Sunday, 9 October 2016

Only Three?

My appearance following my run in London...
As you may have seen, I've pulled the last few shows of the London run of Undead Bard.  The reason is simple.

No one came.

That is an exaggeration, and maybe an insult to some of my friends/audience when put so bluntly, so let me clarify.

Almost no one came.  As a meaningful statistic, more people didn't come than did, to the point that the number who came is very close to zero.

Now, we in the business of show have a saying - the show must go on!  You may have a temperature, have lost a leg to a pack of angry wolves, and be partially on fire, but you go on.

Except when no one comes.

Let me talk you through the week.

DAY ONE:  Sunday
So, I arrive at the theatre Sunday morning, expecting some small houses - I've not been in town for a few years and it's a big ask to expect a lot.  We'd started putting out freebies to boost numbers, just so we had a bit more in the audience.

So, I arrive at the theatre Sunday morning, expecting some small houses, and start teching.  Those at the get in don't know the numbers, but it's not huge.  We have two shows on the first day - an accidental matinee/dress and a first night.  The matinee is accidental because it's been advertised and is on the online booking, but no one can remember actually programming it.  It's not a problem, we'd have to tech for it, so it's a good way to run in the show.

So, I arrived at the theatre Sunday morning, expecting some small houses, and, once we've teched, I get to see the numbers.

Three.  Three bookings.

For - the - entire - run.

Not three bookings for the afternoon, not three bookings for the day, nor even for the first week - for - the - entire - run.

And for the entire run, three pre-bookings is all we ever had.

Let's pop back in time - let's be clear.  We've not been idle on the selling front.  We could have done a bit more here or there, but we've not been keeping the show a secret.  It's had previews, it's over the internet like a rash, there are posters and flyers up.


Now, let's clarify, these three (booked for the Thursday night) were the paying audience.  We did have some other people coming.  Reviewers.  We were doing well for reviewers - my publicist had lined up a good fourteen of them - amazing work! - and so I wasn't too down.  If we could get a few bodies in over the next couple of shows, then I'd be warmed up for press night.  And, people don't book ahead, I told myself, they don't - they'll be walk ups.

I wasn't expecting anyone for the accidental matinee - and so it came to pass.  We weren't that phased - my excellent technician and I did a quick cue-to-cue to reinforce the show and went out to find food and prep for the audience that night.  At that point, possibly, an audience of none.
Night came - and, much to my mixed relief, so came my audience.


One comp.

One largely terrified comp.

At this point I should expound on the show a bit.  It's a double bill of solo pieces about Shakespeare - the first half is a solo play (The Shakespeare Delusion) where a man having a nervous breakdown tries to give a lecture on the Shakespeare 'authorship' question.  The second half (Shakespeare: The Ever Living!) is, in appearance, a stand up show, where Shakespeare does a turn about his afterlife - it's a little more than that, but let's not get into that here.
As the audience - in this case, audient - arrives, I, in the character of 'Professor' Ashborn say hello, try to sell them a script (my 'world famous monograph on the life of Shakespeare'), and show them to their seat.
I do this for two reasons:
1. To sell a script/programme.  I need the money, and front of house personnel usually have too much on their plate to commit to selling stuff.
2.  To assess the audience.

This is very important to the kind of theatre I mostly make.  Whilst the first half is a play and can be viewed as a distant fourth wall type show, the second half isn't, and needs a relationship with the people in the room.  I look my audience in the eye, say hello, and try to get to know them.
Poor man, he had rabbit in headlight eyes - looked like he might bolt at any moment, and that's before I took his hand in mine and said hello.  I warned him after the first half, that the second won't really work without more people, but I was more than happy to perform it for him anyway.
Additional information for you - the second half is, was, partly improvised, or was supposed to be.  But it's difficult to riff with an audient.  So, rather than, in form, a rather fun stand up act, it was a bit closer to a form of aggressive free form poetry that night.
As I said, he looked fucking terrified.  If he didn't before the show, he positively ran away at the end.
I kinda enjoyed myself.

First Night - Review of the Audience*: 3 out of 5.  The audient gamely remained for the show, but couldn't hide his terror or the awkwardness he felt by being outnumbered by show personnel (1 perf, 1 tech, 1 FOH).  Extra star for staying for the second half.  Had the chance to bolt.

*I review every audience I perform to, to help understand why some shows work and some don't - because theatre is a relationship, and understanding an audience helps you prepare for the next.

DAY TWO:  Monday
First reviewer is coming in.  I do a radio interview.  (This was scheduled to come out tomorrow, which is a bit of a shame.  Sorry Ian, couldn't wait for you.)  I turn up knowing there will be a show.  Two comps, one is a reviewer.  Plus any walk ups.  Yeah.

There are no walk ups.
The audience is entirely composed of two comps, a reviewer and her friend.
There are still three ticket sales.
I'm not looking forward to it, if I'm honest.

It's a great night, and I had so much fun.  I went out to do my FOH bit and say hello and they enthusiastically said hello back, we shook hands, had a brief natter and they bought a script.  The show, even the basically impossible to fully perform second half, is a dream - they are quick off the mark and respond throughout.

Second Night - Review of the Audience: 5 out of 5.  Ideal audience, came to engage, not over the top, just genuine people.  Made the second half come alive, despite the numbers.

DAY THREE:  Tuesday - Press night.
There's about a dozen press, plus other comps coming.  If the audience are as good as the previous night, then we might start selling some tickets.
It's after I meet the first member of the audience that the inkling that I might be fucked starts to ink.  He won't look at me.  He doesn't want to talk to me.  He's made himself, before I approach, into as small a shape as he can.

No, doesn't want to say hello.

Oh well, the next person will be better.
Rushes past me into the theatre as quickly as possible.

The next person... doesn't even want the complimentary free drink.  Doesn't look me in the eyes either.  Has a notebook.  Don't tell me... yes, in a small theatre, a tiny theatre, with an audience of reviewers and comps, of about sixteen people, you're going to sit in the front row with your notebook out?
Can you not see this is a relationship?
Can you not see that what you do changes how the room behaves?
That'll be a no then.

Great arm folding from those people there.  You've practiced that, I can tell.

Ah - two people who say hello!
They sit in the front row, they'll get extra attention.
By the end they're getting most of the show.

The first half goes okay, but then direct audience reaction doesn't matter much.
The second half, I come out and go HELLO!  And there's nothing.  I throw a few under arm jokes out at them, nothing.  I get them to whoop and cheer... well, I'm sure they were doing it, but I couldn't hear them.  Nothing.  It was hell.  It was like they didn't want to have fun.  So they didn't.
Only as I sat in the bar afterwards did I fully appreciate what had gone so horribly wrong.  I thought - the room was entirely made of critics.  Entirely.  Yeah, there were a few comps for plus ones, but they were basically all critics.
Whilst the biggest audience of the run, they were the least like an audience.  They mostly wanted to sit back and view, not engage.  There were almost no people in the room who came there just to enjoy a show.

Third Night - Review of the Audience: 1 out of 5 - much as there were some signs of life in one corner, it was horrible. I wish I'd snatched that notebook out of that reviewers hands.  I was that close.  One to remember for the future.

DAY FOUR:  Wednesday
Five stars for the lovely audience on the second night - well, I gave them five stars too - so it was a mutual love in.  And then one star from the horrid third night - so, the reviews of audience and show tallied.
Context changes meaning.
Other reviews from that night were less of a hatchet job, especially from the nice corner, but generally echoed the night.  The first half, which doesn't need an audience to work, came out very well; the second half was a dead and mangled corpse.
Still no change in audience bookings - so I spread the love as best I could online.
The audience on day four was small, a couple of reviewers, a couple of comps and a friend.  As a mixed group, it played more naturally.  Neither the big laughs from the audience that went for it, nor the drag when they didn't.  The review for this night, when it came out later, was a good one.  You may notice a trend here.
Fourth Night - Review of the Audience: 4 out of 5.  Not immediate in their response, but came to it naturally and were with it.

DAY FIVE:  Thursday
More bad, or at any rate, mixed reviews from the disastrous press night came in during the day.  But, I don't care, tonight's the night - the FIRST PAYING CUSTOMERS!  These are the three!  I vow to find out who they are and why they came.  It's a big house for me too, about eight or nine.  The final reviewer, some comps and a couple of walk ups!  I sell another script!  This is it, the tipping point, there's some momentum, we're on the up!
It was quite a tough audience at first.  It took them a good ten minutes to warm to the first half, where usually the opening section gets a few titters and some focus, but it was a bit quiet.  The second half went well - there was, for the first time, some room for sustained bantering back and forth between myself and the audience.  There was a generation gap between the first and second row, so one would laugh at one line, the other the next - sent us on a nice little diversion.  Little was I to know this would be the last time I would perform the second half.
I went down to the bar and saw my three - my paying in advance three.  I don't like to bother audience members after a show unless they invite me over, but I needed to know about them - so I asked one of the group.  "Hello, sorry to intrude, thank you for coming tonight, could I ask how you heard about the show?"

My pre-paying audience!
The true believers!
Swayed by the publicity machine of myself, my publicist and the theatre!

It was her birthday, and she likes Shakespeare, so they googled what was on that night.

It was total random chance.
There was no momentum, no movement, no show.
I feel bad now, I forgot to wish her happy birthday, because I went straight out and got drunk.

Fifth Night - Review of the Audience: 3 out of 5.  It was a bit hard work - I'd love to give it four stars, but just under.  Actually, let's say three and a half.

DAY SIX:  Friday
Emails fly.  Are there ANY bookings for this show?  We're past the pre-three, are there ANY more?
I ask, is there any evidence to make anyone think we will sell any more tickets?  Because this is costing me a lot of money and it's depressing.
Not really.  Everyone is stumped.  This level of non attendance is not heard of.  Usually a bad run is ten tickets a night.  Not three for the run.
I say, unless we get a rush, I'm pulling it that night.  I have a friend coming, so I know I'm doing it one more time.
As it happens we have two walk ups.  Huzzah!  Plus friend = three people.  Three.  My unlucky number.  They seem nice.  I ask them how they heard about the show.  They live locally, saw the poster.  Well, nice to know the posters worked.  Actually, they're ticket sales will have paid off the cost of the posters - so they are a worthwhile investment people!
They have no idea what they've come to see though and it wasn't what they wanted, so left at the interval. (Though there was an argument about it apparently. It seems one wanted to stay and the other didn't.  I suspect it's because she laughed when I said that bald people are somewhat inferior.  And he didn't like the joke.  She had to go back for her coat.)
So, I sit in FOH with my friend and wait to see if they've definitely left or not.  After twenty minutes no returns, I send the email cancelling the run, I pack or throw away the show, and go to drink.  My friend understood that I'd rather eat my own feet than do the second half just for her.
The saddest thing is that, apart from it's premiere at the Quay Theatre, the second half Shakespeare: The Ever Living! has never really been performed.  I've performed something like it about a dozen times, but the joyous nonsense of sense I wanted it to be never had the chance to be fully born.  And probably never will.

So... no one came.
It's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's not far off.
Apart from that, I'm feeling oddly good about the run.  I gave a damned good first half, as good as I could with the second and finished off an area of my practice with a run.  Audio versions will follow soon.  I got some really good reviews from those who contributed to the show as an audience, and some amusingly bad ones - can't win them all.  The people at N16, management, FOH and technical, were great, my publicist filled the theatre with press and got my work out into the world of the media.  I hit almost all my intended targets.

The only target missed... an audience.
Because no one came.

Well, lot's of reasons.  I think I got the pitch of the show wrong - I shouldn't have used the artwork I did, and I should have led with the first half of the show as the pitch, rather than the second.  The few people who left did so because the first half wasn't what they were geared up for, and they didn't want to wait to see if the second half was.  I can respect that.  The pitch was too vague in what it was, because Undead Bard is the title for a series of works, rather than the show, and I didn't communicate that very well.
I suspect we underestimated how few people will go to a show unconnected to them - i.e. friends of the cast.  The fringe probably sells a significant rump this way and there's only one of me.  Depressing to think that the fringe might just be a mutual artistic masturbation society, but it may just be.
I don't think the poor press night made a difference.  We got every number of stars under the sun from one to five - and none shifted or unshifted a ticket.  It was always three.  My irritation with that night was not that the show was bad or that I got bad reviews, it was that the reviewers - as an audience entirely made of reviewers - changed the show and made the evening so fucking miserable.  It's not that I'm miffed they didn't like it, it's that they made it that way by being there - but being there is the only way to be reviewed.  Aaaagh!  Where's Heisenberg when you need him?
Even if they'd all been five stars, even if they said I pushed them over the edge with crashing never ending orgasms, I suspect it wouldn't have made the blindest bit of difference.
People weren't buying what I was doing.  They saw and went... not for me.  It happens.
So, if there's any one reason, though I suspect it's a mix of the above, it's that we're at the end of about four years of mass, never ending, Shakespeare.  People have had a enough of Shakespeare.

Ironically, of course, that's what the show was about.

But nobody came...

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