Reflections on A Tough Room

Reflections on A Tough Room

In my past life as a working actor, I had the opportunity to perform in front of audiences of all shapes and sizes. I performed Shakespeare outdoors to crowds of 300, as well as (in the case of one theater) for an intimate, intense crowd of precisely 68. I’ve shared my craft with packed dinner theater audiences of 400 adults or more, and to even larger crowds where the audience was 95% children. Each venue – each audience – had its own challenges and exultations.

Most of the time, it was nothing but a purely transcendent experience. However, as anyone who has ever gotten in front of an audience will tell you, every now and again you come up against a “tough room.” A “tough room” is experienced by an actor as an audience who seems lethargic, unsupportive, not laughing, or (in the worst case) simply not interested. While the experience of working a “tough room” is not always pleasant, it teaches you one thing; sometimes the only choice you have is to do the hard work in the tough rooms, and “hang tough.”

In all of my audience experiences, there is one that has stayed with me more than the others. I was working at a small theatre, in a mediocre play with 5 of the loveliest human beings I had ever met. In our months working together, our small group of six cast members had grown into a tight knit theatre family. One evening, our stage manager came backstage five minutes before the show to let us know that there were exactly two people sitting in our audience. That is daunting information for an actor. We feed off of the energy of a crowd and the lack of it can be a demoralizing experience. Knowing this, the theatre was willing the cancel the performance. But when asked if we wanted to go on with the show, our group of six said yes without hesitation.

We wanted to do the show, in the “tough room”, simply because we wanted to be together. We wanted to share the fullness of our experience together, whatever that meant. What should have been a “tough room” ended with two audience members graciously giving our mediocre play a standing ovation. They had chosen to stay, and we had chosen to stay. By toughing it out together in the “tough room”, we created an evening that is still singular in my mind 20 years later.

There are all kinds of “tough rooms” and, of course, they do not only exist between the walls of a theatre. Tough rooms can be found anywhere, especially when you are willing to fill rooms full of bright, engaged, informed, capable, compassionate people. I experience such rooms at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC) often. At staff meetings, I watch Paige Getty always find the right words to speak to matters at their core. I see Maureen Harris take in issues from all corners of UUCC and never be anything less than supremely competent and loving. I watch Anthony Jenkins craft an idea. I see Robin Slaw and her tireless commitment to Unitarian Universalism. I watch Tom Benjamin be a consummate professional who also pours his heart into everything that he touches. I hear Michael Adcock’s thoughtful insights about the pieces he chooses for services and about life in general at UUCC. I see Amanda Bates seamlessly coordinate our every Sunday while always keeping her sense of humor. I watch as Hannah Nelson brings her social media gifts to us.

Sounds great, right? Until you consider that with every interaction, you are dealing with some of the brightest, most engaged, informed, capable and compassionate people you have ever met. By all accounts, this could be a “tough room” and I suppose if you really stop to think about it – it is. It is a tough room in the sense that it challenges me to try and bring my most thoughtful idea, my highest thoughts, and my best self.

And then there is you. The UUCC congregation. Each Sunday morning is an experience in walking into a room full of some of the brightest, most engaged, informed, capable and compassionate people you could ever meet – and hoping that something you have to say will make sense or (on a good day) be of use to someone. It is by all accounts a “tough room”; but it is a tough room that challenges me to be better, to do more, and to try and bring my best self.

I am not always successful in staff meetings and I am not always successful on Sunday mornings. Hard work in tough rooms never comes with promises of a standing ovation; rather, those rooms offer an opportunity to create singular, meaningful interactions and experiences that stay with (and inform) us long after the proverbial curtains close. Those rooms dare us to be bright, engaged, informed, capable, and compassionate; to bring our best selves, to transcend.


Hang Tough,



  1. Diane Page

    Thank you Kelli for using “tough room” a great analogy ! For anyone who has to stand and deliver in front of an audience is frightening enough. Presenting and engaging a discerning, suffering , critical or hostile audience takes mastery.
    Know this, human behavior, even within families, is not logical, unpredictable and often unkind.

    Be prepared.

  2. Norm Hazzard

    Kelli, I am always impressed with your Sunday morning Time for All Ages. You come up with the most novel topics and present them so well! Your background as a professional actor certainly shows itself. I love what you do with the children, and it usually applies well to the rest of us, too.

  3. Frank Hazzard

    Wow. I knew you were a triple threat, but after reading this beautifully written (and timely!) piece, I now know you’re a quadruple threat (add writer to the CV). And if you are “not always successful on a Sunday mornings,” that’s news to me. Thank you for hanging tough with us.

  4. Margaret Gesell

    I second Frank’s comments. This is a beautifully written piece. As you do on Sundays, you chose the perfect metaphor, sustained it throughout and brought it home. ( And the message was good too. What can I say, I love good writing.)

  5. Ross Martin

    You have always demonstrated grace under fire — especially in the toughest room of all: our Sunday Time for Children with hyper-attentive adults testing every word and action. There have been many weeks for me where your messages are the highlight of an already amazing service.

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