Photo Credit D Sharon Pruitt
Back when I was an aspiring actor in New York City, fresh out of conservatory and performing in showcase productions in out-of-the-way, off-off-off-off-Broadway theaters, we had a rule — understood if not clearly spoken: call off the performance if the actors outnumber the audience. (Unless of course there happened to be a casting agent in the house.) I remember a particular production of Richard III (yes, think Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl?) when the cast of fifteen put the policy to the test on numerous occasions.
Whether or not we cancelled shows (I don’t think the producer was in on the compact), 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 Southern Georgia Town a few summers ago. I was touring with two storytelling shows 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 and the main highway, modeled after the historic train station a few hundred yards in the distance. There were high skylight windows, neat shelves of books, bright posters on the walls, rows of shiny computers.
The presentation was set for 3. When I realized that these were not ordinary library hours, I wondered what we would do if nobody showed. As I set my backdrop and laid out my props for the program, 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 said there is a day care center across the four-lane, but they have no van and are not allowed to walk the kids across.
As 3 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 long drive home.
Then a woman and child walked in. It was a boy of about 8 — the upper limit of the typical age range for the show, which was, with quick pace, plenty of participation, and colorful visuals, targeted at 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 lon ger outnumbered the audience. But how could I adjust the program for a single 8-year-old boy?
The program included a series of 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 asked for the participation of 16 volunteers. There were a variety of props and costumes to be held, worn, or manipulated.
“Dustin’, seemed to show only lukewarm interest, didn’t know much about storytelling, and appeared to have a fairly short attention span. His mother sat in the far part of the library, working on a computer. Dustin was antsy, and didn’t come with the assumption that he was audience, and therefore to remain basically quiet and passive. I soon realized the 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.
I expected the experience to be strained, 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. And 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.
How rich it would be if we could treat a large audience as an aggregate of audiences of one! To 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 make sure that we have a moment of connection with each audience of one, that our stories offer something personal, something customized for each person sitting 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.