Tag Archives: Open Mic

Sarnia’s Open Stage – An Eclectic Experience

I can’t wait!

Even the statue of a woman with long flowing hair tilts her head up as if in song or praise. If she could dance she would, but tonight she holds her enthusiasm inside and stands guard in the floral gardens of the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. We exchange winks.

Statue outside Lawrence House Centre for the Arts June 6, 2009

A warm welcome from the statue in the garden outside the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts.

Behind me, local poet Don Gillatly and his wife Heather follow me up the stairs to the main entrance. It’s the first evening of Open Stage since the summer break and probably my fifth or sixth visit since the event was launched in April 2016.

I’m pleased to see Don and Heather. It means they are happy to return for another season.

Once inside, we sign our names on the roster of performers and scan the Turret Room for empty chairs as we wait our turn for sharing. The excitement builds as evening light shines through the stained glass windows. The serene yellow walls showcase local art headlined by bold white words like Literary Arts, Performing Arts, and Art Matters.

missy burgess supplied by missy

Missy Burgess, hostess of Open Stage at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, Photo Courtesy of Karen Flanagan McCarthy.

“Has everyone signed up?” Open Stage hostess Missy Burgess, holds up her notebook. Several local musicians and writers nod their heads. “We have nine performers tonight so we’ll do two sets: one of five, one of four, with a break in between…maximum two songs or two stories”.

The atmosphere remains warm and casual. As Missy says, “it’s a safe place to share”.

I wait for the magic to unfold on stage.

For over a decade, this historical building housed a regular Spoken Word event where local writers (and a musician or two) gathered monthly to share their work with like-minded individuals.

Established writers like the late Peggy Fletcher and the late Hope Morritt (the first literary reps for the Lawrence House board), created the event as a way to showcase the work of local authors. As co-hosts, they treated everyone like family and embraced both new and established talent.

Over the years, Spoken Word evolved with each new host or co-host. A few songwriters and musicians stopped by. One year an actor shared skits. Rap artists and comedians and out-of-town guests would pop in too! Then like a ghost, the monthly open mic faded away. The local literary community was aging and changing. It was difficult to find a new emcee and organizer. A fresh start was needed and one day it happened.

You could say, “the stars lined up”. Others might describe it “as a Phoenix rising from the ashes”. In April 2016, local songwriters/musicians (and Lawrence House board reps) John Pilat and Missy Burgess invited and introduced area musicians and writers to a new open mic event. Called Open Stage, it would be held on the second and third Mondays of each month. Statutory holidays were excluded.

The first season proved to be a huge success, attracting a house full of musicians and a handful of curious writers.

The second season appears just as promising.

On this particular night, Monday, September 11, 2017, the number of performers grows from 9 to 12 people, as three more musicians slip in late. Most on this month’s roster are male but there is usually a cross-section of ages and a nice mix of musicians, poets, songwriters, storytellers, and writers. Everyone is welcome.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Group image

“I come here because I enjoy it,” said Don holding tight to his notebook of poems.

Heather, who prefers to watch versus participate, elaborates, “Don enjoys listening but he also enjoys sharing his own work.”

Tonight’s performances are eclectic: a memoir about worm-picking and selling magazines, a vocal performance of Frank Sinatra songs, a poem influenced by a writers’ retreat in Ireland, another one about letting “the bright light shine”, a poem about art and one about ash trees, a tune on a music box and a story about a moonlit adventure on the lake, several musical performances of original material, and plenty of laughter.

Each musical note and literary word twirls & swirls like autumn leaves.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Rob

Singer Rob Rooke loves the sound of the Turret Room.

“It’s a nice venue,” said Rob Rooke, one of the regular vocal performers. “It has one of the best sounds….really nice with the turrets….Also I’ve seen people get nervous on stage but Missy calms them down and makes the artists feel comfortable.”

At the end of the evening, Missy thanks Daria (the sound engineer for her help), the performers and those in the audience who stopped by to watch and listen. Everyone helps with putting away the chairs. It’s like a family gathering…a fun night out.

A few days ago, I had a chance to chat with Missy about this relatively new event. Below are her responses:

First of all, thank you for welcoming writers to your open mic. I cannot speak on behalf of the literary community but I am pleased that there is a place in Sarnia for poets and storytellers to share their work in front of an audience. I hope this article will encourage a few more writers to stop by. In your view, why are open mic events so valuable for a community?

Every community needs an Open Stage. Three years ago, I returned to Sarnia from Ottawa where I was used to attending open stage events on a regular basis. It’s an event where musicians and writers from all levels can hone their skills, be heard, and grow confidence in performing in front of an audience. There are open stages in the majority of cities across Ontario and Canada.

Many of the great performing and recording artists started their careers at an open stage. It’s a great training ground whether you decide to pursue a professional career or just do it for fun. When I first started performing, I didn’t even know my guitar was out of tune. It takes time and some people won’t be on the big stage and that’s okay. For some, performing is therapeutic. Everyone comes for their own reasons. Having an audience is crucial. To be able to perform in such a beautiful building and room with all the turrets is a bonus.

When I first started attending Open Stage, most of the performers were musicians. Now, there is an eclectic mix of performers. What dynamics are you seeing when individuals of different creative disciplines gather in one room?

I can only speculate from my point of view but from the reaction I am seeing, no one appears to be objecting to the mix of performers. I see the same response towards a singer as I do towards a writer. For me, I really like the mix. It’s always a grab bag from event to event: a surprise. Some weeks are stronger than others. Sometimes you hear new talent and say “wow”! Some evenings, it all flows together and the energy is there.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Don

Poet Don Gillatly has been sharing his poetry at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts for a decade or more.

Think of it as a Greenwich Village (an artist’s haven). People can suck or be great but I run the event as a safe place. Everything goes: keeping in mind this is open to families and people of all ages. Everyone respects each other and if there is a problem or if anyone shows disrespect, I usually remind people about the rules. If people don’t like it, they don’t return.

It would be a loss without the writers. We learn from each other.

This is your second season as MC for the event and I understand this year you’re on your own, as John has decided to pursue other interests. What made you decide to take on this role? And what made you decide to stay for the second season?

First of all, I’m not alone. Daria has replaced John as a co-organizer. She is my sound engineer. Her help is invaluable.

I first took on the role because I’m a singer from Ottawa who went to open stages to keep up my skills. When I came to Sarnia in October 2015, a friend of mine was performing at the Lawrence House and shortly afterwards I was hired to perform as well. The idea for an open stage developed from there and I was happy when it launched in April 2016.

I can’t see not running the event. I have lots of skills and experience from Ottawa and I enjoy hearing and watching the unknown, the new people who no one knows, the people who perform on smaller stages. For that reason, I want people to know that Open Stage is a safe place to share their work or the work of others.

Not everyone who attends Open Stage is a performer. Is an audience composed of non-performers important? Why or why not?

Yes, having an audience who only want to listen is a BONUS! At a bar, people often come to the open mics to drink. At the Lawrence House, people often attend Open Stage to listen. We are starting to draw a regular audience of these listeners and that makes everyone feel good. We are fortunate to have that support from the community.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Sign - Literary Arts

Open Stage is held on the second and third Monday of each month. It’s an open mic for both the literary and performing arts community including musicians and songwriters.

What plans or goals do you have for this season?

One of my goals is to offer workshops in writing, in handling a mic, and in presenting yourself on stage. The Lawrence House can offer these public workshops at a reasonable price. I’m looking at a mid-November and/or January/February date. People should check the Lawrence House website and/or follow its Facebook page for announcements and/or updates.

Another goal is to continue to support the variety of performers and writers and to thank the audience and the community for their interest.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, the Lawrence House is doing all that is can to support local artists. Leonard Segall from the board is extremely helpful and supportive and he’s a great leader. He is a huge supporter of creative things.

The Lawrence House is filled with activities including concerts held on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Additional information can be found on the website.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Sign - Performing Arts

Thanks for sharing your comments Missy! I look forward to the next Open Stage.

Missy Burgess is an accomplished singer/musician who recently returned to Sarnia. According to her website, “Missy has performed on stages from The National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada to The Angola Prison for Women in Louisiana. She has recorded 3 albums, Pour Me A Song, Lemon Pie and, her most recent, Play Me Sweet.”

The next Open Stage will be held on Monday, October 16, 2017. The event runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Arrive early to sign-up is at the door. Audience members welcome. Admission is free.

According to its website, The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts is “an all-volunteer registered charitable organization in the historic City of Sarnia owned Lawrence House”. Its goals are to promote “the visual, literary and performing arts”.

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Overcoming the Terror – Open Mic Readings

“We may get scared tonight/but we have each other” –Tom MacGregor*

Last Friday, I attended an open mic event and hid inside a “Tree Spirit” costume. I sat at the back of the room, as far away from the open mic podium as possible, and scanned the audience. Not everyone wore a costume for this Halloween event but many had.

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. Makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a horror movie!

Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. Makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a horror movie!

On my right, a black-wigged man in a red housecoat held what appeared to be the skeleton of a cow’s head. On my left, a woman arrived as a social media butterfly. Her back dress was adorned with social media logos.

Writers are indeed a creative bunch but those who are introverts (and many are) may limit their exposure to social settings so that they can relax with their writing at home.

Did I mention in my early twenties, I dressed as a bookworm so I could sneak into a quiet corner of a party and read? That’s another story.

For some, standing in front of an audience and reading a poem or story is frightening enough. Would wearing a costume and a mask make it easier? Yes and no! Some masks (like my own) made it difficult to see my notes.

Not all writers are social or even social media butterflies. Open mic events provide emerging poets, authors and musicians a safe place to experiment and test out new material with a supportive and encouraging audience.

Not all writers are social or even social media butterflies. Open mic events provide emerging poets, authors and musicians a safe place to experiment and test out new material with a supportive and encouraging audience.

I don’t know when I lost my own jitters for spoken word events but I do recall the transformation of others.

Years ago, one reader was so nervous about reading his work that one of the co-hosts of the open mic offered to read his work for him. When he discovered the audience embraced his words, he eventually found the courage to read at future events. Today, he not only offers to read the work of other new guests but has learned to work the stage and tell stories without a script in front of him.

In London, Ontario, Stan Burfield who publically wrote about his transformation as a shy and nervous open mic reader is now one of the key organizers behind London Open Mic Poetry Night a successful open mic event that often draws over 60 people each month. He is also helping other introverts to share their work in a warm and accepting environment and is looking for ways to branch out into other areas such as organizing open mics for prisoners.

For me, studying theatre as a child and as an adult helped me to face an audience with a memorized script. An organization like Toastmasters International could help with ad lib performances. Its website offers excellent articles and suggestions for public speaking.

Read something you've written, something from your favourite author/poet or just sit back and listen.

Spoken Word at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts was introduced by literary board members the late Peggy Fletcher and the late Hope Morritt. It is now co-hosted by poet/photographer Melissa Upfold. Read something you’ve written, something from your favourite author/poet or just sit back and listen. Photo courtesy – The Calculated Colour Co.

Attending and sharing work at a literary open mic event such as Spoken Word Sarnia also provides necessary practise in refining one’s skills. Watch how other people present themselves. Experiment to see what works and doesn’t work to entertain the audience. Try reading and sharing the work of a favourite writer then build up to presenting your own original material.

Unless it is a slam or spoken word contest, most open mics welcome new and emerging writers. For those who are serious about his/her writing, open mics offer friendship and encouragement from other writers. More experienced authors and poets are there to help or mentor you. Most can relate to their own first experiences. If you like to travel, open mics in other locations provide new opportunities for learning and networking.

Of course, open mics aren’t for everyone and even at my age, I am still forever learning. For those in the southwestern Ontario area, this November offers some unique opportunities to share your work. What are you waiting for?

TONIGHT (Wednesday, November 4) IN LONDON: Now in its fourth season, London Open Mic Poetry Night presents a spotlight feature with poet Charles Mountford followed by an open mic.  A wide range of ages and styles. Check out their website. Facebook event info here.

November 2015 at Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

November 2015 at Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

FRIDAY (November 6) IN SARNIA: For the first time, Spoken Word Sarnia will be highlighted during Sarnia’s First Friday event at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts. The three-hour ( 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.) event is being held in conjunction with the month long Sustenance art show featuring the creative works of Lambton College Student and Faculty Artists. The Spoken Word Sarnia portion will present video poetry as well as readings by local poets, musicians, storytellers and other presenters followed by an open mic. See the Facebook event listing here.

SATURDAY (November 7) IN LONDON – Guerilla poetry in the morning. See info here.  Featured guest poet Lucas Crawford followed by open mic. Music start time: 7:30 p.m. Reading info here. Facebook event info here. Both events are part of the three day celebration WORDS: the Literary and Creative Arts Festival. More Facebook event information here . The official website is here.

In London, Ontario, Canada

In London, Ontario, Canada

SATURDAY (November 7) IN ST. THOMAS: For those interested in invasive species, Morel Magazine is hosting a community event. An afternoon reading with poets Julie Berry and Tanis Rideout will be followed by an open mic event. More info here.

SUNDAY (November 8) IN DUNDAS: Tower Poetry Society hosts its annual Art Walk in collaboration with the Carnegie Art Gallery in Dundas. Some opportunities to share poetry. Contact info here.

NOVEMBER 27 (Friday) IN SARNIA: Spoken Word Sarnia is held on the last Friday of every month at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts. This season’s co-host is Melissa Upfold. See the Facebook page here and the website here.

The Ontario Poetry Society has helped many grassroots poets to hone their skills including public speaking at their members' readings and open mic events.

The Ontario Poetry Society has helped many grassroots poets to hone their skills including public speaking at its members’ readings and open mic events.

DECEMBER 6 (Sunday) IN TORONTO: The Winter WarmUp Poetry Gathering! The Ontario Poetry Society, a grassroots poetry friendly organization advertises several members’ readings and open mic events throughout Ontario. Previous events have been held in Oakville, London, Sarnia, Stratford and other locations. More info about the December 2015 event here.

For those interested in sharing work in a competitive environment, check out the poetry slam and spoken word competitions in the area.

For storytellers, there’s Mouth Piece – Put Your Story Where Your Mouth Is, a Windsor/Essex County based storytelling series organized and hosted by Vanessa Shields. Additional information can be found here.

Future literary events can also be found on my literary events page. Check back frequently as postings are added when I can squeeze in the time. Apologies re: those events I may have missed or have not been informed of.

Highlights of some of these events may appear in future blog posts. I’ll be working on my backlog soon!

*From the poem “Fright Night” by Tom MacGregor, MINDSHADOWS: A Canadian Anthology of Poetry 2015 (Beret Days Press, 2015) Page 134