Sunday, December 2, 2012

An Audience of One

Oh Sweet Vanity
by Ray Caesar
An Audience of One
by Barry Stewart Mann 

Back when I was an aspiring actor in New York City, fresh out of conservatory and performing in showcase productions in Off Off Broadway theatres, we had a rule -- understood if not articulated: cancel the performance  if the actors outnumber the audience.   I remember a particular production of Richard III when the cast of fifteen consistently put the policy to the test.

Whether or not we actually cancelled shows, the principle is clear:  don’t squander your talents on less-than-ample audiences.  Or, more pointedly: what if you put on a show and nobody comes?  This primal fear also exists in the storyteller; many of us have had experiences, especially in public venues with fluid spaces, where the audience is mighty small.

These were the thoughts underlying my concerns in a small rural town a few summers ago.  I was touring with stories to complement the Vacation Reading Program, and the Children’s Librarian for the Regional System had booked me into three libraries, not realizing that the third (and smallest) site was not generally open on the afternoon chosen.  Still, she put the word out, and accompanied me there, opening it herself, as she had no staff there for the afternoon.  It was a beautiful site, a new building along the tracks, modeled after the historic train station a few hundred yards off.  There were high skylights, neat shelves of books, bright posters on the walls, rows of shiny computers.  A very small, very rural library.

The presentation was set for 3 o’clock.  When I realized the unusual circumstances, I wondered what we’d do if nobody came.  As I set up my backdrop and laid out my props, the librarian talked about having lured children in from a nearby playground to a program earlier in the summer.   But the swings and slide were empty on this particular sweltering afternoon.  She mentioned a daycare center across the four-lane, but then explained that they have no van and are not allowed to walk across.

As 3:00 p.m.  approached, I thought with a mix of discomfort and relief about not having to do the program: it would be awkward, but also would let me hit the road an hour earlier for the trek home.  Then a woman and child walked in.  It was a boy of about 8 -- the upper limit of the target age range for the show, which was, with quick pace, constant interaction, and colorful visuals, geared for the 4-5 year-old crowd.  But he was somewhat interested.  At first I thought -- “Do I do the show for an audience of one?”  My old New York principles came to mind -- though, at this point, the cast no longer outnumbered the audience.  But how could I adjust the program for a single 8-year-old boy?

The program included a songs, poems, and stories about insects (to the VRP theme “Catch the Reading Bug").  For sections, I would lead the whole audience in gestural repetition and call-and-response, and during the course of the 45 minutes I needed 16 volunteers, with a variety of props and costumes to be held, worn, or manipulated.

'Dustin’ (as I’ll call him here) seemed only mildly interested, didn’t know much about storytelling, and had a fairly short attention span.  His mother sat in the other section, working on a computer.  Dustin was antsy, and didn’t come with the assumption that as audience he should remain basically quiet and passive.  I soon realized that my sense of my own role, as active presenter, needed adjustment.  In fact, with an audience of one, I could engage him more directly, and change the program in any way I wanted.  I soon understood that this was not standard storytelling, but something closer to ordinary conversation.  I could indulge his responses and questions.  I could adapt my language to his level, add some mild irony or humor, cut or shorten when I noticed his interest lagging, or challenge him to engage more deeply.  When the program called for volunteers, I gave Dustin the chance to step up, or made instant adaptations.  He put all the animals on the felt-board Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly; we tried each of the Eric Carle insect costumes on him before laying them on the floor to continue the story.  While I felt strange about the changes, it all seemed very natural to Dustin.

At the outset, I expected the experience to be diminished, watered down, and nothing like real storytelling.  Instead, I found that the one-on-one session pared the performance down to the essential element of storytelling: dialogue.  It became a teaching experience -- in both directions, as I was taking constant cues from him about his interests, his modes of language and image processing, his comfort levels, his relationship with his mother, his psychology (he alluded several times, with a bit of frustration, to a fairly accomplished cousin who had skipped a grade and was now his grade level rival), and the strengths and weaknesses of the show.  I was consciously guiding his attention, filling his vocabulary gaps, checking his comprehension, taking his creative suggestions, and more -- the types of engagement we use in classroom situations but not in large audiences.

I wonder: How rich it would be if we could treat a large audience as an aggregate of audiences of one!  If we could remember that each child (of whatever age) has her own attention span, her own questions, his own body of references, his own phantom all-star cousin lurking in the psychological wings.  If we could be sure to have a moment of connection with each audience of one, to offer through our stories something personal, something customized for each person out there. We can’t do it through actual conversation, we can’t let them each express real-time responses.  But we can strive to remain mindful of the basic fact that storytelling is a conversation, and that we must balance speaking to a full audience with speaking to individuals within that audience.

Barry Stewart Mann is an Actor, Storyteller, Writer and Arts Educator based in Atlanta.  He tells stories from many world traditions, as well as personal narratives from his travels to over 50 countries.  Barry tours theatrical storytelling programs to schools, on such curriculum-based topics as the Cherokees and Greek Mythology, and spends his summers touring libraries with thematic literature-based programs.  He was featured earlier this year at the Festival Internacional de Cuentacuentos in Santo Domingo, DR.


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Kristin Pedemonti said...

Flexibility is one of the keys to happiness. Or so I've been taught over decades of performing. :) I do my best to treat EVERY audience as an audience of one because Every person is an individual with differing needs. My programs vary every time depending on the needs of the audience present no matter how big or small the crowd. What you've shared is quite important; it is the audience that truly matters and our connection with them through story. Thank you for sharing your experience. HUG! Kristin Pedemonti

Sue said...

Thanks, Barry. I'm so happy you were able to articulate what happened. I do a lot of my storytelling in classroom settings as part of my school residency work. It is always a goal of mine to speak to each student each day -- to make eye contact, to greet them by name, to ask them a question, to acknowledge a response, to solicit a response, to give them a voice, to stand near their desk, to point out something they accomplished. Even in a classroom of 25 or 35 it can be easy to be overlooked. Relationship -- every child, every day. Your experience highlights that so well.
Well done, my friend.

Mark Goldman said...

Barry, what a wonderful story you have told us! And what a great lesson for us all. Returning to the concepts of a "conversation" and "going with the flow" between the teller and the audience is truly important. Thank you for this wonderful "story lesson."

Anonymous said...

Lovely! Treating the audience with respect, giving your best, is truly honoring the tradition of storytelling. I remember an audience of one who repaid me with rapt attention, and her heartfelt, "I'm so glad the (wide-mouthed) frog didn't get eaten." Me, too! Hugs!

Glenda said...

I really appreciate this post and find myself identifying with the circumstance. On occasion,I have also encountered audiences of one (or two)in rural areas while on tour. Once I adjust my own epectations,these tiny audiences
can be delightful. The audience of one always provides me with some of the best memories of the season. Thank you for doing such a great job exploring this subject.

Karen Chace said...


Your story brought to mind a library event a few years back. Like your show, it was for the summer reading program. The weather was inclement that night and my audience consisted of four young girls.

I had to quickly adjust as some of my stories required I bring audience members up for participation. That couldn't take place now as there would be no audience left to watch.

The show turned out wonderfully. The four young girls were fully engaged and so much fun. I have often said, "If I could place those four girls in my pocket and have them in every audience, I would be golden!"

As you so elegantly shared, sometimes the small audiences offer us amazing opportunities that would not take place in a larger group. Thank you!


Sheila Arnold said...

Thank you, Barry. I often to programs for parents at schools. Almost inevitably, the coordinator will say, "We don't have many people come." and I quickly respond, "Numbers don't matter. The ones who are supposed to be there will be there, and they are the ones I am meant to share with." Although it doesn't necessarily ease their minds, it reminds me of that basic truth - small or large - the audience deserves my best! And after the program is done, the Coordinator is always appreciative and acknowledges that was the "perfect program."

Thanks again, Barry, wonderfully done.

Mary Grace Ketner said...

Barry, thanks for this articulate view of an occurrence it seems many of us share. I've observed Sheila's example, too: that is often the producer who feels apologetic about low attendance. Still, I've never found a small audience or an audience of one to feel cheated when the presenter gives them more personal attention! Especially children, who don't even seem to notice the 49 empty chairs around them in the room!

Mary Grace Ketner said...

Thanks for considering and opening discussion on this situation, which is clearly an occurrence common to many of us. My experience is that the most embarrassed, and the only one who might have reason to feel embarrassment (and might not but still does), is the producer. The audience never minds the additional personal attention! Especially children, who seem not to notice the 49 empty chairs around them! I do invite a small audience up close and pull chairs into a huddle, if possible, and have on occasion sat on the floor with a single child audience.

Rob Vanderwildt said...

In the time I was acting our 'boss' stated that even there was an audience of one, we had to play. Sometimes ago I had a storytelling gig and... only one person had come up to listen. She didn't like the idea to be the only one who was told to, so we decided to cancel the event. I packed and when I was finished, there appeared two more people and that was okay for the first lady. So we sat down at a table, the four of us, and I had one of my mosty memorable storytelling moments I've ever had.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing Barry as a new storyteller I have wondered what I would do if I suddenly could not think of the story when in front of an audience or if there was only one person in the audience. Thanks to you sharing at least I have some experience to pull on. Delightful lesson.

Ivan McElhiney said...

My audiences is always "an audience of one". I volunteeer to tell stories to both children and adults getting chemo. If you've ever been to a cancer clinic you'll know that its always individual patients in their own room. I tell funny or intriguing stories while I try to divert their attention so that they look at and listen to me instead of paying attention to the nurse sticking them with a needle or clearing out their port. In the past two years I've spent 333 hours talking to my "audience of one". As a result I'm quite nervous when I have to tell to a group.

Barry Stewart Mann said...

Thanks, all for the comments. When in classroom situation, I too try to learn and use students names, even when I'm only visiting a few times, and might see ten different classes in a given week. And also make an effort not only to recognize or respond to the squeakiest wheels, but to the quiet ones, the group's shock absorbers, as well. And making eye contact with everyone in the room. In the midst of a concert, that often gets lost, but it can be very valuable. Our work is about those individual connections.

Carolyn Stearns said...

Great discussion thanks everyone. Barry, you captured the moment in such a concise and engaging post, thank you for leading us into this. I think the small audience is the perfect way to really get the storytelling "message" out in a powerful manner. That ONE will feel so special they are sure to share what they heard and encourage frends to join them next time a storyteller comes to town.

Linda Gorham said...

Barry, you said it well! I too found myself in that situation. I had an interactive summer reading program performance planned for kids. Only two two adults showed up (late) and they were in wheelchairs. I had to adjust everything about my program, but they were eager and interested and fun.

WorldofStories said...

Thanks for your post Barry. Great thoughts. Thanks Karen for inviting others to share their wisdom.