When we were visiting Edinburgh, Seth and I saw a street performer setting up his act. He'd marked the perimeter of his space with a chain on the ground, and had left several flaming rags and and other items on the cobblestones. He turned on a boombox with some hype-up music and started walking around the perimeter of his space, holding two flaming torches, amping up the crowd. We stopped, looking forward to watching him juggle and tumble with his fiery props (while carefully minding our wallets).
A sparse crowd began to gather. The performer told us a bit about himself. Then he told us to show him some more excitement. Then he told us he was going to start his act as soon as a few more people showed up. Then he started shouting at passers-by, telling them they were the reason he couldn't get started yet, because they hadn't stopped to watch his act. Meanwhile, those of us who had stopped began to wonder if there even was an act. We left before he ever started, and when we passed the same street again on the way to catch our train out of town, we didn't even bother peeking back to see if he'd begun.
It's easy to make fun of that guy, but at the same time it's easy to become him without even realizing it. How many times have you found yourself wishing you could instruct your audience on the "correct" way to consume your art, whether it's telling them how to respond to or interpret it, or simply trying to wring a little more enthusiasm out of them?
If your audience is doing something you don’t like, in direct response to your performance or artwork, try to fight the impulse to correct them. Maybe they’re talking through a show, or skipping chapters of a book, or leaving a bad review, or completely missing the point of your artwork. Sometimes, they’re downright rude. But I’ve found there are only two reasons (that are relevant to artists) for why an audience is misbehaving:
1) You’re not giving them what they want.
2) They’re not the right audience for you.
In the first instance, while most performers have to create the energy they want to see in a room, it can be a fine line between energizing and pushy when they try to jazz up a crowd, as our Edinburgh street performer illustrates. In the book world, it can be difficult to walk the line between clarifying the vision you tried to communicate in a book, and telling your readers they’re reading it wrong. But in general, with a bit of distance, I’ve learned that the biggest reason behind unexpected or “unsatisfactory” audience behavior is that I’m not giving my audience what they want. Something needs to change, and it’s not their preferences or behavior. It’s my job to figure out why I can’t engage their attention.
But what if I try and try and try to improve, and I feel confident in my work, and I still wind up with an audience who just won’t take it the way I want them to? It could be a sign that I’m trying to reach out to the wrong people. Maybe I’m trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. I can’t blame the audience for not liking my stuff--they’re just not the right audience for me. And once again, the answer isn’t to try and change them; it’s to change my own behavior, in this instance by trying to seek out the audience that is right for me.
Whatever the cause of your audience’s annoying behavior, the fact remains that they showed up, literally or metaphorically, by consuming your art. Criticizing your audience can come across as ungrateful in the face of that support, even when your criticisms are justified. It's important never to punish, deride, or criticize someone for demonstrating support for your art. So what do you do when it really is the right moment to speak up about a change in audience behavior that you'd like to see?
Be positive, not accusatory. Don't tell people what not to do. Give them reasons to do what you want them to do. If they still aren't responding to your call, reassess to determine if the reason is one of the two listed above.
Learn the difference between universally bad behavior, and pet peeves. Is your audience exhibiting behavior that should universally be considered bad, like harrassing other audience members? Go ahead and call them out on it (but maybe try to follow the previous tip while you do). Is your audience exhibiting behavior that could be considered a pet peeve, like only giving a book five pages to decide whether it's worth reading? Adapt, and make those first five pages killer--don't waste your time trying to tell people how impatient they are, or don't try to "get back at them" by putting your best material on page six.
In fact, this blog post itself could be an example of those two tips at work. I believe that being overly critical of our audiences is a universally bad behavior, because it shows a deep disrespect and disregard for the support that our audiences show us just by showing up and engaging with a work in the first place. I also think it's worth speaking out about, because I've seen this attitude hold back far too many creators--including myself. So I tried to write a blog post about it that touched on the human feelings behind the impulse to correct, that we all share--I tried to be positive and inclusive instead of negative and accusatory. At the end of the day, I still can't be certain how you, the reader, will react--but I can at least commit myself to learning from your response, instead of telling you to withold or change it. So please, share what you think, in the comments here or on my Facebook page!
Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.