New York audiences are tough. I remember the first time that I came out on stage (at Here) for an audience that was in an ungenerous mood: they (figuratively) had their arms folded across their chests, and I could hear them thinking “OK, you’d better do something fantastic in the next minute and a half or,” (figuratively looking at their watches) “I’m out of here.” That’s a scary thing to face when you’re working without a script. I’ve also performed improvs in front of audiences who clearly hated what I was doing. I knew that if I tried to work off of the audience’s energy in a situation like that, I’d be in a lot of trouble. But that left me uncertain as to how exactly to think of my relationship to the audience.

On the other hand, I’ve also performed improvs for audiences that seemed to worship my every movement and laughed at or appreciated everything that came out of my mouth. The times that I tried to work off of the audience’s energy in cases like this, it had an equally ruinous effect of the piece. I craved the audience’s approval and laughter so much that I began to pull out all my old gems and chestnuts, my schtick, and I was continually rewarded for doing so. But the piece itself became shallow and almost incoherent, because I had left behind the inner emotional logic of what I was doing. Afterwards, I learned from friends in the audience that despite all of the laughter and responsiveness, they were left with a feeling that the piece “didn’t add up” and “really didn’t work.”

Experiences such as these drove me to the conclusion that, despite the fact that comic performers often claim that they need to work off the energy which they feel coming from the audience, that this was an extremely unwise way in which to approach performing improvisation, regardless of whether the audience was friendly or hostile or simply neutral. I began to search for another way to conceptualize what I was doing.

What I came up with is this: (like most of the entries in this journal, I use this idea to perform the abstract, nonnarrative improvs which my group specializes in, but the same concept can be applied to comedy improv.) The audience relates to the performance in a way which is similar to how they might admire a landscape. If I’m an actor playing a tree in the landscape, then the more I connect to the tree’s energy, and fill myself with “treeness,” the more the audience will be able to see, feel and appreciate that part of the landscape. If I’m playing the river, I need to fill myself as much as possible with the “river energy” in order for the audience to see the picture clearly.

In other words, this is what my relationship to the audience is not:

I am not trying to “perform” the piece for them
I am
not trying to “explain” or “describe” what it going on in my imagination to them
I am
not trying to “show” them what is going on in the piece
I am
not trying to “act out” the piece

This is what my relationship to the audience is:

I am trying to feel, with every cell in my body, every moment of the piece. The more I feel the piece as a physical sensation in my body, the more the energy of the piece will be clearly embodied by me, and therefore the clearer the piece will be to the audience. The more fully I feel the piece physically with my voice (and the words I’m saying) the more the audience will be able to hear the sound of the piece.

What’s more, in my mind, I don’t have this relationship to the ACTUAL audience which is sitting in front of me in the theater, but to a kind of idealized audience which I call the Virtual Audience. (Grotowski called it the “partner in security,” I believe.) This is an imaginary person or persons who are just as fascinated as I am by the amazing, mysterious worlds which take shape through the magic of improv. I imagine that this person, like myself, is watching, fascinated, moment by moment, as the piece reveals itself. The more clearly I connect (physically) to the energy of the piece, the more this person and I will both be able to enjoy the act of discovery.

I came to really understand performing for this ‘virtual audience’ when I began to have more experiences acting for camera. It’s also the same thing that one does in a rehearsal; imagining an ideal audience. Now, when performing in a theater, I use my relationship to this same imagined audience more than to the real audience.

Note that my primary motivation for performing the piece becomes my own curiosity and delight at discovering what the piece turns into, not trying to please the audience or “show” them anything. If the entire audience walked out in the middle, I would be able to continue, purely for my own pleasure. (It actually came close to happening that way, one late night at the Fringe Festival.) The quality of my performance is no longer dependent on having the “right” energy coming from a “good” audience.

I have used this approach now for years, in many different kinds of performing situations, and found that it is always helpful. It allows the piece to be as strong as possible, regardless of the kind of audience I have, and it also goes a long way towards eliminating performance anxiety.