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Stage Presence Part 2: Ambiance

Stage ambiance: What is it?

It is how you add feeling or a mood to your story without words. It can help bring your audience into the time and place you want them to be.

Creating ambiance can save you words and, consequently time, but you still need to consider time. . . not the timing of your story (which we will talk about in my next blog), but rather the time it takes to set things in place and take them down. You will always want to be considerate of the next presenter if you are sharing the stage and there is not an intermission in between. Material items take time to set up and remove. Here are a few things that I have found useful for short engagements. . . things that can be set up ahead of time, removed quickly, or at least moved out of the way and not be a distraction to the next person:

· An easel to hold a picture, drawing, or piece of art

· A small table to hold an object or couple of objects that you might be talking about

· A pull-up or pull-down screen if you are using a projector

· A stand with a musical instrument next to a seat if you are including music

One of my favorite set-ups has been the easel, especially when telling stories about old cars. It is always fun to include a blow-up picture of a vehicle or a hood ornament. The audience knows in advance what my story is going to be about and it saves a lot of introductory words. I have used it for telling stories about other objects as well, such as the Blue Willow China. A large picture sitting on an easel is much easier for an audience to see than holding up an actual Blue Willow plate.

A very memorable occasion of using an easel was when I was telling a true story about the wife of a U.S. sailor who was living in Hawaii the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and how it changed her and her husband’s lives. The venue was a facility for brain-injured residents who were in different stages of rehabilitation. Storytelling was being used as a tool to re-ignite thinking and memories. It was my first experience with that particular audience and I really didn’t know what to expect. I had a collage of large pictures sitting on an easel next to me, but before I even had a chance to speak, one man blurted out, “Is that Pearl Harbor?” The pictures drew him in, and his mind was relating to that piece of history. It made me realize that not being able to communicate well externally does not mean that a person cannot connect internally. I thought about that timeless saying: “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

When you do have the luxury of more time, however, such as when you are leading a workshop or a class, you can add more items of interest to your presentation. A Sunday School lesson that I have done numerous times for churches is called “Salt and the Bible.” It is an hour long, which gives me ample time to include more items having to do with that basic element most of us take for granted: salt – only from a Biblical perspective. The extra effort it takes to pack up a box of antique salt containers and transport them is offset by the interest they create. Plus the participants have an opportunity to look them over before class begins. When the class is over, I have found that many people want to come up and share their own stories about salt boxes, salt deposits, and salt formations. It is another two-way learning experience!

Now you might be thinking, and rightfully so, that by having ample time and space for your story naturally lends itself to using more tangible items to create ambiance and engagement, and that is true. However. . . you know there is an exception to every rule, right? I also want to share with you the most impressive instance of stage ambiance I have ever witnessed.

It was several years ago at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and we were waiting for the next teller to come onto the stage after an intermission. Being the “featured teller,” she was the last one of the evening; the one allotted the most time. There was nothing on the stage beforehand other than one microphone in the center. When it was time to start and everyone was seated, the lights went out – literally. There was the sound of surprise from the audience, some undoubtedly thinking there was a power failure. But it was only for about 20 seconds. When the lights came back on, there was just one – the spotlight. In it stood the storyteller in plain dress – no jewelry, no makeup, just the simple clothing of a rural Appalachian mountain woman with her hair pulled straight back into a bun. She was looking up. Her first words were, “Yes, Your Honor, I understand the charges against me.” The ambiance was unmistakably a court scene, and she was on trial, standing before a judge. Her whole performance was answering the inaudible questions from the judge about how and why her family died during a shoot-out with the law and how she felt their resistance was justified. It was an emotionally riveting enactment of a true story. The total bareness of the scene, with just one light and one lone voice, created a strong stage ambiance.

There is one thing that can negatively impact your carefully-prepared ambiance, however, and that is an unexpected sound or distraction. Things that come to mind are: someone having a coughing spell, leaving in the middle of your performance, an unruly child, a flash camera, a cell phone going off, the sound of a train going by, and the one I will personally never forget—a woman with flashing Christmas tree earrings that unnerved even the performer. If you have an emcee or someone who can give a message to the audience before you begin, these interruptions can be mitigated. He/she can let the audience know that (1) photography is not permitted during the performance, (2) turn off your cell phones, (3) if you might want to open some life savers or cough drops, do it now, (4) if you need to use the restroom, please do it during intermission if possible, etc. You can’t cover everything, but it gets the audience into maintaining the integrity of the performance.

So the main suggestion about stage ambiance is to pair it with the time and place and the “feeling” you want to create. It is not a necessary addition to your presentation, of course, but it can be beneficial in helping your listeners feel like they are a part of your story. Whether it is a bare stage, a complex setting, or somewhere in between, ambiance can help make your story or lesson memorable.

Join me next time for Stage Presence Part Three: Concentration, Story Timing, and Using the Microphone.

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