How Much is Enough of an Audience?

When talk turns to low show attendance here in Vancouver, inevitably someone in the crowd is going to blame either the ‘Great Outdoors’ or our ‘Natural Beauty’ as the single greatest enemy in our fight to fill seats. This weekend’s long-awaited approximation of summer to the tune of 30+ degrees certainly put up a good argument in defence of that position. So holding a Saturday matinee at this time of year, and on a long weekend to boot, was some pretty ambitious and optimistic scheduling. Nevertheless, one local indie company did just that, and apparently the turnout wasn’t all that epic. It was, however, apparently just enough.

Now, I myself did not go to the play in question, although I have been meaning to; its reviews have been pretty solid, I love the work and its one of the first plays I ever did as a young actor. I couldn’t make this matinee because I had to work (although, truth be told, I would probably have been at the beach anyway). The night bartender that relieved me did see it however – this guy would pass up front row tickets to the Rapture for a half decent play – and he told me all about it, as he is wont to do. But what really interested me was how he launched his tale of the tape, indulge me as I share that shift change-over conversation…

As my relief tells it, he was the reason the play went on this particular afternoon. “?”, says I. “Well, they said they weren’t going to go up unless they had at least four people in the audience, and I was number four”. I pressed him as to whether the person dealing with the box office might have been kidding. “No, there were three people waiting in the foyer that couldn’t buy tickets until I’d bought mine. They looked pretty happy when I showed up. It was a little feeling of power, really.” (He’s Welsh.) So, as the play was a three-hander, we can assume that someone involved with the production had decreed that they would not take the stage until there were more people in the house than there were on the stage. My bartender was their tipping point.

I’m completely flummoxed by this. Is this an old theatre custom that I’m unaware of? Are there financial considerations here that are beyond my grasp? Surely if you advertise a product and even one person goes out of their way to take you up on your offer you have a responsibility to give them their time and their money’s worth. Are we at a stage in our evolution as entrepreneurs that we can be enforcing mandatory minimums of our clientele? Or is it unfair to the performers to have to play to a crowd numbering less than their own? What do you guys think?

Updated: Rebecca at Terroristic Optimism responds with her thoughts, and a proclamation to her own company on the subject.


  1. I did a production of Ibsen’s “Master Builder” and one performance there was ONE guy in the audience. The actor’s said, “we’re not going to do the play, are we?” I assured them that we should. Well, it was the best performance of the run. The guy was a huge Ibsen fan, and he responded vocally to the twists and turns of the plot. He stayed to thank us enthusaistically for our performance, and then he sent us our one and only fan letter! I learned a lesson that day: size (of audience) doesn’t matter!

  2. Oh, lots of companies have that “rule”.

    I’m sure I have at one time or another espoused it myself. Then it stopped mattering. The theatre isn’t giving me any rental money back, and we’re all here and ready to go anyway….

  3. This is something we have to address before the start of every show we do and it has always come down to the wishes of the actors or the discretion of the box office or producer (many times the box office and/or producer is me so I often give in to the latter’s wishes more. Heh heh.)

    If it were always up to me, which it often is, we would do the show no matter what. Unfortunately, I’ve had ensembles of actors who have felt otherwise and if there were less than five people in the crowd, they didn’t want to do the show and stated that during the rehearsal process (which blew me away because I thought that was a bit audacious). This same ensemble of which I speak almost mutinied when I made them do the show for three people (two of them being tourists from out of town and one of those tourists was a high school student).

    I know it’s a pain in the ass for some people to have to do the show to a small crowd – even one person. But, it’s so enjoyable for the person to be that one person. And I like creating that enjoyment for said person.

    I think, if the actors were in the lobby to see the looks of disappointment on their potential audience’s face when you tell them that the show has been canceled that evening due to low attendance, they would sing another tune.

    But, yes, this happens. And it happens all the time here in Chicago.

  4. Right on, you guys, that seems to befit the ol’ “show must go on” adage that we’re supposed to be so proud of. I suppose I get why actors get pissy about small crowds – we’re not in a generally ego-free industry after all – but I wonder if they were given more insight into or responsibility for the marketing of the thing they might take a bit more ownership of the box office returns.

  5. To play devil’s advocate: I’ve been that one person and hated the experience. I even offered to let them keep the ten dollars I paid for a ticket and we could all go out for a drink, instead (I had a friend in the show.)

    But no, the show apparently had to go on, so there I sat, “that guy”. And there was even a little audience participation, no less. Worst theatregoing experience of my life.

    I have known times that it is gone off well (I know Chicago’s Kris Vire, of Storefront Rebellion fame, has one of these stories), but there’s no middle ground. If it blows, it blows harder than nothing has ever blown before.

  6. Good point Paul, that could be a uniquely uncomfortable experience. The same bartender had a similar story about being the only one at a show, they said they would go on for him but he declined, much to the obvious relief of the company.

    A couple of companies here have been playing with the concept of theatre for an audience of one, which has gotten quite a bit of positive publicity. But these shows have all been done in tiny spaces, a much different experience than sitting alone surrounded by a sea of empty seats.

    That raises a good question: how does theatre change when witnessing it isn’t a shared experience?

  7. Some actors are really bothered by playing to small audiences, but I don’t feel the same way. In a few instances, I was in a show where the audience was only 2 or 3, and the house manager conferred with the actors, and then simply approached the couple of audience members and asked them if they would like us to perform the show. In one instance, the audience members said yes please, they were from out of town, or whatever, and we went on. But then in another instance, the audience members admitted they felt weird and would rather come back on a different day. I think the most important thing is to make the audience feel comfortable and appreciated. The actors are signed on to do the show – by decision time, they’re already there in their costumes ready to go – so why not embrace the opportunity? An evening off can be appealing, especially when you’re working long hours for little to no money… but hey, you’re working long hours for little to no money in the first place because you just wanted to work, remember?

  8. Now that’s the best idea I’ve heard yet: ask the audience what they want! How many other ways can we incorporate this kind of thinking into our production philosophy?

    Thanks Laura, great stuff.

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