Own the Stage

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Photo credit: Elizabeth Singer.

At some point in your life, you will need to learn how to work a stage properly, whether you are a student presenting a paper to your classmates or an executive sharing company news with your employees. Make no mistake: you are on stage, however informal the setting or small the audience. The key to owning the stage is using your body wisely — including your eyes, voice, and gestures. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate, as I have learned while acting on summer weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. On August 30, an opportunity to act in a scene with my daughter encapsulated the elements of owning a stage.

As I have discussed on my blog, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright — a self-important and crotchety character who is constantly having his nose tweaked by a mischievous young rogue named Avis Nightjar, portrayed by my daughter, Marion.

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The crotchety Nicolas Wright. Photo credit: Mary Goljenboom.

The Faire cast is given extensive preparation and then an incredible amount of leeway to construct dramatic (usually comic) scenes that we perform on the streets of Bristol to delight the patrons as they explore the city. On August 30, Marion and I acted a scene that required us to use a very small stage consisting of a few wooden steps leading to a square platform that accommodates one or two people at most. The riser, known as the “stump stage,” is so small it does not appear on the Bristol map. But its convenient location at a busy intersection made it the best place for our dramatic bit, which consisted of Nicolas Wright publicly charging Avis Nightjar with a list of ridiculous crimes ranging from poltroonery to hooliganism.

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Avis Nightjar, rogue extraordinaire. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

We built the scene to involve Bristol patrons. Throughout the weekend, Nicolas Wright let it be known that Nightjar would be put on trial Sunday at 6:15 p.m. He canvassed patrons to ask their opinion of her guilt or innocence and invited them to be present at the stump stage to learn the outcome of her trial.

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Wanted. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

When the time came to declare the verdict, Nicolas Wright, with the help of a fool named Jaclyn Faltrades (portrayed by Terri Williams), attracted a large crowd to gather around the stump stage. Wright, standing on the stage, formally read to Nightjar a list of her alleged crimes (a moment that I borrowed from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when the character of Tuco is read an extensive list of crimes for which he has been convicted). He then asked the crowd to render their opinion.

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Day of reckoning. Photo credit: Brian Berg.

Wright played up the moment with over-the-top bluster, making himself look foolish, and Nightjar watched from one of the lower steps with an innocent expression on her face. Of course, the overwhelming majority voted for her innocence. Wright allowed a pregnant pause to linger in the air while he pondered the vote, making eye contact with as many patrons as possible while he thought through his decision. His smile suggested a softening of his heart. Then he pronounced the verdict: guilty.

The crowed booed and hissed, and Nightjar cowered while Wright raised his arms for order. Wright asked Nightjar if she had anything to say for herself before he sent her to the stockade. The trial then took an unexpected turn, just as Marion and I had planned it: Nightjar stepped up to the platform, stood alongside Wright, and turned the tables on the barrister by threatening to expose a number of shady business deals of his. As she talked, Nightjar became more animated, waving her arms and smiling while Wright grimaced and shrank back. The crowd started to laugh, clap, and cheer for Avis as Wright sputtered and demanded she cease talking.

The trial ended when Nightjar agreed to remain silent long as charges against her were dropped and she became his business partner. Wright, softening the tone of his voice, announced to Nightjar, “I think this is the beginning of a profitable relationship,” and the two departed the stage together (a moment I shamelessly borrowed from Casablanca). He even allowed a crooked little smile of respect flash across his face, signaling to the patrons that all would be well.

The scene worked. We had the crowd’s attention the entire time. Not only did the audience vote on her guilt or innocence, but the loud cascade of boos and catcalls that erupted when Wright announced her guilt was a sure sign that in just a few moments, the audience had become emotionally invested in the moment.

I believe what made the scene succeed was not just the nature of the drama (bully barrister picks on teen-aged rogue), but also how we physically used the tiny stage. For instance, take a close look at the following photo. Notice how Avis Nightar stands on a lower step when Nicolas Wright has the upper hand. The barrister faces her directly as he browbeats her, but it is Marion’s use of the lower step that is key:

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Photo credit: Regina Rotermund.

But when Avis turns the tables on Wright, she moves to the platform beside him, thus symbolizing the way their relationship has changed suddenly. She becomes more animated, moving her arms as she schools the barrister on Bristol justice. Meantime, Nicolas Wright retreats and faces the audience so that you can see his pained expression:

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Photo credit: Regina Rotermund.

Through her movement, Marion turned a tiny stage into a grand one and communicated as much with her body as with her words. We both made use of our voices by projecting from our diaphragms. We had to: Bristol is a noisy, crowded place, and to get the attention of an audience, you must project.

I learned something from Marion about owning a stage. Another truth occurred to me: it matters not whether you are on the cast of a Renaissance faire; the lesson of using your physical tools to own a stage applies in every instance, from school presentations to corporate speeches. Here are some simple take-aways that are achievable regardless of the setting:

  • Use the entire stage. Whether you stand at the front of a small room or on an elevated stage in a hotel ballroom, make use of the physical space. I abhor podiums. When you speak from a podium, you neutralize your body as a tool to connect with an audience. Walk the entire stage and step toward your audience, even if your stage consists of just a few feet you have claimed for yourself in a room. When you move physically closer to the audience, your movement keeps their attention, and you make a stronger connection. Know how to use the space to enhance your message, as Marion did Sunday.
  • Project. Don’t yell. Don’t overpower a room. But do speak from your diaphragm, even if you have a microphone. Act as if you are talking to the last person in the last row of the room. When you project, you send a cue to the audience: pay attention. And your own self-confidence builds.
  • Tell a story with your face. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in your content that you forget to use your facial expressions — most importantly, your smile — to deliver your message. In our scene, Wright’s frown and Nightjar’s grin punctuated a turning point in the scene, when Nightjar got the upper hand. Your expression guides the audience. One way to master your facial expressions is to practice your presentation in front of a mirror, or have someone film you with a mobile phone. You’ll become more mindful of using the right expression to punctuate a point when you see how you look.
  • Make eye contact. The more you make eye contact, the more you literally connect with the audience and earn their attention. You will feed off the energy they give back to you when your eyes meet — or, conversely, you may make a mid-course correction in your delivery if you sense that you are losing them, or they appear to be straining to hear you properly. When I made eye contact with the Bristol patrons who voted on Avis Nightjar’s innocence, they knew from Nicolas Wright’s eyes that he was serious about passing judgment. In turn, I saw the expressions on their faces that said, “Is he really going to throw her into the stockade?” I knew I had them. In a large conference room with the lights dimmed, it might be difficult to make much eye contact. But even still, look at your audience and visualize them looking at you. I can guarantee everyone will think you are looking right at them even if you cannot see them clearly. Let your eyes do the talking.
  • Involve the audience. A simple ring of a bell from Fool Jaclyn Faltrades made a statement to everyone in earshot: come join us on the stump stage. Nicolas Wright inviting the audience to vote on Avis’s guilt or innocence got everyone in earshot engaged. Afterward, Avis Nightjar lingered on the stump stage to celebrate her moment with the audience — a crucial action that built camaraderie after the scene had ended. Getting your audience involved takes careful thought, especially if you need to stay on a schedule and need to remain on point. But you can do so even informally, for instance with a simple, “Good morning — how are we all doing today?” as you launch into your moment. Interact with them as much as you can before, during, and after your discussion. You will do more than create a memorable moment. You will form a bond.

Getting and keeping the attention of an audience in any venue is increasingly difficult given all the distractions, digital and offline, that bombard our lives daily. Adding more words to your presentation or performance is not the answer to engaging an audience in our multi-tasking society. Your audience will remember only a small fraction of the actual content you share, whether you are acting a scene or hosting a panel discussion at a trade show. But they will remember the general impression you make. Use the stage to create a strong one.

Here are related posts about my Bristol acting experiences:

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.

Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.

How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014

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