Is it Live or…

Remember the old commercial with the slogan “Is it Live or is it Memorex?” The conclusion that Memorex wanted you to draw was that quality of the recording would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That you would prefer the recorded music to a live performance.

Technology has come a long way since that commercial (1972). If we are talking about sound quality alone, a professional recording would be hard to match in a live performance these days.

As a professional performer with a focus on ministry these last 40 plus years, I have seen the tides change on the “live vs. recorded” question, especially in the area of drama. I have written about it a few times, most notably here. For the church today, the consensus seems to be that live performance is “out,” video is “in.” And why not? Quality video is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. You don’t have to worry about an actor forgetting lines, and you don’t have to move anything on the platform to accommodate a living room setting (sofa, coffee table, and lamp) for a scene that only lasts 5 minutes. It is rare to find a church today that does not use video in some form at their church services every week.

And yet I hear from people in churches all the time that they miss live performance. So I decided to conduct an informal poll on Facebook. I wanted to see if the perception were true that, due to cultural shifts, more people would prefer video to live performance. I asked this question:

Informal poll for my church-going friends:

A pastor has decided he wants to launch his next sermon series with a powerful 5-minute dramatic scene. He has the option of having two professional actors perform the scene live, or those same two actors perform the scene on video. Both options will be professional in every way. Would you prefer the “live” option or the “video” option?

(along with your answer would you give your age group with a simple: teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s?) Additional comments are welcome.”

There was great participation, with over 135 people responding to the question on 3 different FB sites in 24 hours.

Here are the results:

  • Prefer Live: 77%
  • Prefer Video: 17%
  • It Depends or 50/50: 6%
  • 75% of responses were people between the ages of 50-70.
  • 25% of those in the age 60’s category preferred video.
  • Of the 31 responses in the age of 40 or younger, 80% preferred live to video.

I know this not scientific. There is a bias in that most responders were in an age bracket closer to mine (between 50-70). It would be interesting to see how a mostly millennial sampling would have responded. And because of my connections in the arts, there are more responses from people in the performing arts than you might find in a more random poll. One responder questioned if the responses favored “live” over “video” because I, a theater person, was asking the question, rather than a person who does video for a living asking the question. Fair question and I am sure the results were skewed some because of that, but I don’t think that the vast majority were answering the question to satisfy the poller.

Note that there are also several pastors responding to the poll. One of the more interesting responses from a pastor was this:

Live would be more impacting, BUT, as a pastor I would have to consider the actors afterwards. Will the focus be on them and their performance? Would the video allow the people to more easily integrate it into my message?”

The implication being that the live performance might “upstage” the sermon. I have long suspected that a pastor might feel that way, but had never heard someone actually verbalize it.

There were a few other surprises. There were some theater people that I would have suspected would choose “live” who actually preferred “video.”

Many of those who chose video over live cited more practical reasons dealing with “easier for more people so see and hear in a large auditorium” as opposed to the artistic impact on the audience. And there were many who, rightly so, said it would all depend on the actual piece; that some pieces would translate better on video than live.

I am frankly surprised at the results. I would have expected video to come out ahead, given the shift in how often it is used in the church. But maybe the overuse of video has a lot to do with these responses.

My take-away is that the shift away from live performance in so many churches today does not reflect the preference of the people in the audience. Many have suggested that this is a pendulum swing and that live performance will once again come back.  Me, I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

In the meantime, let me know if I can come to you “live.” No Memorex, I promise!

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? 

The First Church of YouTube

As a professional dramatist who has been performing and working in the church drama arena for over 35 years, I have ridden the roller coaster of the church’s up and down relationship with this art form.  Drama is, at best, the stepchild of church arts ministries, in favor one season and out the next. Music is a staple, a given. Drama on the other hand has been a take it or leave it proposition and currently it seems that the church, for the most part, has decided to leave it.  It has been an uneasy relationship between church and theater, a repeated cycle of acceptance and rejection (the very first plays were religious plays, after all).

In recent years churches like Willow Creek have helped to change that landscape. Drama had a place, and a prominent one at that.  For many churches it was an essential, adopting the format of using a short drama to complement the sermon. It was a great time to be a dramatic artist.  I conducted workshops to help launch drama ministries, wrote sketches that were performed across the country, and toured my one-man shows to more and more churches that were open and eager to integrate drama into the context of worship.

But another shift has occurred and drama has again taken a backseat.  One elephant in the room that has certainly had an impact in the last year has to be the economy. Churches have been forced to cut back, and as it is with secular society the same holds true for the church—if a budget needs trimming, start with the arts. I know of several churches that have cut staff and budgets in areas that are arts related. But economy aside, there are at least three things that I believe have contributed to the decline of church drama in recent years:

1)  It’s Too Much Work. Church drama has come a long way, thankfully.  Go back 30 years and anything classified as church drama was usually hokey, contrived and generally just not very good.  Today’s audiences are more sophisticated.  They know the difference between a “cute skit” and good drama.  They want and demand quality and to get that quality they have learned it isn’t as easy as it looks.  It takes a lot of time and energy to do it well. The feeling was that we would rather see no drama than bad drama (a good standard).Throw in the aspect that the model most churches desired was drama that was a thematic tie-in to the sermon… and well, that is just a lot to try to do on a regular basis.

2)  The Video Clip. The other day I got a note from a friend: “We have disbanded our drama ministry, we now use video clips instead.”  I wish I could say this was an exception and not the rule. The solution to the hard work dilemma is an easy fix… show a video!  Thanks to YouTube, there are a ton of them out there.  Everything from a glorified Powerpoint presentation to scenes from mainstream cinema are only a click away on the Internet.  A quick look at shows over 15,500 videos available for instant download. Videos are an expedient  and effective way to accomplish much of what live drama brought to the worship service. Something culturally relevant, entertaining, and thought provoking.

3)  Authenticity vs. Excellence. When the Willow Creek model took off, one of the distinctive attributes was that everything on the platform be done with excellence.  Music, lighting, sound and yes, drama.  The emphasis was on quality.  It helped change the way that many perceived the church, making it more relevant to our culture.  But, in recent years there has been a backlash to that.  Excellence was viewed as being slick and too polished and “not real.”  Worship was becoming a “performance,” it seems, and so the call was now for everything on the platform to be “authentic.”  Since drama is, after all, a performance, it is easy to see how many have taken the proverbial “throw out the baby with the bathwater” approach. Those who continue with drama, want the dramas to be more testimonial —a “tell us your story” approach. Gone are the short “Saturday Night Live” genres of sketch.  Indeed even the word “drama” it seems is out.  “Story” is the metaphor of choice and not just any story, but a real-life authentic story, if you please.

While I understand the shift, and in many ways can even agree with some of the trends, I think much of what has happened is an over-reaction and I am longing for the middle ground.  Yes, doing drama in church IS hard work.  But to cease to do it because it is hard is a terrible reason to give up on it.  I believe that the church can and should be a breeding place for artists.  My early experiences doing church dramas ignited my passion and talent for the theater.  Countless musicians, both Christian and secular, would echo the same thing.  If we don’t give young artists a way to discover and use their gifts within the church then they will take them somewhere else. They run the risk of losing the connection to a spiritual foundation and an understanding that their gifts are indeed gifts from God and of value to the church.

While video can be effective and certainly expedient, it is no replacement for live performance.  There is a certain magic to live drama done well that connects on a profound level—not necessarily better than video –but different and potentially more personal and more authentic! And video is common—too common. We sit in front of a video screen too many hours a week.  We watch shows and movies on televisions, Youtube on our computers, and now we go to church and watch more video.  Live drama is not as common and thus has the potential to grab people’s attention powerfully. I acknowledge that film-making is also an art form and I am not suggesting that we abandon video, but let’s not make it an either/or proposition.  There is room for both. I am aware of one church in the Los Angeles area that has a thriving drama ministry.  Because they have a number of Hollywood professionals in the church they have the luxury of deciding whether a particular drama should be live or on film and are capable of producing either.  They should be the envy of every church!

Authenticity and excellence are not mutually exclusive.  They can co-exist together.  Sadly, it seems that the middle ground for many churches has become mediocrity. Because I am a touring artist, I am in a different church virtually every week.  It is my observation that churches are caring less about how they present themselves on the platform.  Since excellence is no longer the distinctive, they care less about how the platform looks. In striving to be authentic, they care less about the whether the person singing or speaking is actually a good performer or a good communicator.  They need to care more! Those on the platform are, in essence, modeling worship for the rest of the congregation. Our worship is for the King of Kings and it should never be done with mediocrity. The churches that do “authenticity” well have found a way to do it with excellence. Sorry to say it, but even that takes some skill and practice! You may have a great story but if you mumble and don’t use eye contact with your audience… it is not going to be effective. Since “story” is the current metaphor, drama is perhaps one of the best mediums out there to share story. People remember and identify more when it is presented in a visual format.

The church struggles in every generation to communicate to the masses. Churches need to learn the language of the culture, and like it or not, our culture revolves around entertainment.  The church should have, at its core, a purposeful heart of worship, offering up talent and creativity to the One who gave it in the first place. It should strive to offer that which holds His attention, and the attention of others; that which diverts attention away from the busy, stressful world that occupies our time and toward our Lord and Savior; that which delights God and others. That is entertainment.  And that is truly authentic worship.

Chuck Neighbors

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