Last night’s show: 34 patrons. A solidly boisterous show, with plenty of VIPS in the audience. Tonight’s show: 8 pre-sales, according to the midnight Vendini sales report.
I can tell when there are a lot of actors in the audience. Because they all sit in the back of the house. Part of it is to get some perspective on the show and to see how the rest of the audience is reacting. In one way, it is making sure they are not made to work. In another, they are working. Seeing where things are functioning properly, where things are off by micro-seconds, and taking in what could be used later on.
I get it. I’m an actor. 7 out of 10 times, I’ll sit in the back. Also, there was a point when I would sit on the front row because I like seeing things close up. But because I would watch with an open face, I would invariably get called up to be involved in the audience participation bit. Usually those are set up to use non-performers because they are more likely to do things without questioning what is happening and the performer essentially walks them through what they are doing. Their gags or bits often depend on the person not being used to being on stage and therefore not knowing how to react to things.
Whenever I was the one called up, I would ruin their bits by not being a novice. Not on purpose. I’d try to not see where it was going before we got there but I’d always mess it up for them. I did a summer festival in Canada years ago and planned to cram in 10 shows in one day. This meant starting at 10 and going until 2am. I went wearing shorts because it was the summer and I wanted to be comfortable for this long haul. Mid-afternoon, I was called up by the solo show performer, who was a former producer for “Kids in the Hall.” He took me for a yokel because I was wearing shorts.
The bit was made around having the audience member learn how to be more successful in stressful situations at work. I ruined it by being able to respond with an answer that sounded scripted to every question he had. I was just playing along but I could tell I messed him up.
At the end he asked what I did and I replied, “Currently, I’m performing a show at this festival in this very theater.”
“OK. Thanks. (beat) I can’t believe you wore shorts here.”
I thought, “Dude, we’re doing shows in the converted balcony of an old movie theater where the ground level is a kids’ fun palace called Squiggles and Giggles.”
So I get not wanting to sit up front but having a back-heavy audience (in terms of where they sat, not the part of their bodies on which they sat) kind of made the energy of the audience list in a weird way and required a bit of an adjustment. This was the first night where the smaller stage right/house left section wasn’t loaded. Tip of the hat to the mighty James Comtois for holding that area down. I’m not sure preciously when we shifted the audience but it was pretty early on. Somewhere before we first talk about the ditto machine the Dentons used at their ceramics store, which as I think about it, is an important element in the evolution and growth of indie theater. Using that ditto machine precipitated their publishing plays or even making the website.
Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer for Iron Maiden, says part of job of the performer is to shrink the audience no matter what size. Now, they’ve played a show for up to 250,000 people in Brazil so our job is not that difficult. But you want to have the feeling you are talking to the people quite intimately at times. By the way, Iron Maiden is playing in Brooklyn tonight but I will be at my show. It’s all about the sacrifices, people.
One of the things I like about playing the Kraine is how it is not that hard to feel like the audience is very close and that 30 people can feel like a big crowd. People call it a black box because it is painted black but it really is a small proscenium stage and the angle of the audience seating means you can talk to a good chunk of the audience by looking straight out. Audiences form a single personality quickly there. Last night’s audience was well-behaved and playful. I could tell early on they were house broken and I wanted to take them home but we really don’t have a big enough apartment to start adopting audiences. And I can’t imagine having to get up in the middle of the night in winter to walk the audience.
I guess we’ve reached a point in the run where people have heard what happens during the show. In the mid-point, we put in a water break for me. I’ve really needed it the last 2 nights. Wow has the air been dry. My larynx starts getting grouchy. “What are you doing to me, Harcum?” During the break, we gently interact with the audience. I mean as gently as you can get. I ask if anyone in the audience has ever been reviewed by nytheatre.com.Then I ask what the show was, where it was done, and what year. Then I asked who reviewed it. Somewhere in the middle of the run, people started saying, “Martin did.” So I’d reply, “Oh, you mean I did.” “Yes, you did.” And that always got a small laugh.
Last night, people responded, “You did.” Well, there goes that bit. But I’d prefer to play for a sophisticated audience because I’ve grown into what I’d like to consider a non-classist performance snob. My shows are easier when playing for people who have the ability and actually enjoy inferring the meaning of things that are implied. Have of my humor comes from that. Letting people piece things together. When they can’t or won’t, I feel like I’ve failed.
This part of the show isn’t totally a smoke break for me. I’m playing Martin Denton after all and Martin would know all of the shows mentioned, where they were done, and give some interesting tidbits about them. The trick is that I moved to NYC in 2002 and didn’t really get into the scene until a couple years later. So most of the examples that are brought up are outside my experience and I’m scrambling to come up with something without looking like that is what is happening. I’m also just trying to chug water but not too quickly or the big monologue that follows is just a battle to not belch. Those who will be coming to the last 2 shows now are armed with some insider knowledge and can watch out for all of that.
What I like about this section of the show is that it shows how many people have been touched by the work Martin did. It was considerable.
This work-study vacation called a show will come to a close tomorrow. I will only run the show 4 more times and then it will go away. 2 for me and 2 for the audience. Last night I ran lines to myself before the show in Lenwich in the West Village. Frederick Weller, or a very serious Frederick Weller-type, was working on lines on a note cards. He also had a wooden clock, probably 10” x 14”, that looked like it belonged on a dresser or a desk on the table in front of him. Whatever works for you, Mr. Weller or Weller-type. I started wearing a watch so I knew what time it is while riding a bike, without having to dig out my phone. But a full clock? I guess that’s why he’s more successful than me.
Then, like most shows, it will just become a memory. I started getting hungry for a transfer early on due to some of the reactions but the show would have to be morphed for a more general audience. Less love letter and more lampoon maybe. The nail in the coffin was the NYT review. It is a total honor to get reviewed by them. It means you mean something of some note because they cover a small wedge of the indie pie. But we got maybe one pull quote and the rest is unusable. It isn’t bad and I’m not complaining. Just assessing. In fact, many co-workers told me how great the show sounded from the review. But it didn’t drive people to the show or give the show legs and that’s just how the cookie crumbles. It was much nicer than my first NYT review from them 6 years ago and they are far from some very mean reviews I’ve read over the years. (Feel free to have a schadenfreude read about me now, if you are so inclined. But it’s a nice day and you probably have better things to do.) You can’t make shows based on how you think certain reviewers would review it. Then again, I’m not Scott Rudin so what do I know.
Steve Martin once said, “You never forget the bad reviews.” I try to learn from them to get better or to compartmentalize them so I can carry on. Like with actors who have been mean to or jealous of me I think, “We’ll see who is still doing this in 10 years.” No review is worse than a cast mate making fun of you or insulting you in a mean way behind your back to other cast mates. If you don’t accidentally overhear it, it often gets back to you because actors often verbalize things. Occupational hazard.
Part of why I started doing solo shows is getting away from that. The problem is that I just start complaining about myself.
Early on, I started feeling lots of pressure in different ways. People know Martin so how will I play him to their satisfaction. Martin will want the story told in an accurate way. People will want certain things touched on or ignored. Someone who was more part of this history could do a better job. Someone who is just better as a performer or playwright could do a better job.
Finally, I had to focus on doing this the best I could for myself. I’m still fighting for this last 5 to 10% in my own estimation.