MAKE YOUR OWN HOUSE CULTURE

A beautiful way to bring people together 
and build community in your area

By Michael Holt


what's house culture?

To me, House Culture simply means doing stuff together, face-to-face, and at each other's homes; instead of alone, online, or in commercial venues. It can be normal activities like cooking, playing games, or listening to music; or less common things like a clothing swap, shadow puppet-making workshop, or meeting about how to lower our neighbourhood's carbon footprint. The activities can be cultural in the artistic sense of the word – as in a comedy, dance, or theatre show – or non-artistic, like a yoga class, singles night, or work party. Because any time we do something truly communal, we are building our culture.

House Culture is ultimately about bringing people together. Those of us who've experienced it have seen a magical feeling of connection that's uncommon in this society. It's the special quality that arises when folks engage in an single activity, held together by the boundaries of a small, comfortable space.

Such shared experiences renew our faith in life, reminding us of what really matters. And this has the potential to transform how we relate to ourselves, each other, the arts, community, society, and our planet. To do something fun, at home, with friends and strangers, is not the only route to meaningful togetherness. But it is a pretty sure one, which is why we at the Festival of House Culture want to share it as widely as we can. 

I first encountered the growing trend of home-based culture as a musician looking for ways to connect more intimately with my audiences. When I did my first house concert, I found it was better than normal gigs in so many ways that I eventually gave up playing in commercial venues altogether. I've now organized several house concert tours and played in hundreds of living rooms across North America and Europe.

In 2009, a friend and I co-founded The Piano Salon, a series combining live music with conversations on diverse topics, each month at a different Toronto home. The addition of intentional conversation created something more than a typical house concert, and we gradually realized that the home could be a cool venue for all kinds of culture. In 2014 we put on Toronto's first annual Festival of House Culture, which repeated in 2015. We've had everything from live improvised video art, indie pop bands, and a workshop on gender roles, to poetry readings, potluck dinners, and a madrigal singing class, all in people's living spaces.

The purpose of this piece is to encourage artists, arts enthusiasts, activists, and community-minded people – anyone interested in having more fulfilling cultural exchanges, connecting more effectively with others about something you care about, building community in your area, or just having fun – to check out House Culture as a route to all this. I'll explain why I think doing stuff together in each other's homes is a good idea, how to put on great in-home events, and how to link with others already doing House Culture.

Contents: why do house culture? – how to do it well? – choosing a house – programming – designing your event – promoting – setting up – emceeing – performing or presenting – further thoughts.

why do house culture?

Houses and apartments offer many advantages over meeting places like community centres, churches, and conference rooms; arts venues like museums, clubs, and concert halls; social spots like restaurants, bars, and cafes; and cyber-spaces like video games, texting windows, and online music services. Some of these arenas are formal, stiff and uncomfortable, and tend to separate the presenter from the rest of the group, rather than bringing people together. Others are overstimulating, full of distractions like signage, advertising, TVs, espresso machines, constant commerce and consumption, and crowds of people coming and going. And others discourage face-to-face interaction and any commitment to being together.

Togetherness. The coziness, calm, and comfort of home, on the other hand, helps us come together in a more meaningful, interactive, and enjoyable engagement with arts, activities, ideas, and each other. The small size of most living rooms physically brings us closer, limiting distractions, facilitating listening and responding, and discouraging people from exiting whenever they feel like it. The informality of home, the softness of couches and armchairs, and the vulnerability of someone opening their living space to us, all inspire us to let down our guard and be a little more real with each other. 

Music sounds better. Almost every time I've brought an experienced musician to their first house concert, they've said, "You know, this is a great sounding room, really good acoustics!"  Without realizing it, they're simply responding to the intimacy of a small space – and the absence of microphones, PA speakers, and sonic distractions like people talking around a bar. 

Better audiences. Another common comment from first-time performers at house events is, "What a great group of people! They're so openminded, such good listeners, and they interacted so much with what I was doing!" I've come to believe that what makes good audience it not the particular people present, but the quality of the environment. Take any "tough crowd" of apathetic, distracted, urban hipsters talking amongst themselves in a club or bar, or well-to-do seniors clapping perfunctorily in a classical concert hall, and pack them into a living room, and they'll respond in a completely different way – much more sensitively, energetically, and genuinely. 

True, you can't fit huge crowds into a home. But I think it's often better to create a strong connection among fewer people than a weak connection among many. And the network of friends, family, and neighbours around a private home will often yield a larger group then what you could expect at a public place anyway. People are usually more attracted to going to a party at their friend's house than to an event at a commercial venue.

Better meetings and presentations. Because of the ease with which ideas can flow and enthusiasm can build when folks get together in a small, comfortable space, houses can be ideal settings for meetings, activist projects, or presentations. And starting such events with a meal or live music can be even better, helping everyone relax into the mood for participation. Do you have a group that meets regularly, but you want more people than a living room would hold? Incubate it at home until you're really getting those numbers. 

When an acquaintance of mine was having a hard time organizing a Toronto talk and exhibition for her friend, a painter from Peru, I suggested she do it in her own living room. The resulting gathering was more interactive, warm, and effective than it would have been in a cafe or gallery.

Turning neighbourhoods into communities. In these times of global economic precariousness, social alienation, and environmental crisis, strong local community is an increasingly important source of material security, meaningful connection, and lower-carbon living. I believe that an intentional return to the age-old practice of hanging out and doing things together at each other's homes can be a great way to meet our neighbours and build community within our area.

Having neighbours over for food, music and other activities breaks the ice and provides an ideal forum for talking about local issues, not to mention being fun. It also builds trust. One of the essential differences between traditional community and modern alienation is our reluctance to extend hospitality to folks we don't know. Yet in all my years of organizing House Culture, I've never known a host to regret having strangers in their home, even when the whole city was invited through ads in the paper, flyers on the street, and public Facebook pages. Quite the contrary. Part of what is so special about House Culture is how good it feels to drop our habitual mistrust, open our homes, and experience the sweet sense of community that follows.

I was recently appointed Community Building Officer for my local neighbours' association, and my main goal is to get us to hold some of our meetings (which I think have been dry, boring, and therefore unattractive to the average resident) crowded into kitchens or living rooms, tossing visions and ideas about in productive chaos. As it is, we sit politely following Robert's Rules of Order with our hands folded around a giant square table in an antiseptic classroom, that we have to pay for, and we don't even get tea and cookies.

In 2012 I got interested in Transition Towns, a movement of people trying to build local community by rallying neighbours around the cause of sustainability, and also harnessing community as a way to grow environmental, economic, and social sustainability. I toured 35 of the movement's European initiatives. In each town, I put on a concert at someone's home, leading into a conversation about Transition, for the benefit of local activists, people not familiar with the movement, or both. The music attracted people who wouldn't normally come to a political meeting, and the conversations were intimate and inclusive.

The Festival of House Culture is very neighbourhood-focused. Wherever it takes place, events are sequential and clustered within walking distance, so neighbours can easily attend several of them. And each area strongly cross-promotes its own events through local flyering, list-serves, Facebook groups, billing them as great opportunities to meet your neighbours.

During the 2015 festival, we held a neighbourhood Gift Circle, a simple tool for economic localization. First we went around saying goods and services we wanted or needed (home repairs, a kid's guitar, special diet cooking, . . . ), and anyone well positioned to provide them spoke up ("I know a good local handyperson"; "we have a guitar you could borrow"; "let's cook together"). Then we announced our talents, skills, and passions, as well as stuff we needed to get rid of, and this led to further connections. The amount of perfect matches that arose was astonishing.

Better Socializing. We think of bars as good social spots, but their loud music, constant turnover of strangers, and darkness (all used to maximize booze sales) actually impedes real connection. Home, on the other hand, is not just a great place for the programming in an event (like the music in a house concert). It's also great for the hanging out that naturally takes place before and after the main activity. A living room is far more comfortable than most public and commercial places, and with a lot fewer distractions, making it much easier for people to relax and connect. And House Culture, with its shared activities, gives people something to talk about, making it a lot easier to start conversation with strangers and make new friends.

Lower carbon. House events can also be a low-carbon source of culture. Twenty people enjoying a night of live music, food, and conversation at a neighbour's home will use less energy than if they go to a half-filled club across town outfitted with lights, screens, and a high-watt sound system;  even less than if they cook separately and stay in, watching TV in numerous individually lit and heated homes.

More empowering. And they'll be making their own culture. The more intimate, interactive nature of house events means that everyone present plays a bigger role in what happens. The hosts can choose artists they like and activities that mean something to them; the guests can offer comments, questions, and requests; and the performers or presenters can respond to these, resulting in an experience that's more relevant and empowering for all. 

As this year's festival was coming together, a friend of mine asked if we could fit in readings by four distinguished Ethiopian journalists who'd recently arrived in our neighbourhood as refugees. Arranging this in a commercial venue might have been complicated, but we easily made space for them at an event that also featured live chamber music and a home cooked meal. The refugees felt welcomed by the neighbourhood, the guests felt comfortable saying when we should pause for translations during a film they showed us, and we all got into a fascinating conversation about Ethiopian and Canadian culture.

By making our own culture, we remove the "middle man" and become independent of publishing houses, film studios, agents, high-overhead venues, etc. In events where donations are collected, this means more money for performers while being cheaper for everyone else.  As a musician, I do much better at house concerts than I used to at commercial establishments, while my audiences get to be part of something more participatory, acoustically pleasing, and economical then they'd get a theatre, cinema or concert hall. 

I'm not recommending we give up the great, international culture-makers we encounter through large-scale commerce and technology. I'm saying that in focusing only on sources of culture like TV, movies, museums, and the internet, we are missing a great deal, including some very talented, unrecognized artists who may be hidden in our own communities. 

Many years ago, most upper- and middle-class homes in the Western world had a piano, where families and friends would gather around for group singing, dancing, and socializing. The living room was a focal point for creative expression, skills, togetherness, traditions, storytelling, news, and enjoyment. We can have this again. We don't need big corporations to spoon-feed us our culture. We can make it ourselves in our own homes, neighbourhoods and lives.


how to do it well

It is actually super-easy. If you have something you'd like to share or do with others, you simply find a friend who's willing to host. If you're a person with a space, you just pick something to do with people in it, invite your friends over to participate, and there you have it: House Culture. You really don't need to know any more.

That said, there's a special feeling that occurs when it goes really well. The problem with our mass consumer society is that most of the communal activities it gives us, such as movies, spectator sports, eating out, and going drinking, aren't very meaningful, creative, uplifting, or even communal. Whereas when people share an experience with a certain amount of focus, intimacy and authenticity, then a heightened level of togetherness, aliveness, fun, and wonder can emerge. 

That is what I found when I first started playing house concerts. They allowed for the mutual satisfaction I knew was possible, yet found to be elusive in commercial venues. They provided the safe space, the support I needed to truly surrender to the moment and give a genuine performance. So I quickly embraced them, and gradually learned how to design them to go as well as possible. They filled my practical need for a good venue, and also a deeper passion for bringing people together. To me, House Culture at its best means recognizing the magic that can happen spontaneously between people, and providing an optimal space for it flourish. 

You'll probably feel some of that magic regardless of how you run your event. Still, there are things you can do each step of the way to help ensure and maximize it. So here are some tips, based on my personal experience.

Please don't be intimidated by all the suggestions below! None are essential for a great gathering, and they won't all apply to your event anyway. And in case you've agreed to host me as a performer, please don't take these as requirements for a Michael Holt concert! I am actually quite easy, can help you with all I need on the day of our event. So whoever you are, read as many of these pointers as you like, and as soon as you feel ready, go out and make your own House Culture!



choosing a house

No home is too small. The smaller the room, the closer people will be brought to each other, and the more magical your event may become. You'd be surprised how many folks you can pack into a tiny living room, especially if you use the floor. And as I said earlier, a strong connection between a few people is often much more valuable than a weak connection between many. Some of my best gigs have been for groups of five or less.

More important than size is the feeling of the space, the comfort, the warmth. If you don't want to use your own space, ask your friends. You may know someone with a living room, kitchen, den, basement, or even bedroom that feels just right for what you want to do. Indoors is generally better than outdoors because it provides more focus.

If you're going to be performing, I do recommend doing it at someone else's house. It will make you, as a the featured guest, seem more special; the host's friends and neighbours will greatly augment the crowd; and without having to host, you can focus fully on your craft.



programming

Almost any kind of art, performance, or shared activity can work well in the home, and chances are you already have an idea for what to do. Pairing more than one thing can make for a particularly fun and rich gathering. If you start with an activity that has clear structure, like a concert, game, meal, or guided exercise, that will help people get comfortable with each other. Then you can do something a bit more spontaneous, deep, or interactive, like a conversation on a touchy topic, a brainstorming session, or a creative collaboration.

Here are some examples of House Culture I've seen go beautifully:

- A sculptor showing her work, with slides, real pieces, and lots of Q&A.
- An improvisational cooking event, where we met at the local farmers' market, bought what looked good, came up with culinary ideas together, went home, cooked several dishes while sharing experience and techniques, and then sat down to eat.
- A sing-along, where people suggested songs in advance via email and brought enough copies of lyrics to go around.
- A Puppetry Jam, where two facilitators provided art supplies and guidance, a few guests made shadow puppets and came up with a little show together, and then more guests arrived to see the show.
- Sabbath and Passover ceremonies, with ritual reading, eating, candle lighting, drinking, praying, etc., and conversation about the ceremony during and after.
- A live Beatles party, where a skilled pop-up band played while lyrics and chords were projected on the wall and everyone sang along.
- A fundraiser for a group sponsoring a refugee family, with food, drinks, live music, and Q&A.
- The Piano Salon music and conversation series, where a musical performance was followed by a speaker starting a conversation on an interesting topic, followed by more music.
- A vegan potluck, followed by a documentary on animal rights, leading into a sharing of our diverging views on the topic.
- On open stage, where anyone could sign up to perform anything for 5-10 minutes.
- A 134th birthday party for Maurice Ravel, with French food, live performances of his music, and a documentary on his mental illness.
- A garden-building party, starting with a potluck meal, followed by everyone clearing ground, pounding stakes, laying landscaping fabric, and hauling soil, while live music played.
- A listening party, where we all listened to my friend's new album, and then talked about it.
- Thanksgiving meals where everyone says what they're grateful for. (Q: What was the turkey grateful for? A: Vegetarians.)

Follow your intuition: curating House Culture can be a creative, artistic activity in itself. I particularly enjoy combining disparate things in a single program. At the first House Culture Festival, one event had a classical accordionist, a conversation on naturopathic birth control, and an indie-pop band. Another had live electronic music followed by original theatre about the Antigonish movement. Delightfully unexpected parallels often emerge in such diverse programming. Divergent content draws different crowds, who then get to meet each other. And people get exposed to culture they wouldn't otherwise encounter, in an environment that's ideal for connecting with unfamiliar things. The opportunity for Q&A and conversation helps people process and appreciate these new experiences, and things just tend to come across better in the intimacy of a home.

On the other hand, house events are also a nice way to bring together similar things, and people with complimentary interests. For example, at the last festival, we invited representatives from several community projects in my neighbourhood to come talk about them, bookended by some heartfelt folk music.

Especially if you put on events regularly, I recommend thinking about social diversity. House Culture is a great opportunity to break down segregation, because of the intimate connections and ample socializing it affords, and because sharing things like music, food, and arts helps us to appreciate each other. So in both programming and promotion, consider reaching outside your usual circles of culture, colour, income, age, gender, belief, sexuality, ability, and mental characteristics. 

If you want your event to have a performance or presentation, your artist or speaker doesn't have to be well-known and accomplished. In The Piano Salon we often programmed friends to just come and share about something that mattered to them, such as Anya who gave a lovely talk about her experience of growing up in the Ukraine. Most important is that they be inspired, passionate, and able to really engage with people. And if you program someone who lives nearby, and invite your neighbours, then you are building culture and community in your area.

I highly recommend including some kind of conversation in your program. When a single, riveting conversation breaks out at a party that has been just a jumble of separate conversations, it is always great, and feels like a lucky happening. Yet such unity can be easily planned and created. Groups of people really want to come together and talk, they just need one person to give them permission and space for it. All you have to do is say, "OK everybody, let's have a conversation."

Particularly if something artistic or emotional has been shared, it is natural to want to talk about it afterwards. So if you have someone giving a presentation or performance, ask them in advance to leave ample room for Q&A.

Your conversation can have a pre-determined topic, or not. At the Piano Salon, we would sometimes just start talking, and an interesting topic always emerged. Conversation is an end in itself, because of the connection, fun, and new ideas that can come from it.


designing your event

Once you have your programming, you'll want to set other parameters about date, time, food, money, etc.

Make a game plan for the gathering, leaving realistic amounts of time for set-up, guest arrivals, and your planned activities. Leave time for folks to mingle before and after the main activity, and a break if it's going to be more than an hour long. Mingle time lets everyone relax, meet each other, and talk about stuff that comes up, and is just as important as the structured parts of the gathering.

If the event is going to happen during a meal time, decide whether or not you want to include food. Performers or presenters may be at your house a long while, and will be putting out a lot of energy, so at least their mealtime should be heeded (if they're on tour, this is a must). As I said in Engage, feeding the band can have a huge effect on how the whole event goes. The God of Music will match every dollar you spend, making the humblest meal appear to the band like a royal banquet, and creating a magic glow that will enter their performance, spill onto everyone, and last the rest of the night. 

What about feeding your guests? I don't think you should feel any obligation to provide alcohol, food, or even snacks for them just because they're coming to your home. You're offering them something even more special. House Culture is itself a very real kind of food, and the togetherness and creativity that happen at these gatherings can easily make people forget about eating and drinking. 

On the other hand, sharing food is one of the most basic ways humans create trust and connectedness. So if you want to include a meal in your event, just remember to leave enough time for it. And don't overextend yourself with work or money. Cook only if it's a joy for you; otherwise, do a potluck, delegate cooking, or order in and take up a collection to cover your expenses.

House Culture works well on all evenings and days off. If your event's on a weeknight and you're including a meal, then invite guests for 6 or 6:30, and start the program at 7:30 or 8. Otherwise, invite them for 7:30 (or 8 on weekends) so they can feed themselves beforehand.

Consider carefully what you want to do about alcohol. Is it really going to serve your event, or might it actually detract? Alcohol loosens people up, but it can also make them hazy, selfish, or belligerent. A shared connection is more likely to splinter into separate conversations. The spirit of these events is a fine balance between intimacy and joviality, focus and spontaneity, depth and fun. Alcohol is not necessary to create this balance, and it can certainly disrupt it. I see House Culture as an alternative to consumption, escapism, and dependancies, generating social energy in a healthier, more creative way. That said, there are many ways to constrain alcohol use without eliminating it entirely. Find the balance that's right for you.

And what you want to do about kids? Kids can be a frustrating distraction, or a magical addition. They're easily engaged by all kinds of music, even if it's not specifically geared towards them. If you are going to take up heavy topics like personal or global crises, consider including kids rather than sheltering them – they have a valuable contribution to make. Just be mindful of how things are effecting them, and ideally, plan a separate space or activity in case they get too bored or unruly. 

At an all-ages house concert, a large group of kids seems to work best. If there's just a couple, you may find one of them drawing all the attention by cavorting in front of the performer. Yet if there's lots of kids, they tend to form a magnetic cluster that holds individual ones back from taking over the event.

Beautiful weather or your awesome patio may tempt you to meet outdoors. However, if you really want to create depth of connection, inside is the place to go, because there will be a lot fewer distractions. You can always go outdoors before, between, or after the focused parts of the event. One lovely combination is an outdoors meal followed by an indoors concert or conversation.

There's no rules about money. You can make the event free, pass the hat for voluntary contributions, announce a specific suggested donation, run a strict entrance fee, or even sell advance tickets online. I suggest picking a suggested donation that feels right for the quality and amount of programming you have, and also for the income level of your guests. Don't make it cheap just because it's in a home; a home is actually a better place to experience culture than a public venue. Announce this suggested amount in all your invitations, and also make it clear that people can give less or more if they need or want. This makes the event accessible to everyone and keeps out corporate connotations. Give the proceeds to your performers, or if you want to compensation for refreshments or to share in the profits, agree in advance on a split.


promoting

You don't need a big crowd: seven people packed in close can make a wonderful, intimate gathering. On the other hand, the more, the merrier, and a larger group will raise more money, help people make new friends, and please any performers you may have. Start far enough in advance to attract the number you want. Email and social media are good; phone and face-to-face are often better. 

Informing someone just once doesn't mean they'll get the message, and if they say they're coming, don't count on it. At the last minute, many people get sick, can't find a sitter, get discouraged by the weather, etc. So invite at least times your target number. And ask key people to help spread the word. Ideally, the organizer, host, and any performers should all invite all their friends, through as many channels as possible. 

And encourage the host to invite their neighbours: you won't have to worry about noise complaints, and house concerts are a great way to meet them – something we should all be doing. Many neighbourhoods have a person who keeps track of residents' contact info (for the annual block party, etc.) or has started a Facebook group. Find out who that local hub person is, or be them yourself! Another idea is to simply put a flyer in each mailbox on your block.

Whether printed or electronic, make your invitations informal, yet clear about time, place, money, and how you hope folks will participate. This can be as simple as saying, "we'll share our ideas and experiences about gardening" or "after the performance, we'll pass the hat for voluntary donations to the artist." You may also want to specify whether kids are welcome. If there's going to be music, a useful description includes genre, instrumentation, and a video link, audio link, or photo, not just a bunch of superlatives.

I rarely request RSVP's for my own house events. Unless I'm including a nice dinner and really need to know how many to cook for, too many participants is a problem I'd like to have. There's always room to squeeze in a few more. On the other hand, RSVP's can help you know if too few are coming, and you need to shift into high gear with the promotion!


setting up

Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned from House Culture is how much of a difference physical design makes at a gathering. The way you set up your space not only establishes the tone, but can have a strong influence on people's behaviour, helping them to relax, focus, come together, and participate. It's like a friendly, invisible hand that gently guides them without their realizing it, and without anyone telling them what to do.

Your main goal in setting up the space is to literally bring people together. Physical closeness maximizes the interactive synergy and warm-fuzzies that are the essence of House Culture. Some of my favourite house concerts have been for folks practically sitting on each other's laps, in rooms you'd never guess could fit so many. And I love looking around during an event to see people holding hands or even cuddling. 

Don't worry about people not wanting closeness. They do want it; they are just shy. If you make it easy for them to spread out, they will, without even thinking. However, if your physical set-up naturally brings them together, then even if a few are a little uncomfortable at first, they'll be grateful in the end. 

So choose a space that is no bigger than the crowd you expect – not necessarily the largest room in the house. Or section off a space in a larger room. And put out only as much seating as you think you'll need. Remove, or cover up, any extra seating that's not right where the activity will be happening, or people will spread out away from it. You can always add seating later if you get more folks than expected.  

Avoid multiple rows, and anything that feels like a classroom. The ideal shape for your seating is a single, tight circle or semi-circle. This allows everyone to feel equal and see each other, and maximizes the possibilities for interaction. Try not to have anyone standing, because those people will feel separate and end up uncomfortable as the event goes on. 

If you expect more people than you have seats, make room in the centre for people to sit on the floor, ideally with pillows and a nice fluffy carpet, or even a mattress. If there must be multiple rows, space them just far enough for good leg room. Put the taller seating in back, and the more comfortable in front, to draw people closer to the action.  

If you are going to have a performance or presentation, then angle all the seats to face inward so no one has to twist their necks. If the room is rectangular, don't put the performer against a short wall, or it will feel like a classroom. Centre her in one of the long sides, and curve the seating around her. If your room is square, put the performer at the corner or wall that seems the best focus of attention, without distracting windows or artwork on it. After the presentation, if you're going to have a conversation, move the seating to close the circle for maximum interaction.

Use the comfiest seating you have, even if it means carrying couches and armchairs in from other rooms. Pillows and blankets can be a great touch, to encourage coziness and even snuggling. Once you've set up, try each seat to check for legroom, sight lines, and comfort. 

If you're serving food or drinks, set them up outside of the circle, against an opposite wall, or in a different room. Remove distractions like a coffee table and flower vase in the centre of the room, or a big colourful poster on the wall behind your performer. Use curtains, doors, and shades to block out sights and sounds from outdoors, and contain the event's focus in a womb-like den. If there's a rear window behind your performer, turn off any outside lights.

If you're having a show, set up a little table where your artists can display any merchandise they want to sell. When I'm performing, I like this to be conspicuous, yet not right up front with me, or else it all starts to feel like a commercial. 

If you're concerned about kids disrupting the proceedings, set up a separate room or activity for them, and someone to be with them if necessary.

Choose lighting that feels good, ideally from several sources, and that allows everyone to see each other's expressions, to maximize communication. Too much is better than too little, but avoid lights glaring in anyone's eyes. Warm lamps are nicer than harsh fluorescents; candles add a relaxing, festive note. 

Since a performer or presenter will automatically attract the main attention, you need to create a physical environment which gives some attention back to the rest of your group, so as to draw guests into participation. Therefore, don't give the presenter anything that places him above or apart from the rest, such as a stage, special lighting, or unnecessary amplification.  

Avoid microphones at all costs. I could write a whole piece on just this point. Mics destroy intimacy. Their absence, and the natural beauty of direct, mouth-to-ear connection is, for me, a quintessential advantage of House Culture over commercial venues. Mics are a visually distracting barrier between people; they discourage real engagement, either beating an audience into submissive silence, or actually making it feel comfortable talking over the presenters. Trust my years of experience on this: no matter how big an audience you expect, your event will go much better without microphones. 

Let your performers know this in advance. You may get push-back from more professional ones who are not used to singing un-amplified. Say something like this to reassure them: "We'd strongly prefer no microphones. You'll have a very engaged audience in a small space, and you will definitely be heard. Our main goal is to create intimacy, and we think mics will interfere with that. They may even make people feel ok talking over you."

Even if the singer has a very quiet voice, other instruments can simply be adjusted to it. For that reason, keyboard and guitar amps are actually fine – they can be turned down as low as necessary to match an un-amplified voice, and are not nearly as visually obtrusive as a mic in someone's face. The only good reasons I can see for mics are if 1) vocal loops and effects are an indispensable part of the show 2) there's a full drum kit in the band, with which singers can't compete, or 3) there will be a singer at a piano that can't be turned to face the audience. In any case, run a little sound-check to make sure the singer can be clearly heard, before the audience arrives.



emceeing

Good event facilitation is a balance of yin flexibility – letting the gathering unfold as it wants to, and yang assertiveness – steering it as you feel is best. Once everything is set up and ready to go, don't worry about how many people come. It's out of your hands now. The people who show up are the right people, and as I said earlier, smaller groups sometimes have a very special chemistry. So relax, have fun with those who have come, go with the flow, and let House Culture work its magic. 

That said, you do want to keep things on schedule so none of your activities or presenters get short-changed. So don't be afraid to usher people along from one phase to the next, when the time is right. Stick to your game plan, unless you have the intuition to vary it based on emergent circumstances. 

If you get a smaller crowd then expected, remove any seats you won't be needing. This will automatically tighten the circle and is a lot easier than trying to convince people to sit close. 

Guests should get any food and drinks before or after, not during, the main proceedings, because the act of serving is a big distraction, and eating deserves its own time and focus. 

Five to ten minutes before you want to start, cheerfully call out, "OK everyone, come in the living room and gather 'round!" Turning off lights in all other parts of the house will help bring people in and deter them from straying away later. If you've made your announcement twice and people are still talking in the kitchen, just turn out the light and they'll come, barely noticing what you've done. If there's still more seating than guests, urge people right up to the front. 

Don't start the proceedings until everyone is seated and engaged, because you want to set a tone of participation from the very beginning. Here are some things you may want to say in your introduction:

- Thank everyone for coming. Suggest a round of applause for the host (if that's not you), without whom the event would be impossible.  
- Explain the general plan for the event (approximate set lengths, intermissions, etc.) so the participants know what to expect. This makes it easier for them to be present. 
- Invite everybody to relax and make themselves at home. One way to do this is to say where the bathroom is and that it's ok to go in the middle of the proceedings! 
- If you're planning to pass a hat after the proceedings, you may wish to say at the start where it can be found, in case someone needs to leave before the end.
- Remind people to turn off their phones, which will help everyone focus. Picture and video-taking is also a distraction, although having some record of the event may be useful, so just ask people to keep it to a minimum.
- If there is a performer or presenter, introduce them by explaining your personal connection to them and their work. 

Inviting folks to interact with the presenter during the event can make it much more fun and meaningful. Encourage them to ask questions, give responses, make requests. The best way to do this is by example: a few questions or jokes from you at the start will break the ice for everyone. If you can be spontaneous, real, vulnerable, and humorous yourself, everyone else will follow.

If you want a full-out conversation, the best way to get it going is also through your own example. Offer the comments and questions that honestly occur to you, then give the floor to others and let things go where they want to go. Try to include as many participants as possible in the conversation, and remember that a group exploring questions together is a much better model than individuals trying to convince each other of points.

An event facilitator or emcee is also a boundary-keeper. The informality of home events can make them seem like a free-for-all to some participants. If you like that, great. If it's not what you have in mind, then you may need to say things like, "Let's let this other person speak now," "I'm sorry, we don't have space for you to perform tonight," or "OK, I have to kick you all out soon so I can get some sleep!"

If there are children, suggest that parents set reasonable boundaries, yet not suppress their kids' every sound and move. As a performer, I usually find parents' nervous attempts at control to be much more distracting than their kids' natural responses. For audiences of any age, there is a profound difference between silent obedience and active engagement.

If you want to maximize donations, the best time to pass a hat is after your participants have enjoyed the experience, yet before they get up and start talking. The word "contributions" is better than "tips." Encourage people to give as much as they felt they received, on par with what a commercial event would cost. Luke Jackson, one of my favourite emcees, likes to say when passing the hat, "It's pay-what-you-should." You can also pass a mailing list around to collect names for future events, and point out any performers' merchandise that's for sale.


performing or presenting


Giving a performance or presentation at someone's house may feel intimidating at first, because of how intimate it is. Yet it is also very informal. Embracing the intimacy is a great chance to connect deeply, and embracing the informality is a chance to relax, be yourself, and be real. Prepare as well as you would for any performance, and memorize your material so that you can connect with your audience and your own inspiration, not a piece of paper. Talk to some of the guests before you go on, so you feel connected as soon as possible. If you're still nervous once you start, admit it, or tell a self-deprecating joke, and everyone will be on your side. Then as things go forward, explore interacting with them more than you might at a conventional venue. A house event is a unique opportunity for you to ask questions, welcome feedback, share about what you do, invite participation, and get into a conversation with your audience.

In the weeks leading up to your presentation, note any ideas that may come to you as to how to include people in it. Prepare as well as you would for any "gig," yet when it comes, be open to taking a more spontaneous approach, allowing the guests' participation to move things in unexpected directions, and following your own impulses. For example, rather than using a set-list or keeping close watch on the clock, keep close watch on what songs actually occur to you in the moment, and when intuition tells you it's time to start wrapping up.

And please read the last four paragraphs of the "setting up" section above. These explain why I highly recommend doing house events without a microphone.


final thoughts

At its most basic, House Culture can mean just spending more time at each other's homes. It could be taking the taxes over to your friend's, to do them while she's putting up shelves. There doesn't have to be a special activity. In this age of near-constant screen-time, just hanging out together is an important cultural act. Inviting the neighbours over for a drink or movie is a step towards community, and a family dinner where people actually talk rather than being on their phones is a valuable experience. 

It is possible, though not easy, to create the spirit of home in other venues. If you're inspired by the ideas in this piece, try adapting some of them to your workplace, conference, meeting, classroom, seminar, or public performance. Bring people physically closer together. Put them in a circle instead of rows. Eliminate distractions and multiple focuses. Have comfortable seating, and cozy surroundings. Have enough light to see each other's facial expressions. Be informal, spontaneous, vulnerable, real. Start an event with live music, or the breaking of bread. Be inclusive, invite participation. Come out from behind the microphone, and really connect.

Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment below. To post or learn of house events in Toronto, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/TorontoHouseCulture. To find House Culture in other areas, google the name of your town plus "house concert." To reach me, email pianotroubadour@gmail.com, phone (416) 532-8912, or visit 2466 Dundas St. West, Loft 501, Toronto, ON, Canada, M6P 1W9. I'm also often at 3 Daisy Lane, Truro, MA, USA, 02666; (508) 349-2120. Come on over. We'll put the kettle on for you.

– Michael Holt, co-founder of Toronto Festival of House Culture, The Piano Salon house concert series, and Catweazle Toronto open stage.

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