Trust the Gut

Went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

-From Garden Party by Ricky Nelson-

Well, okay, it wasn’t a garden party. It was my high school’s 45th reunion. My first high school reunion. It was a fun evening…a little surreal. So many unfamiliar faces. Thankfully name tags were provided with our high school yearbook picture attached. But even then…there were so many names and faces I didn’t remember. Our class was a big one, over 450 graduates, so there were a lot a classmates I didn’t even know then, let alone 45 years later.

A few in our class have gone on to make a living in the arts. Several good musicians from our class would be providing a steady stream of 70’s rock ’n’ roll through out the evening. I was asked in advance to share a monologue, since I am a professional actor/storyteller. I declined, feeling that the venue would not have been conducive for what I do. Live music can work in a party atmosphere; a dramatic or even comedic monologue, not so much. A second request was made for me to share a story. I stewed about it a bit, tried to imagine it going well…I finally agreed. I should have trusted my first instinct and stuck to the “no thank you.”

I picked a short story from my life that I thought might connect. I spent some time reworking it and even including a few references to classmates and events from 45 years ago. As a performer you try to envision the best possible scenario but also prepare yourself for the worst.

As I visited around the room that night, several acknowledged that they heard I was an actor and would love to see me perform sometime. I let them know that I would be doing a short monologue later in the evening.

There are several bits of advice and wisdom that run through your mind that apply to this kind of situation.

– Trust your gut

– Read the room and adjust

– Remember that the home crowd is always the toughest audience

I should have paid more attention to that last one. I know from performing at my childhood church over the years that the response is never what you expect or hope for. You want to impress, to show them what you can do and what you have become. They, on the other hand, can’t see past the kid they knew way back when. You know the feeling if you have ever gone back to your childhood home as an adult and suddenly feel like the kid you once were.

The reunion was in a fellowship hall of a church. About 70 alumni showed up. For the first couple of hours there was no program to speak of. People visited, ate food and there was a constant din of noise, laughter and good vibes in the room. I was asked if I wanted to go on early and thought, sure why not. The emcee made a few announcements and it was at the moment I realized my mistake in accepting this “gig.”  Few people were listening. Most people were still standing. The noise level in the room did not change in spite of the fact that someone with a microphone was asking for their attention. Nothing changed as I was introduced to tell my story.

I am sure it was not as bad as the experience Ricky Nelson talks about in “Garden Party.” His was a performance in Madison Square Garden where he was actually booed by the audience. I wasn’t booed. But one of the most difficult things to do as an artist is to plow through a performance when you perceive no one is listening. This was “Show ’n’ Tell” gone bad.

In my early years as a touring performer we would occasionally be asked to do guerrilla theater—street theater. We would set up a makeshift performing area in the street or on a college campus. The goal was to command attention and capture an audience. Often that audience didn’t want to be “captured,” especially in a college cafeteria. I hated doing it, but did it anyway, it was part of the job. This reminded me of that.

There were a few who listened, or tried to listen. I found the eyes of those who were focused on me and played to them. If they were going to listen then I would tell them my story and try to shut out the noise and distraction filling the rest of the room. I’m quite sure many of them were thinking “who is that guy with the microphone…I wish he would shut up.”

I plowed through and couldn’t wait to get back to my seat. I’m guessing that about 75% of the room didn’t even realize they had missed it.

But a few people did listen. Because my work as an artist is faith-based, a few classmates sought me out to let me know that they too were people of faith. Nice to know.

I’m not angry. Not hurt. A little disappointed perhaps. It was what it was. I don’t blame people for not listening… hey, if the shoe were on the other foot, I am not sure I would have been one of those listening either. It was just not the right place and time for what I do. But next time… if there is a next time… I will be sure to ‘trust my gut!”


This summer I have intentionally slowed down my touring schedule. One reason is I wanted to devote more time to writing.

[phone rings]

Wait, I need to take this call.

“Hello? No, I don’t need your credit card service. I have asked you about 100 times to take my number off your call list. Please don’t call again.”

Grrr…there ought to be a law! So, where was I?…ah, writing…

The Oregon weather is finally wonderful. So I am sitting out on my patio, looking up at the sky…oh, you have got to be kidding me. I just swept the cobwebs off the eaves yesterday and now they are back! Ugh… where is that broom?

[long pause, we hear some grumbling about spiders]

Okay, I’m back…

Now for some inspiration. Maybe I’ll address the writing process for the creative. Controlling your environment is very important-

“What? Yes, Lorie I know I said I would unload the dishwasher and – Now? But I was gonna… okay…now.”

[another long pause, with dishes clanking in the background]

All right, uh, controlling environment…

I have discovered that I do my best writing when I can find a space to work that is devoid of distractions-

[phone chime alert]

Oh, wow! This is great! A booking just came in. I need to respond to this right away. Let me look at the calendar…

[clacking of keyboard on the computer]

So…yeah…devoid of distractions. In fact I think my best writing was-

[Lawn maintenance guy rounds the corner of the house with a leaf blower. A few wood chips fly up onto the keyboard]

My best writing…my best writing was NOT done at home.

As strange is it may sound, I think I have more control over my environment at almost any place but home…

[long pause in the writing process]

I’m writing this last part at a coffee shop. Not too far from my home. Now I can write without distractions.

[Inner thoughts]

“Whoa…is that guy gonna drink all that by himself? That’s one huge drink. I wonder if it comes with a catheter?”

To be continued… or maybe not.

[Note: I really did set out to write about the importance of controlling your environment when writing. Most of the distractions that I mention, really did happen during the writing of this article]

The Tale of Mr. Music Director

Mr. Music DirectorI could tell something was amiss with Mr. Music Director at this church. He didn’t greet me when I arrived early, unlike other members of his team. He was agitated with the sound issues the church was having. And it was clear that his agenda was the only one that mattered, even though I arrived early to do a sound check and rehearse my tech cues. I soon discovered he was not about to relinquish the stage to me before the service.

He first upstaged one of the team members who was speaking to the congregation by going up to each worship team member, checking their microphone and pointing wildly at the sound booth to confirm that each mic was working properly.

He upstaged again when he moved back to the keyboard and refused to start the next song until he was convinced everyone’s mic was working. The pastor prompted verbally from the front pew, “let’s go.” He then said, “I’m sorry but our music is sensitive and I don’t want to play unless it is right. I’m sure you understand.”

Finally it was time for me to take the platform. Things were going along fine until the final moments of my performance, when Mr. Music Director decided to take the stage while I was still speaking. This is a sensitive moment in my performance and Mr. Music Director was upstaging me by moving onto the platform and flipping switches getting ready for his closing song. I could sense my audience moving their focus from me to Mr. Music Director. I wanted to say something to him; to tell him to please go sit down until I was finished. But to do so would have only caused me to totally lose my audience, and possibly turn them against me. I’m sure if you were to ask him, he would tell you he was being professional and preparing for a smooth transition to the closing.

I wish I could say that this was a rare occurrence, but sadly it is not. I share this story with you not as rant but rather to encourage you to understand one of the basic rules of the stage, and that applies to any situation in front of an audience. What Mr. Music Director was doing is called “upstaging.” In theatrical terms it means to draw attention away from where it is supposed to be. Upstaging in the theater is when an actor moves upstage of another actor forcing the other actor to turn their back to the audience in order to interact with them. In theater we tend to think of it as intentional bad behavior, but in truth it can be unintentional and often accidental. Or in the case of Mr. Music Director, it can be due to being oblivious to what you are actually doing.

(I have written about this topic as it relates to church before here: Baby Talk. If you check it out also read the comments that follow—some interesting stuff.)

Here are some examples of upstaging that I observe in churches almost every weekend.

• late arrivals
• people who get up and leave in the middle of the service
• people who return to the service after leaving in the middle of the service
• babies crying or cooing
• cellphones ringing
• texting or using a mobile device during the service—yes other people notice.
• tech issues with microphones not working properly
• team members on the platform who are talking to each other, or moving things around while someone is speaking
• outside interruptions, a clap of thunder or police sirens.

As you can see, some of these things we can’t control but some can be controlled with proper instruction and planning.

So take this challenge. Next time you are in church, make a mental note of anything that causes you to take your focus away from the person you should be giving your attention to. And at all costs, don’t be the one doing the upstaging.

Baby Talk

It happened again… in yet another church service…. this time it was just as I was setting up a comedic bit in my newest presentation, Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. One of the funniest lines in the whole presentation, wouldn’t be so funny without the set-up.  The sound came from the back of the room—a baby just discovering her voice decided to try it out with some of the most adorable gibberish I have heard, rivaling anything I have seen on YouTube. The audience heads turn almost in unison to catch a glimpse of the little wonder, and I even heard an audible “awww” from a few in the crowd. (Probably similar to what you feel when you watch this popular YouTube video.)

My inner voice is screaming some not so adorable words at “Her Cuteness.”  I am not a child hater, really I’m not.  But this child just did what is referred to in the acting business as “upstaging”—taking attention away from where it is supposed to be directed. The fact that the noises are adorable makes it even worse than if the baby were crying—at least if she were crying the distraction would irritate everyone, not just me. By adding her unscripted voice to my show, she has taken my audience away from me.  It will be hard to get it back, if the distraction continues without intervention, which is too often the case.

When a child cries out it takes the attention away from the speaker/performer and sometimes at the worst possible times—the punchline of a joke, the most important key line in a scene, or the main point of a sermon. Being on stage you can feel the loss. One minute you have the audience right where you want them and the next minute they’re gone. It is not just babies, it could be someone getting up to go to the bathroom, a cell phone, or a sneeze. Obviously some distractions are inevitable and cannot be avoided—I once had a man have a heart attack in the middle of a performance—but others are easily avoided. I don’t mind children in my audience—in fact I love kids! But when they start to make noise and continue to make noise–then just like a New Year’s resolution… they should be carried out!

In the legitimate theater these distractions are not tolerated. An usher will escort the source of the distraction out of the auditorium. In the church we have to be much more forgiving and gracious. I have no control over those instances in my week to week travels, although I do have a standard intro that includes encouraging  parents to take out noisy babies and to tell the audience to turn off their cell phones (See our video No Call To Worship).

I know the arguments: “this is church and this is for family” and “this is how we train up a child to learn appropriate behavior” and “if I can’t have the child with me then I have to miss the service.” I can agree with those arguments…up to a point. I do wish however that people would, just for a moment, put themselves in the performer’s shoes and see it for what it is and does to them.

I am convinced that most people really don’t want to upstage a speaker—but in a church setting we are often afraid to set an expectation or enforce a standard, for fear of offending. However, if people are informed from the start what the expectations are, it can greatly reduce the instances of disruption. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish this:

  • Nursery Service – Obvious, of course. But in many churches I think it is presented more as an option rather than the expected thing. Promote the nursery as THE place for the very young to hang out!
  • Designated Seating – If parents insist on having babies and young children with them in the program, have a designated area near a door for them to sit.  Post a sign or instruct ushers to explain that crying or noisy children should be removed from the a auditorium. Even a parent who is sensitive to this issue compounds the problem if they are seated in the middle  or front of the room.  Not only do we have the issue of the crying baby but also the visibility of the parent removing the child in front of most of the audience.  And then there is the issue of them returning to the original seat after the child has been dealt with—an additional distraction!
  • Usher Power– A few years ago we produced a video titled Blessed Usherance (out of circulation), designed to train ushers and greeters for service in the church. We discovered that very few churches actually train ushers and tell them what to do in certain situations.  I have seen the look on so many pastors’ faces when there is a distraction and the pastor is desperately wishing and praying that an usher would handle it.  Empower the usher with the authority to go to the source of the distraction and politely offer to help them out of the room.  Believe me—95% of the audience is wishing for the same thing!

To be in front of an audience as a actor, teacher, preacher or singer is a hard enough job. Taking steps to minimize distractions will make a better performance/worship experience for everyone!

Do you have a story to tell about being upstaged?  Have a tip you can share to help prevent these things from happening?

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