expecting from the audience."
2.) Next, the performer starts to question themselves and their performance. Maybe they made wrong choices? Are they doing something differently today that they did the last time they performed this piece? In essence, the thought is "It must be me. It must be something I'm doing/not doing that is preventing the connection, and therefore the reaction I expect."
3.) Often, the third step is an unfortunate Fuck You to the audience. Much like a little kid lashing out in spite when they don't get their way, a performer will turn on the audience in a subtle, but apparent, way. The performer will become antagonistic when it is clear the audience is not going to give them the response the performer was expecting. The thought is "I'm working my ass off up here for you, so if you don't like it, fuck you. In fact, you aren't even worthy enough anymore for me to do my best for. Here, take this watered-down fuck-you version of my performance."
This last step is a self-defeating one. It is futile in that the audience is not going to get on the side of a performer who is openly hostile to them. At the same time, the performer is going to be hostile because the audience seemly refuses to get on his or her side.
Years of improv have taught me not to go down the road of step three. The best bet is just do your job, deliver a performance that you, the performer, can be proud of, and try again with the next audience. Audiences are like blind dates. There is always a relationship, usually brief, and sometimes it is not all that rewarding for one or both parties.
Tonight, I went through step one and then downshifted into step two. I did not resort to step three. The audience did not ge tthe most dynamic, energetic performance of my monologue that I've ever done, but they did get a clear, solid performance. And they could take from that whatever they wanted. I felt kinda Zen about it.
My fellow actors ran the gamut. Some said "fuck it" almost immediately and gave sub-par performances to their "unworthy" audience (I call this zombie-ing through or phoning it in). Some were confused and saddened when they came off stage, wondering still, what was so wrong tonight? Some thought of it as a challenge ("I will succeed where you have failed") after the performers who came off stage before them didn't hit it out of the park.
All in all, it threw into perspective that oft-talked about, but seldom experienced aspect of theatre: unexpectedness. The bottom line is: Don't take anything out on the audience. In fact, don't come in with any expectations at all. You, the performer, can not control the audience or their responses and you certainly can't demand anything from them. You can only try not to lose them...