Mayday!

The more I perform and direct, the more I become aware of the relationship of the audience to a performer’s psyche.  Big, raucous audience: bold performer.  Small, quiet audience: self-doubting performer.

I’ve performed before small crowds.  Once, I even performed on an 8’x10′ stage inside a car dealership with microphones that were only turned on half the time.  When you’re in those strange situations, your mind wanders.  You focus on the audience.  You focus on the venue.  You focus on how awkward you feel.  And you hardly ever focus on your fellow performers except to say, “What the hell is he doing?”

Ask a performer when he/she had the most fun and they may have a hard time describing their mindset.  My best shows come when I’m not thinking.  I’m reacting.  I’m feeling.  I speak before I think.  I roll with the punches.  I’m in a liquid state.

A recent “Time” article explains creativity in relation to sleep.

Imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused.  The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.  Sleepy people’s “more diffuse attentional focus” leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network.  This widening leads to an increase in creative problem solving.”

So should we forego sleep 24 hours before a big show?  Not necessarily.  (Although KC Redheart still manages to stay wildly creative in their annual 30-hour improv marathon.)

But when I think of my best shows, there’s usually a dreamlike state.  I’m not forcing anything.  I’m simply being.  Openings appear and I walk through them.

In my worst shows, I slam my proverbial fists against a wall, trying to break through.  And I notice a lot of performers getting this way when an audience fails to react.  As I’ve mentioned before, an audience’s reaction is a byproduct of this artform.  It’s not the goal.

I’ve watched many performers panic.  But only once have I watched one actively settle down a show.  I was performing a wild midnight show with a group that included Sarah Fineout.  As the pace accelerated and the show began to fall off the tracks, Sarah pulled out two chairs and sat down patiently.  Another performer joined her.  Sarah began a scene with emotion.  Magically, the show solidified.  It was amazing.

I often think back to that moment.  The rest of us were trying to catch a bird by flailing our arms.  Sarah remained still and pulled out some metaphorical birdseed.  Perhaps less interesting to watch (initially), but ultimately more rewarding.  Sarah’s one of the rare performers in Chicago who almost never goes for the easy joke.  She invests.  She waits.  And the patience pays dividends.

The next time you find yourself trying too hard or facing a stone-faced audience, don’t start screaming or jump around the stage.  Take a deep breath and give the audience a reason to care.  Create a character for them to root for.  Slow down.  You can always run again once they’re on your side.

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