One of my dear friends used to be a stand-up comedian, who tells this story about the late, great Redd Foxx: Apparently for one of his Las Vegas shows, Redd strutted onto stage to the Sanford and Son theme song. He peered out into the room, spat, and said, “I ain’t doing a show for five white people,” and walked offstage … with the band still playing him off.

A few years ago, a Shakespearean company came to my home town. They were to perform Julius Caesar, one of the shows I haven’t seen often; and I was super excited to take it in.

Unfortunately, on top of the fact that small-town Illinois isn’t much of a Shakespeare hub, the show was inexplicably slated for a Sunday matinee. As a result, the audience was myself, my wife, and I believe two other couples in a theatre that seats over 700. The curtain went up, and I could see – and feel – the reaction of the performers.

Regardless, they swung into action, and put on a show that felt as though they were treading the Globe.

You’ve got a choice to make when you look out on a disappointing audience. Whether you’re a musician or a public speaker, an actor or on a book tour, you have a choice to make. You can mope about the results and deliver a lackluster, half-hearted demonstration that will leave the few people in your audience disappointed and unlikely ever to return, or you can remember why you’re here in the first place. To entertain or inform, to educate or delight, no matter the size of the crowd.

Note that I’m hardly perfect at this. It’s difficult to put your whole heart into something and get so little energy back for it. I work at it, though, because in a way a smaller crowd can also be liberating.

You can take chances with your style and delivery that you might not want to try on a larger, more review-focused crowd. You can loosen up and interact more individually with the people who came to see you. You can pay them exactly as much attention as they deserve – they, the people to whom this performance and appearance really meant something.

It’s important to remember that. We’re owed no attention at all. Sometimes the difference between us and the gentleman on the street corner with a tinfoil hat is only in the quality of our writing and delivery, and if anyone has stopped to give us the gift of their time, then the least we can do is give them the gift of our best.

Empty auditorium