Live vs. Video

From my inbox:

“How do you feel about doing live stage performance, that has been carefully, planned blocked, with sets, entrances costumes, lighting etc, and then have video camera crew shoot the whole thing onto three giant screens floating above your head? Do you feel as I do that this pretty much sucks the life out of the art form and the relationship between the actor and the audience – especially since the audience stops watching the stage and watches the giant screens instead?”

1Can you feel the frustration coming from the question? And did you notice that the writer sort of answered the question—assuming I would agree—before I had a chance to answer? In this case the assumption is correct.  And then there is this:

“I have no control over the camera angles, close ups or long shots. The person in the booth who never sees the rehearsals takes it upon themselves to shoot the action on the stage any way they want to and thereby interprets for the audience what they want them to see.”

No question about it, church is not what it used to be.  Technology, like it or not, is here to stay. As much as some may long for the “good ole days” they aren’t coming back when it comes to technology.  Oh, there are the hold-outs—mostly churches that are more limited by finances and know-how, rather than desire. But it is rare indeed to see a church that doesn’t have a video screen and making use of power-point, video, and even interactive question and answers via texting from the congregation.

Technology is great and I love all the things we can do with it. But just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we should use it in every conceivable situation! The drama department—if you even have one—is one area of the arts that has suffered the most… that and add the printers of hymnbooks. Both, it seems have been replaced by the video screen.
Live theater and video are two very different art forms.  A stage play is directed with the understanding that a live audience is viewing the scene. It is up to the director to control the audience’s attention through the dialog, movement on stage, and the lighting. Video is very different and attention is focused through the camera’s lens.  There is no choice for the viewer on where to look, the camera tells you. I have seen some very professional stage plays shot on video… I am rarely impressed.

I can truly identify with the struggle expressed in the email.  I am often in situations where they want to project my image on the screen while I perform. I usually discourage it. The only exception being in the truly large auditoriums that seat thousands, and it is a legitimate concern for everyone to be able to see.  But that is not the case in most churches and in the scenario expressed in this email.

My advice for those that are caught in the middle of live performance vs. video is to make a choice. Is this script better or more effective as a live play or as a video?  If it is video, then go shoot a video outside the service time where the script is set up and shot properly as a video shoot.  And if it is better live, then turn the camera off during the service!

No question, I have a bias. We are inundated with video today. There is a power in live performance. There is a relationship between audience and performer that you can not achieve with video. So I say again, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Do you have any other helps or advice for the writer of this email? How would you suggest the person handle this issue with those making the decisions to shoot the video? 

Kirk Cameron and Me

Here I am as a "Christian actor" notice the beard and man-dress.

Here I am as a “Christian actor”—notice the beard and man-dress. (Circa 1991)

I

was reflecting the other day on my profession and made the observation that I have something in common with actor Kirk Cameron. If I asked you to make a list of “Christian actors,” we would both probably be on that list.  (It would be a very short list.) Kirk’s name would likely be very near the top of the list and mine near the bottom. Mine would only be on your list if I happened to come to your mind because I had recently performed at your church, and you remembered my name.  It would probably listed like: “That Christian actor guy that performed at our church a few months ago.”

I have commented in the past about being labeled a “Christian actor” as opposed to simply an actor who is a Christian.  When it comes to my profession and my faith I prefer to have both those words be nouns.

Somehow putting the word “Christian” in front of an occupation is either extremely limiting or sets up an expectation that is false or impossible to fulfill.

Examples:

Christian Plumber — When he finishes your pipes will only drip holy water.

Christian Carpenter — He makes lovely crosses but his doors won’t stay closed, they are always open.

Christian Mechanic — He converts all your parts, giving them new life.

Christian Doctor — No pills… but make sure he washes his hands before he lays them on you. You don’t want the last infection he healed.

Here I am as Count Dracula, a role performed by an actor who is a Christian. (Circa 1972)

Here I am as Count Dracula…a role performed by an actor who is a Christian. (Circa 1972)

You get the idea… I mean you don’t have to be a Christian to do a job well and frankly I have met some Christians in certain professions that aren’t very good at their jobs.  I want a plumber that can unclog a drain, a carpenter  who knows how to make a good cabinet, an honest mechanic that can fix my car, and a doctor who is willing to prescribe an antibiotic… I don’t care if they are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or an Atheist.

There are times when “Christian” as an adjective makes sense… Add Christian in front of minister, missionary, or maybe counselor and I understand that.

Add Christian in of  front actor and you feel doomed to play only parts that require a beard and a bathrobe (unless maybe your name is Kirk Cameron). And I happen to know there several famous actors who are Christians. I won’t mention their names out of fear that you might start thinking of them as “Christian actors.” Sometimes I want play the bad guy — every good story has one.  An actor who is a Christian can do that… a Christian actor… probably not.

What are some of your favorite misuses of the label “Christian?”

It’s Okay to Copy, Right?

Ever wonder what artists talk about when they get together?  Fishermen talk about “the one that got away.” Truck drivers talk about bad wrecks and near misses. Food service people talk about rude customers.  But what do artists, especially those musicians and actors who serve the church… what do they talk about?

The name of this blog is Backstage Blog… so today I thought I would give you some real backstage chatter. I recently received this true story from a fellow artist.  I have my own similar stories but rarely have I seen so many bad cliches come together in one narrative. So read and enjoy… or cringe… as the case may be!

When I was touring my one-man material back in the 90s (I know, so long ago, right?), I would send churches a checklist of things I needed. Top of the list: I need a place where I could change and please please have the platform area  be cleared of furniture before I got there. In my heyday of 2 or 3 performances a week, it got very tiring to move furniture, get changed, do the play, then move it all back. But over the years, my guess is about 70% of the churches didn’t do this for me. I’d walk into the sanctuary and the front of the church still looked like Sunday morning. Although a janitor was usually there to “help me” clear it off.

This became the beginning of true back pain.

One place, I remember it was in a little town in CA, I didn’t have anyone there to help at all. I wandered in Sunday afternoon, calling for help. Finally, an older gentleman came out and said he couldn’t help me, his back was bad and besides, I was a young whipper-snapper and couldn’t I just move those 6 heavy solid cherry-wood pews off the platform, along with the five huge potted plants, and the pulpit the size of a ship prow. I had just driven 6 hours, in the middle of summer, without stopping to go to the bathroom. So I made a stand: “I really need someone to come down and help me.” This made the older gentleman furious. He called the youth pastor/choir director down to help me. He showed up with Chuck E. Cheese on his breath, fit to be tied that I would make such a ruckus. I told him he signed a pledge the stage would be cleared and I can’t do it myself.  So, he helped me, but I got the youth pastor silent treatment the whole time. But this wasn’t the only insult to my injury.

Next I asked where I could get changed. He pointed to a storage room off the stage. I could barely get inside with all the boxes and music stands. One box I noticed right away. Actually, several boxes—all containing photocopies of my plays. Dozens of them. There were probably 3 of my books with all the plays copied over and over. The youth pastor/choir director came in and saw me looking at the plays. He said: “Yeah, the youth pastor up the street got ahold of these plays from someone else and he let me copy them all. They’re hysterical. Really good skits.” I just kept staring at him, trying to figure out how to tell him I was the author and how uncool this was. Then the lightbulb went off in his head.

He said, “Oh man, you wrote those skits, didn’t you? We use ’em all the time.”

I was still looking at him for any sign of guilt or remorse for blatantly breaking copyright laws. Nothing. So, I prompted him: “Yeah, um, this is my work.”

“Your work? I thought it was the work of the Lord.”

“No, ” I said, “I mean, it’s my work. My job. This is how I make a living.”

“So, it’s not a ministry to you?”

I’d heard this line a thousand times and I had my response: “Yeah, and isn’t what you do your ministry?”

“Absolutely.”

“And don’t you get paid for it?”

He shook his head. He was disgusted. “It’s not the same thing.”

Of course, I’d also heard this a thousand times too. This was just spiritual snobbery. “How come it’s not the same? I commit myself to God, the same as you. I’m preaching the word, the same as you. I went to school to study how to do this, the same as you.”

Man, this really cooked him up. Finally, his coup de grace: “Writing skits and doing plays is not the same as clergy ministry, okay? And if you were really serving Jesus, you’d be happy your work is being used.”

To which I replied: “Please don’t use Jesus to excuse your bad manners.”

Two weeks later, I got a note from the youth pastor. I, of course, expected a note of apology or understanding. He told me I wouldn’t be asked back. That I didn’t have a spirit of humility. And that he was going to write my publisher to tell them that I wasn’t representing their company well by demanding they buy copies. Oh sweet irony. Anyway, not many people I can share this story with now. Back in the old days when we were fighting the good fight to legitimize the use of theater in churches (it did get legitimized—then marginalized!)”

I can thankfully say that experiences like this one are rare.  The church… at least most…has come a long way in its understanding of art as it pertains to ministry… but some of those attitudes are still out there… He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

To Tell the Greatest Story Ever Told

I have some exciting news. I have been invited to take our ministry to both Athens, Greece and Madrid, Spain this summer. I will be working with a ministry called Greater European Mission. Europe knows all about religion, but the knowledge and experience keep most from discovering a life-changing relationship with Jesus. Europe needs a new wave of people following Jesus in such a way that others are drawn to do the same. GEM is working to ignite discipleship movements in 50 cities in Europe over the next five years, and then working to rapidly create churches.

I will be a part of a team of artists and communication specialists that will be training individuals on the power of story as a means of sharing the Gospel.  The goal is to equip both long term workers and short term missionaries to be more effective in sharing the story of Christ as well as telling their own personal stories in order to communicate the Good News.  As one who believes in the power of story, I am sure you can see why this approach is exciting to me and one that believe can truly make a difference!

The dates of my journey are August 4-16. As with other mission trips of this type, I am going as a volunteer and will need to raise support to be able to be a part of the team.  Would you to prayerfully consider being a partner with me in this venture.  I will need to raise about $2000 to cover my travel expenses. If you can help please send your gift to:
Master’s Image Productions
P.O. Box 903, Salem, OR 97308

Or you can donate online through Paypal (including credit cards) by clicking this button:


Gifts are tax-deductible.

Even if you can’t support with dollars, we ask you to support us with your prayers. Pray for safety, that hearts will be open to the message and that opportunities will abound! Also pray for my wife, Lorie, as these longer trips are never easy for her. Thanks for joining us in the journey!

Serving the Lord dramatically,

Chuck Neighbors

“What Happened to Drama in Churches?”

If you follow this blog, you know I have commented in several of the postings about the decline of drama ministry in the church.  Willow Creek Community Church was the model that everyone followed and now apparently they too have abandoned drama. Here is a a great commentary on this from one of Willow Creek’s own, Sharon Sherbondy.  Please read.. and I would love to hear your thoughts!

What Happened to Drama In Churches?

 

A Really Short Story

At one of my church performances I had a “wardrobe” malfunction, and the entire seat of my pants ripped out.  I was full of fear and panic as I tried to figure out how to keep from exposing myself to the audience.  Remembering the training I received in high school drama class, I was able to complete the performance without turning my back to the audience.

That is one of the stories I tell in much greater detail in my autobiographical one-man show called Truth Be Told… From a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. In my storytelling seminars I have been encouraging people to tell really short stories.  My friend Tom Long, the director of Friends of the Groom, introduced me to this idea that he has been sharing in his workshops.  The concept sounds simple–tell a story in just three sentences. But it takes a bit of work to take a significant event from your life and distill it down to just three sentences.  Here is another one of mine:

My infant son became very ill when he was just 6 weeks old. He almost died and spent several days in the intensive care unit of the hospital as we prepared ourselves for the worst. Today he is a healthy young man who travels the world performing music.

Telling really short stories forces you to look at the essence of what makes a good story.  You discover that good stories are almost always about something going wrong.  In the dramatic/storytelling world that is called “conflict” — every story needs one. And this becomes sentence number one.  Then you ask a simple question:  “what happens next?”  In this three-sentence structure you are forced to go for the main or most important thing that happens next. That becomes sentence number two. Then finally comes the resolution, the final outcome… the “happily ever after”… or not… if the story has a tragic ending. That becomes sentence number three.

Telling really short stories has a number of very practical applications.  If you are a pastor, speaker, or writer, learning to craft these stories can be a great way to grab an audience’s attention and do it quickly.  Often a writer or a speaker will start a story and then take rabbit trails, adding too many details or taking off on a tangent that leaves the audience wondering where this is going or what happened next in the main story.  In the process we can totally lose the listener.  Three-sentence stories help both the presenter and the listener to keep the proper focus.

But even in just everyday life, knowing how to tell a really short story can be a great way to start a conversation. Really short stories beg questions.  People will want to know more details and this can be an excellent way to build relationship and community with others in our lives. You might also find that the process of remembering these stories is a great way to reflect on life and the lessons you have learned along the way.

So go ahead, take a minute or two or ten. Think of a significant event:  funny, sad, impacting, or life-changing.  Try to tell it in just three sentences.  In fact, you can share it here in the comments.  Your really short story might be just the thing somebody else needs to hear!

Plant Those Feet!

It was a typical worship service in many ways… typical for an evangelical church in North America, at least. The service started with a three-song set of upbeat contemporary worship choruses.  The worship leader was trying to get the congregation to bring some life to the song she was leading, encouraging them to clap and sway to the music: “As long as the feet don’t move, it’s not dancing!” she quipped.

Sculpture by: Zenos Frudakis “Freedom”

Finally! I now have a definition I can use.  We need to plant those feet.  I had to laugh… but it got me thinking all over again about the “worship wars.” And how we define what is appropriate or inappropriate in worship.  I am not going to even try to answer that question… the dialog, especially on music styles, is long and tired on this topic, and there are no clear winners in the worship wars.

As a dramatist, I have had to fight my own battles—not as fierce or as divisive, perhaps, as those on the music front,—but battles nonetheless.  The other day I received this email from a church leader: “Dramas and plays have their place, but it is our reasoning that we do not allow them in our sanctuary.”

It surprised me to hear it stated so bluntly.  I have been in ministry, as a dramatist, for over 37 years.  I fear if I were not able to share my ministry in a church sanctuary I would have no ministry at all, or at least not the kind of ministry I have today.  Yet I know the sentiment is out there, just not verbalized so readily as this person was willing to state it.

Part of me wanted to engage, to fight back, to defend my art, my craft and especially my calling. I wondered what standard I might apply so that what I did would not be considered “drama” at this church.  If I limit my movement or don’t change my voice for different characters, is it not drama?  If I only quote scripture, is it not drama? I wondered if the pastor was ever accused of “acting” or being theatrical if he told a good story. As one who does this as his life’s work, it was hard not to take it personally.  I could easily have taken offense… and perhaps I did just a bit.

I understand it though, really I do.  This particular church denomination had in its history   taken a stance against the “theater.” At the time they took the stance theater was associated with the worst of the entertainment industry.  “The church should not be a place of entertainment” is the cry. We so easily justify “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” when something goes too far in one direction.  We especially see this in the church with the arts. Music, dance, and drama—all have had seasons of being embraced and then rejected by the church. (For more on this topic see Redeeming Entertainment and The Pendulum Swings-Worship Trends)

It leaves the artist struggling to find a way to share—what many feel called to share—in a way that gives them a voice without being rejected.  We look to find the proper balance.  We want to know were we stand.  It leads to compromise… sometimes that can be a good thing… and yet the artist also has a prophetic voice and compromise can sometimes  render the art impotent. I personally believe that the artist’s voice is especially needed in the church today—needed both inside and outside the sanctuary.

“As long as the feet don’t move, it’s not dancing.” Planting your feet may be the standard… but maybe we really do need to dance!

Have you struggled as an artist to find ways of expressing yourself in the life of your church?  As a church leader how do you determine if a certain artistic expression is appropriate for your church?

I Vant To Remember My Line

I remember the first big acting role I had in high school. The play was Dracula and I was cast as the title character (and no, it wasn’t type casting!). I so wanted to make a good first impression on my director and fellow cast members that as soon as I got the script I rushed home and began immediately memorizing my lines.  I showed up at the first rehearsal proudly gloating that I had all my lines memorized!

Chuck Neighbors as Dracula: "I vant to remember my line!"

Rehearsal began… and when it came time for my lines… the lines I had memorized… I was strangely silent. It was my turn to speak… but I didn’t know it. You see, while I had indeed memorized the words on the page, I had not bothered to read or study the rest of the text.  I could quote my lines like a monolog, out of context, but didn’t know where they fell in the sequence of the story.  In short, I didn’t know my CUES! Big mistake!

One of the questions that often comes up on this topic in my workshops is “do I have to memorize my lines word for word?” Lots of people don’t like my answer to this, but if you are an actor performing a script then the answer is “YES!” you must memorize word for word. There is both a philosophical reason for this as well as a practical reason:

  • The philosophical reason is that you are performing someone else’s writing. Most scripts will have a disclaimer that the text can’t be changed without written permission from the writer or publisher.  (Just imagine going to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet; you are waiting for the famous “To be or not to be” speech and the actor says “be something or don’t be something, ya know?” ) Your job is to interpret the text, not rewrite it.
  • But equally important is the practical reason. It goes back to my big mistake in playing the famous Count. Lines are memorized based on cues.  If I don’t say my line as it is written in the script, there is a good chance the person I am on stage with won’t know how or when to respond with their line. And if I have changed the cue, the line they have memorized may no longer make sense. Changing cue lines is a recipe for forgotten and missing lines in a performance! Don’t do it!

Here then are a few tips on how to memorize:

  • Read the script! At the risk of being redundant—read the script. Read it first to get a good understanding of the story. Read it again to gain insight into your character. Read it again for understanding of other characters and their interaction with your character. Read it until you can tell the story of the script in your own words.
  • Highlight your lines so they stand out on the page.
  • Using a blank sheet of paper, cover all the lines and slide the paper down—a line at time—as you work on each of your lines.
  • Memorize out loud. Say the lines as you plan to say them in character, thinking the  character’s thoughts as well. Say your lines AND the cue lines (the other person’s lines) out loud. While not consciously trying to memorize the cue lines, if you use this method you actually will!
  • Only after you can respond with the correct line, word for word, do you move on to the next line. Begin again at the top with each new line you memorize.
  • Memorize on your feet. Keeping your body moving gets your blood pumping, helping to keep you alert and focused. Pace, or if you know the blocking (stage directions), practice it at the same time.
  • As soon as possible get the paper out of your hands and practice the lines with another person giving you the cue lines audibly. Ideally the other cast members, but if that is not possible, anyone who can read will suffice. If you don’t have another person to work with, use a tape recorder.

Memorization is my least favorite part of my craft.  I hate memorizing (especially when it comes to 30 pages of monolog in my one-man shows), but I will tell you that I love BEING memorized. Nothing can make you feel more confident in performance than the secure feeling that you know your lines.

Have a tip or suggestion on memorization you can share?

The Art of the Holy Backrub

It’s no surprise that I believe in story as one of the best ways to communicate truth or to make a point.  When you can also incorporate a little audience participation the possibility of “experiencing” your point is that much stronger, and often a lot of fun too!  Here is a bit of fun storytelling I shared at the Northwest Ministry Conference in Seattle earlier this year. This script is from Tom Long, one of my favorite playwrights (see Friends of the Groom for more on Tom and his scripts).

I am looking forward to sharing again at this conference in 2012!

When Art and Ministry Become One

I received an unexpected gift this weekend.  Not the kind you can put in a box… more valuable than that… at least to me.

Sometimes, being an itinerant performer/ministry, you can wonder if what you do makes a difference.  I show up, do my performance and leave… rarely do I get to see any tangible fruit of my labor, beyond the applause, handshakes, and thank-yous at the door. I hope, trust, and pray that God is in this with me… but sometimes, I just need a little  confirmation, a little taste of the fruits of my labor.

I got a taste this weekend.  The church that hosted the performance was not huge—maybe 150 people. I performed in the morning worship service, presenting my adaptation of the book In His Steps… a piece I have been performing for over 27 years… and to be honest, I sometimes wonder if it is still relevant… as an artist I am prone to doubt.

The congregation was with me, I could sense it. I finished the performance and exited the stage… and then… then the gift.

The pastor stood and began to pray. It was obvious from the prayer, that he was deeply impacted and challenged by the presentation.  At the conclusion of the prayer, he asked the congregation to remain silent and to listen to what God is saying to them at this moment.  After the silence he asked if anyone had anything they wanted to share.  I stood in the back of the room and took it all in.

“Our sign out front says ‘Carrying Christ to our Community’ but we aren’t doing a very good job of it.”

“I keep telling myself that I am too old to do things anymore, but I need to remember that it is not my strength but God working through me… I just need to be available to be used.”

“The Bible says faith without works is dead… some of us need to hear that.”

“There are ways we can serve each other right here in this body. There are people in this congregation that need help and I need to be doing more to help them.”

Similar comments continued for several minutes. The pastor went on to affirm that it was no coincidence that I was there this particular weekend.  God had orchestrated it.  It was a timely message in the life of this church.

What a gift to be able to see and hear firsthand the impact of the morning. Truly an unexpected gift and a confirmation that was a blessing to me.

I left with a heart full of gratitude. Thankful to be reminded again why I do what I do. Thankful to be an artist and to see how art and ministry can work hand in hand together to build the Kingdom of God.

Do you have stories of how God has used art to touch you or the lives of others? 

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