Why the audience is more important than you

I just watched 'Public Speaking', Martin Scorsese's 2010 documentary about Fran Lebowitz. Fran is the greatest: New Yorker, intellectual, old, Jewish, a riff machine, an opinion factory... all the best things. You should watch it. She said one thing that stayed with me for days. She was talking about the AIDS crisis in New York in the 1980s. She lost a lot of friends, many of them performers or artists of some kind. The disease killed artists, dancers, actors, writers, and all kinds of creators. Losing them was tragic, she said, but that wasn't the heaviest hurt each artistic community suffered. The worst blow from AIDS was that it KILLED THE AUDIENCE. It ripped through the tastemakers, the appreciators, the fans, the people who could recognize what was good, what was bad and what was great. The way she tells it, AIDS hit New York like an iceberg: we saw very public deaths, but below the surface were hundreds more that did the real damage. For every Keith Haring, the city lost a dozen people who could love and nurture crazy people like him. And with them, we lost the next five Keith Harings, because no one was there to see them. The audience was more important. The audience is always more important. Not in a corny, “if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be a show!” way, but more “if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be a me”.

The idea hit me good and hard. As a performer, it’s natural to be an ego-maniac. And ego is a useful tool. A necessary tool. But I was seeking a way to relate to audiences that didn’t make it all about me, a relationship that didn’t sweep me along in an ego rip-tide that can (frankly) make me a jerk to be around.

Fran Leibowitz gave me a mental frame to beat that back. The audience is more important. They know what’s good and what’s bad. They know the truth. They may not know exactly how to get there (that’s my job to try and find). But if I’m willing to put ego aside and really listen to what they’re giving me, we have a chance to find something that’s bigger and better than both of us.