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 Artsin Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. We exchange winks.
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, 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 Fletcherand 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.
“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.
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.
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 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 Segallfrom 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.
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”.