Poor Mitt Romney. Seems every time he might get some traction these days, something messes up. The latest – his appearance at Ford Field in Michigan, a football stadium with 65,000 seats, drew a crowd of 1200 to hear his major address. It’s a respectable number in itself – but not in that setting. And as the photos of the mostly empty space circulated in e-space, the atmospheric takeaway: Romney plummets.
I learned travelling with my antifederalist monologue, “Vote NO!” – the best case against the Constitution by those who opposed it — how important the choice of venue. One performance in a hotel’s cavernous grand ballroom that held 1200 drew two hundred – very respectable for this kind of event. And yet we felt like a tiny band, mostly huddled around tables near the front, the rest lightly scattered about. The performance began with an air of disappointment and fell flat. The actor felt off from the start and later blamed the space. Another time, we performed in a small town library on a snowy night. The sponsoring humanities council, distressed at the weather, wisely shifted the venue last minute to a room that held 20. Thirty two people showed up that night – some sat along the side on a radiator. The place was packed, the performance electric.
Sometimes, though, the choice of space simply doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget the first time I spoke publicly about my prison experiences. Boston University – they reserved a large auditorium. The hosts took me to a Chinese meal, and we suddenly realized we had gotten lost in conversation and the event was about to begin. So we feverishly raced back to the auditorium, and burst through the door – 8:02 for an 8 O’clock start. The place was empty. We looked at each other. Someone had obviously posted the wrong venue. My host ran outside to check the posters and returned looking pale. This was the spot. Nobody was there.
Suddenly the door opened, and a lone young lady entered the large auditorium, looked at the four of us on stage, walked down the aisle, and plopped herself in the front row. Now what to do? Every person matters. Who cares about the size of the audience? It’s the strength of the message. “Neither rain, nor sleet” – no that’s the post office pledge. Besides the show must go on – ah, there’s the right cliche.
I cleared my throat, scanned the virtually empty auditorium, and altered my approach on the spot to address the audience of one. “As we were talking about at dinner, Lorton prison offers some disturbing lessons—“ I saw her visibly discomforted. She would get it, I imagined, and pass it on. “Excuse me,” she interrupted, “but this isn’t the French Review session.”
It seems in life, nearly every event, every experience, every relationship is a ratio. Nothing is itself. They carry and cast shadows of their potential. But zero/anything is still zero. Is anyone reading this? If you are, alas, it’s not the French review.