A Stage That is Hard to Fathom!

In a recent conversation with a pastor about performing at his church, he was concerned about having too small a stage for the presentation. If you were staging a Broadway show, that would be a legitimate concern… but for a one-man show…. not so much. Especially a one-man show that was designed as a touring performance TO churches.


My acting career is full of performances in spaces that are less than ideal.  While I do occasionally get to perform on a real stage in a real theater with real theater lights, etc….that is the exception not the rule.  In addition to church sanctuaries of all shapes and sizes, I have performed in gymnasiums, college lunch rooms, street corners, a baseball field, airplane hangars, and even on board a submarine.

You learn that theater can happen anywhere there is an audience, and a little imagination can go a long way. On one tour sponsored by the military we would go wherever the soldiers were in their everyday routines taking the show to them, sometimes doing up to 16 mini-shows a day.  Imagine performing in a field with with 50 soldiers in full camouflage and rifles in their laps with a Jeep as your “backstage.”  I did that! (Something about performing before a gun-toting audience makes you want to do a really good job!)

Often the leadership at a church will want to know what can be done to make the platform ready for my performances.  Usually this is asked with a hopeful tone of “please don’t make us move too much stuff.”  While I am very flexible and accommodating to any and every situation, here are some things to consider to make for a better experience on a church stage, for any guest, be it a speaker, musician, or even an actor!

  • Look at your stage as if it were a piece of art–a painting perhaps. Anything that would take away from presenting a pleasing picture to the audience is a candidate for removal.  When I  perform In His Steps, a period piece set in the early 1900s, the set is a pastor’s office.  Having an electronic drum kit in the office detracts from the setting and mood of the piece.
  • While logistics and space may limit what can be moved, consider ways to at least tidy up the space.  Microphone and music stands can be removed. Some portable screens could be used to hide drums, keyboards, etc.
  • If you have theatrical lighting, consider moving things out of the pool of light so that they are less visible and creating, with light, the space for the performance.
  • Take a moment to consider time and priorities for the service.  If your guest is going to be on the platform for 45 minutes and your musicians for only 10 minutes, consider “downsizing” the music for that service. Go acoustic with fewer musicians, so that less is required on the platform, making it an easier, cleaner transition to the “main thing” of the service.
  • Also under priorities, give ample pre-service time and attention to the guest’s stage, sound, and lighting needs.  I typically arrive at a church an hour before a service to set up and do tech rehearsal–for me that is plenty of time.  However, no one has told the worship team this and they expect to use the stage for their warm-up and rehearsal at the exact same time.  They often eat up so much of the pre-service time for their 10 minutes on stage and leave me feeling rushed and unprepared for my 45 minute presentation.
  • Assign a person to the guest to see to all their needs. Have them assist in set up, packing and unpacking, making sure there is good communication amongst the personnel of the service (tech, musicians, pastor, etc). Provide bottled water and a private room or space for the guest to prepare and pray before the service… it’s the little things that can mean so much.

I am sure there are other things I could add to the list. But I do know attention to these details does make a difference to both guest and audience and will create a better experience for all… whether on a real stage or in a submarine!

Do you have any tips for churches to consider when hosting a guest speaker/artist?

What unique and memorable performance venues have you experienced?

5 thoughts on “A Stage That is Hard to Fathom!

  1. Rich Swingle says:

    What great insight!!!

    A submarine! I don’t think I can top that! One of my favorites was quite near the submarine of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. I was performing Jonah in Lake Michigan, so when I fell overboard I went right into the water. When I pointed at Ninevah, there were the lights of the city turning on at sunset.

    My very favorite venues were in Israel: Jonah at Joppa, Elijah on Mt. Carmel, The Ascension on the Mt. of Olives, The Last Supper in the Garden of the Tomb. You may know by now that I’m leading a team of artists back to the Holy Land to teach drama in Amman, Jordan, and Bethlehem. We’ll be performing our pieces where they took place throughout the Holy Land. Hope you can join us: //CITA.org/HolyLand.

  2. Sean Gaffney says:

    A submarine? Tell us more!
    Most interesting encounter performing in a church space: “A Christmas Carol” tour, where the church guaranteed us their sanctuary platform fit our size requirement. What they didn’t tell us was that during the holiday season they put two floor-to-ceiling Christmas trees in that space. We never asked, so they never told…
    Most interesting non-church space: a restaurant. We were performing for a private party, and assumed they booked a separate room. Nope – they just had a reservation for forty in the main area of the restaurant. We were expected to perform in the space between the tables, dodging waiters and competing with the conversations of the other hundred or so people that weren’t part of the party. Good times.

  3. Chuck Neighbors says:

    Great venue stories Rich and Sean! Love seeing how we adapt! The submarine story… it was years ago when I lead a tour to military installations in Hawaii, Japan and Korea. One of the stops was at Pearl Harbor on a dry-docked submarine. We toured the vessel and then in the mess hall performed a 5 minute sketch for about 3 or 4 sailors!

  4. Michael says:

    Really helpful reminders for people when they have guest artists coming to their church. Also, performing in a smaller church or on a smaller stage has its challenges but it can certainly keep you on your toes. Your post reminded me of a youth musical that I helped to stage many years ago in a smaller sanctuary. I needed to have a few blackouts but found out there was no single place to turn out all the lights on the platform. We had youth at three different dimmer switches and practiced with them so they would each turn off their switch at the right moments. Nerve-wracking but a fun experience.


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