How many times have I heard the lament, “Why can’t I get anyone to come to my show?”
I am going to give you the answer. Are you ready? Here it is: because it is hard to get people to come to your show.
Really, really hard.
For those of you who are reading this and already disagreeing with me, good for you. You have been doing something right and have gained momentum and reputation and it is you who should be writing this article, not me. But here I am at my keyboard and I am far from perfect and I am writing this as much for myself as for the person who also finds it enormously hard to get people to attend their artistic ventures.
The first thing we can do is stop taking it personally.
On one level, it’s a numbers game. It’s the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule, as it’s more commonly known. 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In business, and your art is a business on some level, 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. In life, I often find that 20% of the people in the world are awesome and 80% of the people in the world are not so awesome. Not evil or malicious, just not as awesome.
Of the 20% that are awesome, not every person in that 20% can come to my events 100% of the time. They have conflicts because they are out in the world, just like me, creating great things that bring joy and happiness to others. They can’t afford to come to every show because, most likely, they have not sold their soul to corporate America and have made sacrifices to be able to create their art and live an existence where they can peacefully rest their head on their pillow at night. Or, they just don’t have the cash for another show because this economy still sucks and, to quote Sweeney Todd, “times is hard.” They may also not be able to come because they just need a night off to themselves to do grownup things like clean their house or spend time with their family or – and I know this is a radical thought – just really need a night to do nothing and recharge so they can keep being awesome. I don’t take any of these reasons personally as to why someone cannot come to my show. None of these reasons are about ME. And who am I to say that my show is more important than someone else’s art, someone else’s money, or someone taking care of “first things, first”?
Here is another reason why people might not show up for you all the time. Hang on to your hat. (I love a good hat so please hang on to it.) You are not the greatest thing since sliced bread. Please, yes, have a positive attitude about what you create and love it and cherish it and be outrageously proud of your work. But, oh my goodness me, please don’t have any delusions about your work. Being angry because you are “so brilliant and amazing” and why didn’t this one or that one come to see you just makes no sense. Oh, the rants I’ve seen on social media. Stunning. The in-fighting, especially in theater groups, that I have seen over who got what role and who didn’t, and wanted to shout, “Please get some perspective! You are in a church basement.” Don’t even get me started on “reviews” in the local paper that have sent people into hysterical, weeping fits. Listen, as a writer, I have a small body of work consisting of some mediocre poems. As a performer, I have a modicum of raw talent that I have never honed or invested time in studying the craft of. It’s an honor that anyone lets me perform or read in public at all. We live in New York City where we can go see a Broadway show or hear a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet read any time we want. The fact that anyone shows up to anything I do, in the theater or the literary world, is a blessing and a miracle.
Art affects the world. No doubt. What you do will affect people in the world. That is a gift. But if you are creating art for anyone else but you (and possibly an entity larger than yourself), you’re going to endure a lot of suffering. The people that show up for you are the right people. No more, no less. Everyone at your event is exactly the person who was meant to be there. Treat them that way and don’t insult them by mourning the people who didn’t come like they did.
I recently read my work at a large festival. I was slated to be the first reader of the day on a Sunday morning. When it was time for me to begin, there were zero people in the audience. (Is this a mystery? It was a lazy Sunday morning and they had to take a ferry – a whole ferry – to get there.) The festival was a big deal to me, personally, as it was a very meaningful marker on my journey. I had been asked to lend my voice to in this amazing celebration of poets across five boroughs when, just one year previous, and just trust me on this, that is not anything even close to something that would have happened in my life. So, here I was on Sunday morning. Zero people. (Ok, there were five people who were there waiting to see the next readers. I think two of the five people actually were the next readers.) I didn’t care. I didn’t even realize that I didn’t care until the end of the day on my way home. It wasn’t a thought. I got on that stage and I stood there and I spoke my words and I took in that big, brilliant, unwitnessed moment. It was very Zen. And it was so delicious. And I’m not telling you this to prove to you how evolved I am (oh my, no – I am quite flawed and imperfect) but I am saying it to suggest a possible way of experiencing your own art, without suffering. Without the ego’s dependence on anyone outside of yourself. I am telling you, much like a new and fabulous hat, it feels great. It is infinitely more meaningful and rewarding than any sold-out house, standing ovation, mega-kudos I’ve ever received. Life is often counterintuitive, isn’t it.
Next month, I’m going to talk specifically about things that do and do not work in terms of getting people to show up and see your work. I’m not contradicting myself here, even though I just expounded on the merits of doing it for no one. I did say, oh yes I did, that your art, on one level, is a business and you do often need people in seats in order to keep producing more work and doing what you love. But before we talk about what works with other people, I wanted to talk about what works with YOU. You first. Don’t take it personally. Have perspective. Have humility. Humility is not self-deprecating. Humility is doing what you do for a purpose larger than yourself with no expectation of what the outcome will be.
And one more thing.
Above all, just be a nice human being. I remember a Seamus Heaney tribute I went to (one of many) that was sold out with a few hundred people in the audience. I was so taken by this. Admittedly, I have not read as much of Seamus Heaney’s work as most poets have. I have great admiration for his poetry and it is beautiful and carefully crafted and he was, undoubtedly, one of the greats. But so are many other poets and I couldn’t imagine a major venue being sold out while they were still alive, let alone after their death. I felt I was missing something in terms of truly understanding what all those people were doing there and, not only there, but at multiple other sold-out tributes to Mr. Heaney. After the performance, I asked the people who attended with me, “Why do you think Seamus Heaney is such a popular poet?” And they answered, “Well, his poetry, of course. But probably, mostly, because he was so warm and genuinely nice and he made anyone around him feel wonderful.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the biggest reason that people will come, not only to your show, but will gather by the hundreds in your honor long after you are gone.
It’s not your fancy marketing plan; it’s how you have put your arms around people and taken a moment to celebrate their intrinsic worth.
Valerie G. Keane is very honored to be part of the current Queens literary scene. Her next appearance will be as a featured poet in Mike Geffner’s Inspired Word All-Stars on Thursday, August 14th at Coffeed in Long Island City. (Tickets and info: http://tinyurl.com/pclsx9b) Valerie’s work was recently published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the Newtown Literary Journal and she is the founder of Poetry & Coffee, a very juicy discussion group in Queens for writers and readers, where people are waking up to great poetry and to life. (You can find Poetry & Coffee on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Poetry-Coffee/1474070439496056) When asked if she is a poet, Valerie says, “I still don’t know how you qualify as one and no one seems to know where the application form is.”