It’s something mostly shouted by cheesy singers at the end of their set, or by bad rock acts imagining they’ve just finished performing in a vast stadium somewhere. After having sung with a band a few times (including a rather stonking set-finisher), and performed in (counts) over 30 theatrical productions, I can tell you that there’s no such thing.
There is no such thing as a great audience, or a good audience, or an average audience, or a poor audience, or a bad audience. All there is is an audience. It might be a small audience, it might be a big audience. It might be a responsive audience, it might be a quiet audience. It might be a young audience, it might be an old audience. The point is, it’s an audience. How and whether they respond is ultimately the result of how well you (the performer) do your job.
A good performer will find it easier to get a response from an audience than a poor performer. A performer working with good material will be able to more easily get a response from an audience than one working with poor material. For the best audience response a good performer should have good material, but a response can be elicited from even the quietest audience under those conditions. If you are a bad performer, however, you’ll struggle to get an response from even an audience receptive to the material. A good performer can engage the audience, and thus get a response, with any material. Patrick Stewart could read the minutes of the Inner-Hebrides Grass Classification Committee and get a good audience response, but if you combined the best elements of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Osborne, Frayn and any of a dozen others, Joe Bloggs the Wooden wouldn’t be able to get a response from them five minutes later.
Audience response is almost entirely dependent on how good a performer you are. If you a good performer, you’ll get a good response – it may be a little difficult with some audiences, but that’s because there are some audiences that are naturally predisposed (for whatever reason) to be quiet and unresponsive. The better the material you are working from, of course, the easier it is to get a response, but ultimately it is down to you. Small audiences tend not to respond as enthusiastically as large audiences, but that doesn’t mean you are not getting through to them. Good performers can tell when an audience is responding to what’s going on on stage, no matter how quietly they are doing so. Bad performers frequently imagine an audience is being quietly responsive when in fact they’re sitting there thinking, “get this dickhead off.”
It does take guts to go out and perform with the same level of energy when you have a small or quiet audience as when you have a large or responsive one. It’s easier to feel more confident in your performance when there’s more than two pairs of eyes looking at you in a room big enough for fifty, and likewise when the audience are laughing at the funny bits rather than just the occasional “fmuhuhuh”. But you have to do it – if you don’t put the same energy in to a performance for two people as you do for twenty, the smaller audience will leave at the end thinking, “well, that wasn’t very good, was it? The acting was rubbish, and they didn’t even like the material.”
A good performer makes a good performance. A good performance engenders a good response from the audience. That response can be quiet and restrained, or it can be loud and raucous. The point is, if you perform well even a quiet audience will respond well – perform badly and a responsive audience will throw rotten tomatoes at the stage until you get the hint.