I recently gave a reading to a small audience -- seven people, two of whom worked at the venue and two of whom had clearly come together. It was an intimate space, made all the more intimate by the empty seats; however, it afforded me an opportunity to learn something.
I should clarify: I wasn't disappointed by the small crowd. I would happily address an audience of one, because that person came to see me. Can you imagine that? An adult who could've spent his or her evening doing anything else chose to do this instead? Hell, you can sit in my lap, if you like! But the turnout at my previous reading had been ten-times as large and the group dynamics were now significantly different. For one thing, we all teetered on the edge of embarrassment. Was this it? Was that okay? When the bell chimed above the door, would anyone turn to look? (The answer was no. Everyone faithfully kept his or her eyes trained forward.)
I like to make an audience laugh. By the time we get to the Q&A, it's usually a pretty jovial crowd. But laughter is a social contract. Have you ever noticed your tendency to laugh in a crowded movie theater, but not so much on the couch? That's because your laughter -- and the laughter of those around you -- is a way of demonstrating, "It's okay, gang, this loud noise/awkward exchange/self-deprecating author isn't a threat to our collective security." The smaller the audience, the more difficult laughs are to come by -- and without laughter, it's difficult to gauge my performance. So that was tough.
I thought maybe there'd be a heightened sense of community, given our modest numbers, but the opposite was true: my efforts at group-bonding were strongly rebuffed. It dawned on me (as I quickly back-peddled) that each person had come in his or her own right to listen to me speak. These men and women weren't speed dating -- I'm not OKJamie. I mean, I am okay, but -- well, you get the point.
Finally, and most unnerving to me, when I read aloud from Froelich's Ladder I noticed that one woman was reading along! Maybe this is normal behavior? But I alter the text I'm performing. I skip words, I move clauses -- occasionally I delete an entire paragraph. Sentences have a different relationship on the page than they do in the ether. That voice you hear in your head, in all likelihood, is not my voice, so I have to make allowances for my natural tendency to rush and concatenate. This adaptation is a necessary improvement, I believe, but try telling that to the woman on my left.
"You may have noticed I changed some stuff," I confessed when I was done.
"You skipped," she scolded me.
"I didn't skip. I edited. For content."
"No. You skipped."
And so I did. Thus, let this be the lesson learned: next time I'll give fair warning, whether it's an audience of a hundred or one.