Artistry: A Story to Tell
Twelve Steps to More Professional-Looking Productions
We all face common challenges in the presentation of our major productions. I want to present twelve things that can vastly improve the quality of our productions without adding greatly to the cost. Attention to these details will bring a more professional look and feel to our all-important attempts to tell the Jesus Story to our communities.
First, let talk VISION.
SEASONAL PRODUCTIONS ARE EVANGELISTIC EVENTS
Seasonal Productions demand a coming together of the artists and technicians of the church “to make one sound” as they present Jesus to the community in an effective, unified expression.
Lighting people, actors, sound people, directors, scenic designers and builders, stage hands, writers, costumers, make up people, printers, and helpers of all descriptions are needed to do a production. This is why God loves production ministry—it is a collaborative form of ministry. It takes all the talent He has placed within the church to do it right.
There are several types of musical productions:
- The choir concert; perhaps a book musical with narration,
- The dramatic concert; a choir with a narrator and dramatic scenes,
- The pageant; a choir and narrator with a sequence of symbolic characters and perhaps banners, etc.
- The musical play; a cast and a chorus (singing in character), probably
without narrator, a story with definite time frame and well focused action.
The Production must be given its own schedule and calendar, usually a four month plan:
First month – First Production Meeting
- share idea, music, tapes, production scripts, set sketches.
- work out calendar, especially production weeks.
- divide responsibility; make assignments; establish lines of communication and accountability; budget..
Second month – Second Production meeting
- progress reports on all work.
- budget outlook.
- recheck calendar.
Third month – Third Production Meeting (very similar to second meeting)
Fourth month – Production weeks
- meet as necessary during production weeks
- make sure everybody thinks through to putting everything back.
Asst. Producer; Production Manager(budget, usually music sec.);
Director/Asst. Director; Tech Director; Stage Manager;
Production Designer; Construction Manager;
SOUND, STAGE, CONSTRUCTION, LIGHTING, PUBLICITY
CAST , CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA
This is a “modular” production company with each module working separately until the production weeks. The Evangelism department or the Pastor should plan the altar plan and follow up. Now, for better productions.
Step Number One—
Perhaps the most common mistake we make in church productions is when we violate the time frame of the story. I once saw a “blind” man, in a Christmas pageant, rejoicing after Jesus had healed him. He was having a great time but when he raised his left hand in the air, I saw his wrist watch! Now, that’s funny, (a blind man with a watch?—a watch in Jesus’ day?) but it is also an anachronism—something out of the time frame. Here are the common ones:
- watches, rings, glasses, etc. in Bible times story
- songs in past tense when the action is happening now
- up to date, street slang, hip dialogue in Bible times story
- hand-held microphones
Step Number Two—
Use Proper Stage Facing, Turns, Hands, etc.
Another all too common set of mistakes involves proper stage facing. It is amazing how many backs you can see on stage in church productions. The action and dialogue must be blocked for the audience, not for the actors. Teach your people the basics:
learn stage facings: full front, 3/4 side, side
- avoid straight lines; use small groups instead
- avoid upstaging (drawing audience attention upstage) important events, dialogue, characters
- gesturing with down stage hands
- turning down stage
Step Number Three—
Use Story-teller Format, Not Narrator
If anything is over used in church productions it is the narrator. A narrator is a lecturer, speaking directly to the audience. This is the least affective way to communicate with people. The audience wants to see a story unfold before them, not be lectured to. By making your narrator a story-teller you create wonderful opportunities:
- The story-teller has his own story: Who is he or she? What does the story mean to him or her?
- The story-teller needs someone to tell the story to, usually no more than two people. Who are they? What does the story mean to them?
- When these story lines run parallel, dramatic irony (things the audience knows that the characters do not) is an opportunity to make statements about the Jesus story.
- When all the story lines merge (the shepherds arrive at the stable) the greatest application of the meaning of the story takes place.
Step Number Four—
Use Wireless and Hidden Microphones
This has already been mentioned as an anachronism but it deserves its own status as a full-fledged step to better productions. I know budgets are tight, but when the church lags so far behind the technology of the day, the world just laughs at us. The vast majority of us cannot afford body mics and other state of the art techniques, but wireless lapel mics are readily available to rent. Over time you can rent and buy and get your own set. Some sound operators want the great, bass boosted sound of a hand held, but I would rather have the character presentation I get when an actor is free from touching a mic. Why go to all the effort of sets and costumes and lighting to create a sense of time and place and then hand Peter a microphone?
“Suspension of disbelief” is essential to theatre. The audience must willingly decided to believe that what they are seeing is real. They will forgive mics hidden in trees and behind rocks or mics hanging from above or mics pinned to clothing but mics in the hand or worn on the head are too big a distraction.
Step Number Five—
Keep the Play Moving While Changing Sets
When it is necessary to change sets, don’t stop the play, send the action into the aisles, or to far stage right or left. If you are using a story-teller format, have those characters in a set that does not change so that the other sets can be changed during a story-teller sequence. Modern plays must be more like cinema: short scenes, constantly shifting locations, etc.
Step Number Six—
Stay In Character
One of the first signs of a poorly trained actor is acting when speaking a line and not acting when others are speaking. I am convinced that nothing draws an audience into the story like the reactions of the the characters who are not speaking. In church productions there are usually crowds. Everybody should be in character and stay in character! Here’s a list of things to teach:
- Get a character. Everybody on stage should create a reality for his or her character.
- Get a Point of View. POV gives each person a context for reacting to everything that happens on stage.
- Listen to the dialogue (or ignore it if that is what is called for) and respond!
- Do not look at the audience! This breaks their suspension of disbelief. The play is happening before them. Let them remain spectators. Their sense of safety opens their heart for your message.
Step Number Seven—
Avoid Ad Libs, Rough Summarizing of Dialogue
Of course, as a writer, I love actors who say the lines I wrote, but this is more than writer’s ego. Stage Managers, Lighting Directors, Sound Operators, Conductors and Fellow Actors are listening for exact cues. There is also the possibility that certain words are more carefully chosen and meaningful than ones that might pop into an actor’s head at the last minute.
Step Number Eight—
Avoid Bright Colors in Costumes
In Bible times, costumes favor earth tones over pastels and paisleys. Not only are they more authentic, but they are easier on the audience’s eyes. All colors get brighter under lights.
Step Number Nine—
Avoid Fake Looking Beards, Wigs and Makeup
Keep the cheese in the green room, please! Cheesy looking beards and wigs are distractions. It is better to understate these elements. Be sure to make up arms, feet, backs of legs, etc. anything that is seen.
Step Number Ten—
Use Gels on Lights and Lights as a Curtain
Few things on earth are uglier than white skin under white light! Coloring the light softens it and is a way to underscore the emotion of a scene. Gels work with good make-up to help bring out facial features. Most of us don’t have a curtain to close. By lighting specific areas of the stage so that the action can move around and so that the audience can know where it is supposed to be looking you can focus the actions. One scene can be setting up while another is playing
Step Number Eleven—
Use the Whole House and Stage
With light as your curtain, you are free to play scenes all through the house: stage right, stage left, down stage center, the aisles, the baptistery, anywhere. The more of the house and stage you use, the more involved your audience will be. Shorter scenes with quick lighting cues make your play seem more like a film than a stodgy old stage play.
Step Number Twelve—
Use the Music to Tell the Story
Music is your ally. Be careful to avoid a rhythm of scene and song, scene and song, etc. Integrate the songs with the scenes by using songs within scenes to:
- advance the story
- develop character.
- express the emotion of the meaning of the story.
- But, music must be adapted to your play. Be sure you buy the music from the publisher, then you can adapt it for your purposes. Here are some ways:
- Break a song up. Do verse one in act one, verse two in act three.
- Reprise a song. If the song has meaning the first time, it has more the next time!
- Adapt the lyrics to your time frame. This usually involves pronouns and verbs. I have been known to write new verses for my characters.
- Use songs instrumentally (after they have been sung) to underscore meaningful action or dialogue.
- Use instrumental versions (Reprise) to cover short scene changes. This does not stop the play. It extends the emotion of the scene that has just played.
- When not using tracks change the tempo on the song if you need to make it fit the scene.Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer © 2014 Creator Magazine All Rights Reserved