In September of 2006, I had the privilege and pleasure to being an escort for Judy Collins. Yes, that Judy Collins.
At the time, I was working for an organization that holds an annual conference. Each year the location is different and in 2006 the venue was San Diego. Judy Collins was a keynote speaker for the 2006 conference and one of my assignments was to meet her limo, get her quickly to her room and make certain she was settled in comfortably, and then when it was time for her to speak, escort her to the hall, and then back to her room when her presentation was over.
It was pleasant, if not occasionally annoying (I’d been told she could be high maintenance), duty, but especially pleasant as I had a few minutes of one-on-one time speaking with her as we moved from place to place. While I always enjoyed listening to her sing, it wouldn’t be precise to say I was a fan. In fact, beyond a few songs I couldn’t tell you what constitutes her standard repertoire. While I liked her, I wasn’t a devotee.
During Ms. Collins’ presentation at the conference, she sang a few bars of one of her signature songs. Walking her back to her room afterwards, I commented that I had seen her in concert a couple of years earlier and that when she sang that song, the room became so quiet; as if the audience had been holding its collective breath. She remembered the concert and asked me what I was thinking about as I heard her perform the song. Of course, she wanted to know what personal impact the song had on me (by the way, it has none), and my response was simply that I didn’t know for certain, but that hearing her perform that particular number made me wish I could sing (it still does). Her brow knit as she focused those steel-blue eyes at me and said, somewhat sharply, “But Michael, we need audiences, too!”
To this day, so many years later, whenever I hear the song – which isn’t all that often – I always flash back to how Judy Collins barked her response to me, and wonder if she found my comment demeaning, rude, selfish, or somehow threatening. And, if any of those, why? Or why, respond that way at all?
She was right, of course, although I sincerely doubt she understood the depth of how right she was. It is my presumption she was reacting from the perspective of a well-known performing artist who might – and I emphasize the word “might,” as I have no idea if what follows is even remotely valid – be tired of singing a few select songs at each and every concert for the past four decades, because that’s what her fans want. The newer stuff is nice, and thanks for that creative cover of some other song, but please sing those few songs we all want to hear. And if you don’t, we’ll be really ticked off. In fact, we’re likely to bad-mouth the concert to our friends, regardless of how well you performed. “Gee, eighty bucks to see her in concert and she didn’t sing that one song!”
Let’s face it: The essence of what Ms. Collins said to me can easily be found in the everyday. We all work for, live with, and/or rely upon people who require, if not outright demand, that we be their audience and applaud their efforts. Often, these people are loath to give up whatever stage they occupy, or incapable of doing so due to the nature of their positions. (A bit of disclosure is in order. I am no stranger to performing or appearing before audiences, having done a fair number of presentations, emcee gigs, humorous auctioneering, some stand-up comedy, and so forth.) Performers, and all too many public speakers, require the audience’s applause to justify their performing. This makes sense, of course. Effectively presenting to a group, whether through entertainment or instruction, requires meticulous preparation and practice. To have the work result in a satisfied audience – and, believe me, the type of applause tells the presenter/performer immediately how well he or she was received – is a wonderful feeling. More than showing appreciation, it gives validation to the one receiving the audience’s gratitude.
Judy Collins was right: We need audiences. Each and every one of us. One doesn’t have to be a performer to have, or need, an audience. And, for that matter, an audience can be just one person. What I’m talking about are the people who give you what you need when you put yourself on the line –the folks who will occupy the theater when you take the stage of your mind.
So, what kind of audience do you look for? In my case, I look for the honest participants. I don’t need stroking, I don’t need applause, and I’m not looking for a standing ovation. When I present an idea or am looking for direction, I want honesty. My wife is one of the front-row members of my audience, especially as she is absolutely horrible at prevarication. Sometimes, how she doesn’t respond to something reveals to me far more than what her words say. I have a couple of friends and family members who sit next to her in that front row and whose honesty ranges from direct to guarded. This is why it’s vitally important to always know your audience.
And, again, what kind of audience do you look for? And what kind of audience are you? My ego will likely never be of the type that I would ever address someone the way Judy Collins addressed me, but, yes, she was correct. We need audiences, too. I am very grateful for mine, and I know they will always be there for me.
Unless, of course, I decide to sing. As I said, you’ve got to know your audience.