From July 22-27, I spent most of my waking hours backstage. When I wasn’t physically behind the curtains, I was wearing a headset to communicate with those who were. The setting was the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC, for the Ninth Triennial Convention (July 22-24) and Ninth Triennial Gathering (July 24-27).
Backstage was an inspiring place to be, and it wasn’t because of the compelling keynote speakers. Rather, I was inspired by the people the audience didn’t see. Usually dressed in black, they sat in front of computers, television monitors, and soundboards. While the audience listened to inspiring speakers the likes of Becca Stevens and Susan Sparks, I listened to the voices on the headset.
Standby music slide.
Standby back stage.
Send her out.
The voices belonged to about 15 women and men who travel most of the year, working for a big audio-visual company, to produce big events like these. There was Jay, “the mic guy,” who connected each of us with whatever headset or microphone was needed and sat ready to intervene at the slightest problem. Jennifer set up the slides using whatever text, photos, and PowerPoint presentations were given to her. MInute-by-minute, she made sure the next slide was in place. Kevin held it all together as the overall producer. His was the voice I heard most often – mostly giving cues, very occasionally asking about errors, and more often affirming good work by the other people on the crew.
Here’s what inspired me.
Each person on this crew was focused on a specific set of tasks and performed that task with exceptional skill and competence. Each one of those jobs was vital to the show going well, and each person performed, every time.
When conflicts arose, they dealt with them immediately after the job was complete. The stakes are high during a stage show. The audio-visual company is paid well to provide their services. The audience has paid well to be there. With every speaker and performance, there is only one chance to get it right – the sound, the lights, the images. In a week of productions, there were a handful of times when something went wrong to the extent that it affected the audience’s experience. These were heated moments on the headset. Each time, the crew figured out a solution in seconds, and the show went on with minimal disruption. And, each time, I saw those same people – the ones who’d spoken harsh words over the headset – meet backstage immediately after the show to talk it out. Whatever issues arose needed to be addressed right away so that they didn’t affect the next show.
Each show had an agenda, a script, a vision. The crew did their work to realize that vision. But, it wasn’t their vision. They had no stake in what the speaker said, which songs were sung, or what color lighting was used.
They were there to realize the vision of their client, Women of the ELCA. All of their skill, competence, focus, and conflict resolution, went towards realizing a vision that wasn’t their own. I can’t count the number of times that someone from the crew said to me, as the client’s representative, “What can I do for you?” Their motivation was to make the client’s vision come true.
Of course, you might say, realizing the client’s vision is their job, so they better do it well. That’s true. You could say that this crew was motivated by their paycheck, and I wouldn’t think any less of them. Either way, they showed me how to put one’s own skills and energy into realizing someone else’s vision. The vision might not have been perfect, but the experience for the audience was more compelling because the people backstage were 100% committed to that vision.
Occasionally, I get to work on projects that are based fully on my vision. Usually, though, I’m putting my energy and skills into realizing a vision that’s been shaped by multiple people – what to eat for dinner, how to raise money for repairing the sanctuary, carrying out a triennial gathering.
In these situations, there is a time for questioning the other person’s vision. Are you sure this is what you want? Why do you want to do it that way? What about this alternative?
And, there’s a time for accepting the vision as it is, and asking, instead, “What can I do for you?”
The shows in Charlotte went so well because the vision was good and because, once the show began, the crew was 100% committed to making it happen. That’s what I learned backstage.
Emma Crossen is director for stewardship and development.
Photo by Emma Crossen. Jennifer and Heather backstage at the Ninth Triennial Convention.