Posted: Wednesday, January 19 2022
“How’s the house?” is a common question in the theater community. Just before the show starts, actors want to know how many people are in the audience. Whether we want to admit it or not, it makes a difference.
A packed house brings energy. A sold-out theater is electric. So, when the stage manager peaks backstage 10 minutes before curtain, beaming from ear to ear, and loudly/whispers, “it’s standing room only.” Come on. Let’s go. It’s show-time! How do you not get pumped up for that?? When tons of friends and family, and most importantly, big-time industry folk, are in attendance, it seems to justify all the hard work.
The flip side is figuring out how to get pumped up when no one is in the audience. Or, to be a little less drastic, how do you get your game on when there are four people in attendance and no less than 14 eager actors on stage? In 1992, this happened to me. I obviously survived the production, so we might as well use it as a beautiful learning experience…
That summer, my crew and I graduated from Northwestern’s Theater program, and in our pursuit to continue to hone our craft (and to assure we’d all have immediate work), we started our own theater company. The production we chose was Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” A classic, courageous, beautifully dense work of art, not lacking in length or characters (no less than 14) for that matter. Even with massive edits, the show ran a solid two and half hours. And it’s written in iambic pentameter, because…well, that’s how Shakespeare rolled.
With all that in mind, on many occasions, our cast outnumbered the audience 4 to 1. Before I forget, the name of our theater was the “Garage Theater” because it was literally (and I use that word accurately here) a garage. Fourteen recent theater graduates, performing a two-and-a-half-hour version of “Twelfth Night,” in the summer of 1992, on the Northside of Chicago…in a garage. And to be clear, there weren't very many two-car garages in that town, in case you were wondering.
With the stage literally set, some questions remained. How do we show up and give our best when it's not a packed house? Regardless of attendance numbers, how do we honor the audience, the script, the task, the presentation, the job, the moment? For this particular garage production, 14 cast members, alongside our fantastic director, stage manager, lighting and sound team, reminded one another that everyone deserves our best. High or low stakes, large or small audiences, weekdays or weekends, we all bonded over the belief that everyone deserves our best.
Once we all stopped asking, “how’s the house?” we could focus on the work, the process, the craft, the performance, and most importantly, the opportunity to serve others. And as they say in the theater, the show must go on, and it did. With our egos in check, we acknowledged that someone was there to watch us, moved past our pride, gave our best every show, and it worked.
Whether it's an audience of 400 in a theater or a large company meeting, 4 friends in a garage or a weekly team huddle...don't focus on "the house." If you truly want to honor your audience, just give them everything you've got...because everyone deserves your best, including you. And scene.