In improv we are taught never to blame an audience for a bad show and never to play for laughs or audience approval. These are pretty good rules. However, they are sometimes applied to the extent that the audience is ignored. We want do our own thing and create the art that we want to create, no matter what, which sometimes leads us to believe that the audience can’t or shouldn’t have an effect on our shows.
However, the audience can and will influence a show. Rather than ignore it, we should strive to be aware of it. Pay attention to the audience’s reactions in order to gauge your team’s intentions against the feedback you receive. Audiences differ from day to day and the quality of our shows may differ from day to day. Be aware of all of it.
The audience is a powerful energy in the room, whether it’s an audience of five or five hundred. That energy is likely to influence yours. Be aware of it so that you can crosscheck it with your team’s goals and measure the true quality of your performance. Did that show suck because there were five people in the room and no one laughed? Maybe, maybe not. Was that show amazing because the audience laughed their asses off every second? Maybe, maybe not. If you discover that the tiny, quiet audience caused you to play with hesitancy and fear, be aware of that and set a goal to adjust for next time. If that huge audience would have laughed hysterically at anything, be aware of that and make sure you don’t sacrifice your objectives for the satisfaction of laughter. The goal in improv is never to lose or alienate the audience; it is to pay attention and keep aiming for your best work.
A note about offending the audience: Lots of people have written about this. It pops up every now and then when an audience member of a show walks out when a comment involving rape/racism/sexism/rape/etc. offends them. Some believe that improvisers should never censor themselves or remove any subject from the table. Others believe certain subjects should be off limits, but most seem to believe it’s not a cut and dried issue. Here’s my take, for what it’s worth: Don’t be a shithead for the sake of being a shithead and if you’re going to bring up a person or population that is oppressed, find a way to empower them. If someone gets offended and walks out, don’t automatically feel terrible or consider it a badge of honor. Be aware of what happened and gauge that reaction against your standards and goals.