Hey everybody, welcome to the wedding ceremony podcast. We talk about anything and everything that has to do with wedding ceremonies. This is episode number 297. That's right, those of you who are math whizzes, three more until 300, recorded on Wednesday, December the ninth 2020. My name is Clint Hufft. And normally with me is the one and only JP Reynolds. But JP is out looking for reindeer and the Lost Children of weddings. Today we have who I think is one of the most entertaining guests we've ever had on the podcast, all the way from New York, the one and only Christopher Shelley. Christopher, how are you?
Christopher Shelley 0:47
Oh, Clint, it's so great to hear your voice and great to be with you today. And I hope JP can find those lost children and then put them on their own island. So they never come back.
When we were texting back and forth, and he said something about the Lost Children of weddings. And I said I think they were in the woods looking for your cabin made of sweets. Yeah. And then we just kind of went on. Just so you know, JP’S books are in the Amazon store and in the Kindle store in Amazon. So you can certainly look those up.
Chris, you've got your own book that has been published. And that is actually why you were on our show the first time. So tell everybody about that.
Christopher Shelley 1:30
My book is called Best. Ceremony. Ever. It's all about how to make wedding ceremonies unique and personal and funny. And it tries to dispel some of the myths and assumptions that are out there about wedding ceremonies. So people understand that they can be anything you want them to be. And the book is written with an audience of officiants in mind, but also brides and grooms as well. So they can see how they can work with their officiant. So better than ever, I highly recommend it.
Yeah, and the title has the periods in between each word.
Christopher Shelley 2:06
But you have to imagine like a teenage girls saying it in terms of Oh my god, that was like the best ceremony ever.
Then your background is fascinating. It really is fascinating. I'm at your website, it's IlluminatingCeremonies.com. That's a lot of consonants, illuminating ceremonies plural.com. And if you go to the about Chris, then you'll see just how you're very clever. I just want to say that right up front. As a writer, you are very clever. And your writing background is very impressive. You got an MFA in creative writing from New York University, you got a BFA in acting from Boston University. I don't know, it's just amazing. But you did say something just now that I think is fascinating. And that is the idea that people have expectations in regards to wedding ceremonies. So I think when I first started a long time ago, there were a lot of expectations, mostly from women of a certain age, just kind of expected things to be a certain way, what are the kind of things that you've come across that you thought, Jiminy Christmas, we don't do that anymore?
Christopher Shelley 3:20
One thing that that always shocks me is that people assume the bride and the groom and the officiant are going to be arranged up at the altar space in a specific way. It often surprises me when they'll send me details about their parents are, where their parents are going to sit. And they'll tell me, oh, we're gonna have our parents sit on opposite sides than they normally would. So they have a better view of their child. And I have to explain to them, that the way I arranged the bride and groom up there, everyone can see them no matter where they're sitting the entire time. So they're assuming that they're gonna stand up there, maybe with their backs to the audience, or just turned just enough so that only one side of the guests can see them, or something. Um, so that's one thing, I just I don't understand why people think that but in these days, where we need to be a little more distant from each other, generally speaking, the way I arrange a couple up there with me is sort of in a talk show format. Whereas like, as you're looking at it, you'll see the bride and groom kind of standing together on the left, let's say, and me the officiant over on the right, like where the talk show desk would be that kind of thing. So this way, everyone there can see the bride and groom, I can be a little bit apart from them. So I'm not spraying aerosols all over them as I'm speaking. And, I think the reason people assume it's going to be the old setup of me in the middle, the two of them kind of staring at me, because it used to be that you go get married and the priest or whomever would be kind of lecturing you, speaking to you about marriage and all these things, and it's all about the couple focusing in On the priest or officiant, or whoever it was, whereas now with people who are officiants, and trained celebrants, we're sharing the story of the bride and groom much more openly than in old days. We're really kind of all together in that because we've, the way I work, I write the story with the couple. So the three of us are really presenting their story to the guests. So it's not just me up there lecturing them, it's them as together with me explaining why they're getting married, why they fell in love all these important things. So that's something I have to break through pretty often. When another thing, the part of the end where you present them, Mr. Mrs. So and so sure. At the end, I've been officiating for maybe nine years now. And I've done that only a handful of times. And part of it's because a few times early on, couples told me they did not want to be presented as Mr. Mrs. So and so I think this has a lot to do the women not wanting to be known as just her husband's last name, that kind of thing. And so I kind of got away from it. And now and then people will especially request it. But most of the time, I kind of forget about it, to be honest with you. I'll finish the ceremony with them kissing and that's it. So that's something.
Wow, that's interesting. I know exactly what you're talking about. Because, to me, that whole concept of let's not diminish the importance of the female of the bride. You know what I mean? It all started with what JP said long time ago, he doesn't say who gives this woman he says who presents this woman. Yeah. And I thought that kind of like, opened up my awareness to wait a minute, we can take a closer look at the entire ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, I let the couples know what all of their options are. And if they want to end at the kiss, that's cool. Most of them want to be officially presented. But I say it can be Mr. And Mrs. Him and you, Mr. And Mrs. Him, Mr. Mrs. Last name, you and him as husband and wife or anything else that you want. And I think that that's been appreciated. And I'm always surprised. You know, the Bible verse that nobody really it's kind of like for for verboten in regards to it says something about the wife has to be subservient to the man. It's in Ephesians. I just it's kind of like one of those things that people just don't do it anymore. It's not politically correct anymore. Right. And I was really surprised when a young couple about 10 years ago, a young couple chose that. The bride was communicating with the bride in terms of constructing the ceremony. And I said, Really? Whose choice was that, thinking She would say it was his choice, or the parents choice or whatever? Yeah. And she said, Oh, mine, Absolutely. And then I thought, Okay, I need to learn something here, something else is going on here. And then it turns out that if you if you read further into that particular passage, it talks about, it's kind of like, tit for tat. It's kind of like, it's okay, but the the husband has responsibilities, and he has to treasure her and that so it was very illuminating. But that was the last time I mean, at least 10 years ago that I've written read that path.
Christopher Shelley 8:27
It's pretty common for me when people reach out to me originally, they stress very clearly, we do not want a religious ceremony. Oh, yeah. Like assuming that I will just inflict some kind of religious stuff on them just because of what my job is.
I like the word inflict, inflict the pain.
Christopher Shelley 8:45
Inflict, the pain? Yeah. I tell them, I'm not a religious person at all, unless you count New England sports teams, which I don't even think that's really a religion. And then they relax. And they're like, okay. I explained that I focus on the couple and I go through the process of the questionnaire and working with them and letting them know that they're gonna know every word I'm going to say before the day comes.
Have you turned down a request for something that was overly religious or really religious?
Christopher Shelley 9:16
Well, I have tiptoed around such requests now and then someone will ask me to mention God a few times without any specificity. Other times they want me to read a prayer or read something from the Bible. And me, I don't even have a Bible. You know, I'm thinking, Well, why don't you tell me what you want to hear? But it's their day, so I want to do whatever I can, but I explained to them that the best thing to do, if you'd like a Bible verse read, or if you want some religious aspects read, why don't you have someone from your family, to whom that's really important, come up, and do it. Because for me, and I explained, I'm nondenominational. I'm kind of a diplomat Amongst the religions, this wouldn't be as genuine as it would be from someone who's very passionate about that faith. And it's a good way to involve people from their family.
Well said, I like that. That's Well said. Yeah. Well, tell me a story, Chris.
Christopher Shelley 10:18
I will tell you the story, Clint. But first before I do, and before I forget, I want to congratulate you and JP, for being so huge in Italy. Before we started recording, I looked up how to say, wedding ceremony podcast in Italian. Now, Guess how you say wedding ceremony podcast in Italian? And imagine me moving my hands. Okay. podcast, de ceremonia de matrimonio. You know, and as soon as I heard that you were so huge in Italy. I pictured all these Italians at Cafes arguing with each other over stuff that you and JP talked about. No, the wine is the best unity ritual. No, it is the blessing of the rings and getting into it passionately like that's all the time. They don't even show soccer games. It's just like, they're all listening to you two.
Oh, my gosh, that's funny and scary all at the same time. Oh, my gosh.
Christopher Shelley 11:19
Hey, Clint. So back in the spring, no, not spring back in the summer. I think I wrote to you and JP and I said, I've got a crazy wedding coming up. COVID-19 had sort of changed the plans for this couple that we're going to get married in Los Angeles or some California somewhere. Then they moved to New York, and even brought their wedding planner with them all the way to New York. And a friend of theirs. The friend who introduced them, lives in Dumbo in Brooklyn, JP will know where this is. It's right near the Manhattan Bridge between Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge. And this woman has a rooftop apartment with a kind of outdoor wraparound deck, if you will. Beautiful views of Manhattan. Beautiful views of the bridge, and lovely kind of wood paneling on the floors. So they did their wedding there. They got a tent in case it rained. And they arranged this tent. And with a DJ and everything in this on this rooftop. And it was August and it was very hot. But that was fine. And it didn't rain. That was great. The problem was on the Manhattan Bridge, there's a train line, I forget which train line that goes from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and it's outdoors on this bridge, obviously. And when it goes by, you can't hear yourself talk to the person next to you. It's so loud. So if there are no trains, it's a perfect venue. It's quiet, it's lovely. It's iconic. But when the train goes by, it is the worst place to do a wedding you've ever imagined. So what happened? as I'm going through the ceremony, I had a microphone, even though if there were no train there, you would not need a microphone. It was such a small little space. But I had a microphone because of the train. So the DJ tried to monitor the microphone volume as I was doing the ceremony. Because if it was on full blast, while the trains weren't going by, I would be much too loud, it would be very uncomfortable for everyone. But then when the train did go by, I really needed full volume. But since the trains go in two different directions, and the rhythms are hard to follow, the DJ would try to go up at the wrong time and down at the wrong time. And I ended up feeling like I was either screaming or not talking loudly enough. And then I would project more myself. And he turned the volume down and the train would come. It was just the hardest ceremony I've ever done.
How frequently do the trains come by?
Christopher Shelley 13:58
every three minutes or so?
Oh my god,
Christopher Shelley 14:02
maybe you'll have a five minute gap if you're lucky.
And do they? Are they in motion? Or is the station nearby? So the train just kind of sits there.
Christopher Shelley 14:11
They just keep going and going going. So at least there's no like squealing of brakes usually, right? They're just going through going and going. And the ceremony ended and I wasn't even sure what I'd done. You know, you've written this thing together, we've taken pains to make it really good. And then it was just drowned out. But this is the kind of thing that happens. It's not always the the rainstorm that dampens the proceedings. It's not always the wind. It's not always the crying baby in the first row. Sometimes it's the train that's about 100 yards away.
To ask you about creating the story with a couple. What does the story consist of? Is it their history or what's the approach?
Christopher Shelley 14:58
I talked about when people meet. You know how Movies talk about the meet cute. Yeah, kind of interesting where the couple comes together in the first place. I like to talk about how that happened. I like to say something interesting and funny about it that maybe they've never thought of about that meeting and how random it is. I talked about the early days, generally, just kind of a montage of things that they experienced together. And then I usually transfer pretty quickly into how they started realizing they're in love with each other. And how they knew and what that felt like. If there's any obstacle they had to get through or climb over. I like to talk about that. Because, as you know, a good story has a good obstacle to it that they overcome, whether that's living in different countries, or working full time and going to school full time, or not having time together, or a sickness in the family, whatever it is, but talk about what they've gone through to be together.
I always love talking about the proposal, since that's the part where usually, let's just say it's a man and a woman getting married, usually the man has this big plan. And usually that plan does not really happen the way he thinks it's going to. Meanwhile, the woman only knows what did happen. And so the contrast between those stories is a neat thing. And I like to tie that into their relationship and have that lead into the very ending. I'll just say something like, and at some point in the proposal, Jim asked Judy, to marry him. A lifetime waited for them on the other side of that question, a lifetime of traveling and cooking and whatever they do together. And at some point, Judy said, Yes, the best Yes, that he'd ever heard. And here we are. And then it kind of goes into the more formal parts of the ceremony.
So the question is, that popped into my head is, it sounds to me like you work with a couple and every single one of those stories is unique to the couple, obviously. Yeah. But I think you just talked about the transition into the rest of the ceremony, the commitments, the I do, that kind of stuff, is that pretty much locked in for you? That the real creative part, and the part that's different for every ceremony? Is the story or is there any variation to the rest of the ceremony.
Christopher Shelley 17:21
I always look for opportunities to personalize the book ends around that love story as well, if I can. The early parts of the ceremony when I'm welcoming people, and talking about where everyone's from, and how we got here, that is often a little bit different as well, depending on where people have traveled from, it's certainly different these days, when travel is a huge issue. For people, there's often a zoom contingent, that I'll have to acknowledge. And that's a whole other topic. And then the ending part of the rings and the vows, that's always a little different to I least I tried to make it different. I have kind of stock language I use for a lot of weddings, but I try to tweak it for them if possible. And I always try to add in some final thoughts. And I do a section at the end called wedding zen, where I just get them to focus on that specific moment in every single detail of the moment, which I makeup on the spot, depending on what's going on. So those people on the on the rooftop, I asked him to speak of the sound of the train crashing into Manhattan. And then I pronounced them husband wife, and then I forget to present them. But I tried to make it unique for them in as many spots as I can so that it helps to make it fresh for me. So if I know I'm trying something different for this couple, I've got to really pay attention. I can't put it on autopilot. I've got to really pay attention. Remember, hey, we're doing something different in this line, in this part, in this whatever.
I agree with that. I think that's one of the benefits of doing this kind of work. I always feel a little bit sad or Yeah, I guess that's the right word for the officiants that have a set ceremony that they do every single time. Because I like it when something comes out of the blue and I have to really concentrate because there's a word that's different, or a phrase that's been omitted, or whatever it is. I really liked that. I'm glad you said that out loud. It makes it really more enjoyable for us because as you've already said, Every ceremony has its own nuances, which makes it unique. I love that.
Christopher Shelley 19:33
I experiment a lot with elopements where, for example, a couple maybe only contacted me a couple weeks ahead of their wedding, their budgets pretty low. They just want to get married, just do a little elopement. I have a kind of standard kind of thing I say that I barely even use my book for anymore. And if they do want to kind of up and pay me a little more money. I'll write something really brief that's personal and throw that in there. But for these elopements where it's kind of Same old thing-ish, I've been challenging myself to not even look at my book at all, to kind of do the whole thing off the top of my head. And that forces me to say the things I need to say, in the moment much more clearly and in a kind of fresh way, than if I was trying to look at my book and remember every word that I plotted out, if that makes sense, it makes total sense. Yeah, absolutely. positional aspect forces me to pay attention. And it forces me to be really genuine in that moment. And it's really powerful, Clint, because you realize that we are not just doing a job. These people are looking to us to kind of guide them across this threshold, not to get corny about it, but it's a huge moment in their lives. And for us to have that responsibility and honor is really cool. I mean, that gets me going. I don't care if I've been working for them for two weeks or two years or whatever. It's just great to be up there with them.
At the very beginning of the the episode you were talking about how you arrange people, the couple and yourself. Yeah, you mentioned though, that it was because of the pandemic.
Christopher Shelley 21:09
It's not really. Okay. I was using that to make it more sellable. If you want me to mention a little bit more about that arrangement. Yeah. Because oftentimes, it's one more thing people assume is that brides can be over here on the side of the stage. Guys can be over there. And officiants can be in the middle. Right. That's what people expect. And so I've been the celebrant way, like I went to the celebrant Foundation, and we're kind of trained to do what I described earlier, which is have a couple together to the side, and you're off to the other side, and you're presenting your story to the guests. That's a hard sell for some people in non pandemic times, because they have that image in their head. So clearly where it's supposed to look like air quotes. But then once I meet with them in person or something, I'll explain why I do that. One of the reasons I tell them is Look, I'm speaking to your guests more than I'm speaking to you. And if I'm standing right here, I'm basically projecting and you'll feel like I'm yelling right through your heads, which is very awkward. I tell them like, imagine if you went to hear someone give a speech or a TED talk, and two people were standing in front of the speaker the whole time. Like, it just doesn't make any sense. But yes, so I have been blatantly using the pandemic as a way to sell that setup on people. But it's true this way. I'm not speaking to them and not spraying aerosols on them, you know,
Before I became an officiant, I was a video editor, and I edited a ton of wedding ceremonies. And there was one guy that did something that I thought was really cool. I mean, I think it has to be done. Yep. In terms of how it's implemented, it has to be thought out really well, because you're talking about an entire ceremony and the different sections of the ceremony. But what this guy did that I've offered to some couples as an option, is that when they get to the I do question, then at that moment, the officiant comes down and stands in the aisle. So the couple is facing the officiant, because at that moment, they're answering a question that the officiant is asking on behalf of, I guess the government is Do you really want to enter into this legal arrangement? You know, the I do question. And so what he did was he went into the aisles so that the couple would turn and face him to answer the question, but also everybody would see their faces when they answered that question. Yeah. And I didn't think it was appropriate for every couple because every couple has their own kind of degree of being comfortable in front of a crowd, and some are more shy and whatever. But a few have chosen that. And it's kind of this really cool moment that connects. I know that there are some officiants, who will insist that the couple look at the guests before the ceremony begins. And with good intentions, of course, but I think there are some couples that that would be like a horrendous moment of a no, no, no, I hate being the center of attention. And that kind of a thing. Do you ever come across that in terms of the personalities of the couple?
Christopher Shelley 24:20
Like they're too shy?
On both ends of the spectrum, they can be either too shy or they want to perform? You know what I mean?
Christopher Shelley 24:29
Yeah, sometimes they're wonderful and you can see their faces the whole time. They're kind of interacting with their guests even when they don't need to. They’re smiling and people are waving or even talking sometimes. But the ones who are very particular, Brides, tell me that I only want my good shot, my good side showing.
And I'll I'll elbow the groom and say, oh, but both of your sides are perfect. That right groom? No. I haven't. I've been blessed with a lot of pretty outgoing couples who are on board with the way I'm doing their ceremony. And if they've hired me, chances are, they're kind of like me. And they want their officiant to match their personality. So I haven't really had ones where my couples are incredibly shy. The thing about the officiant going into the aisle is interesting, if that really is the only time that the couple is facing the guests. It's great to have that moment. But I'm thinking of pragmatic things like, does the officiant have a handheld mic? Does he have a lapel? Or does he have to drag like a mic stand down over them? Little things like that can be kind of weird. And then there's like video, people who are sometimes set in a certain spot, does that mess them up? But that's an interesting concept. But I love the idea of playing around with that kind of configuration, because people just don't think you can do anything except what they visualize in their heads.
So let me ask you a question about what triggered you just now, it was really cool, because I think the same way, in terms of logistics, as soon as somebody says, we're going to do this, I'm thinking, Okay, what do you need to be able to do that? and What could possibly go wrong with that? And, I'm wondering if that's because of your acting background, where if you're going to go on stage, you're aware of all of the different moving parts, in order to make that production available to the audience. I have had that background and I carry that sensibility into my job as an officiant, not that I'm Mr. bossy pants, but just I want to pay attention to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. Do you think that your acting background has informed that attitude?
Christopher Shelley 26:53
Oh, my God, of course. Absolutely. It informs so much of what I do up there. Talking about the choreography in the blocking, I still even think in terms of stage right, stage left, and I have to catch myself to explain. Oh, I mean, audience left, audience right, for people who don't think that way. But yeah, in terms of setting up a nice Tableau for people to see if there's a unity ritual, or someone going into the aisle to ask the I do questions. Yeah, I'm already thinking, how would this look as best as it can? What do we need to do? Is there anything we're forgetting here, other props? What are the the sight lines, because, every single space we go to is different. It's not like it's all this uniform rows of chairs. Sometimes you're working in the round. Sometimes you're on a hill, there's always these things to think about. Sometimes there's grass, and part of the grass is wet and muddy. And part of it's not. You have to look at every single thing. But no, I thank my lucky stars I went to theater school so long ago. And in terms of sort of directing the ceremony, in terms of delivering it, being loud enough being clear, pacing the whole thing out? Well, I think of it every single time, every time I'm working, I think back to theater school, and think, I'm finally making use of my BFA 20 something years later.
Because you have these the unique stories written down for every couple, sight reading is a huge, huge tool that I've found really beneficial. Sight reading is where you're able to look down at the text and then get your eyes up into the audience or to the couple, and your mind can still see the written word, so you're able to recite it, but it's a way to not be stuck in the page. I see photos, a lot of photos of officiants and couples. And, it's a real pivotal moment. But the officiant is is disconnected because they're down in the page as opposed to being up and with everybody else. Does that make sense?
Christopher Shelley 29:01
Absolutely. I go through my ceremony several times before the wedding day. So I have that muscle memory of what I'm going to be saying. So I know I can look up at certain points. And I'm really comfortable about where the next line is going to be. And I'll use one hand to hold the book and one hand to sort of move my finger along with the page. So if I am looking up, when I look back down, I know that my finger is going to be where I need to read next to kind of thing, but it makes it much more genuine for the guests and the bridal party and everyone if you don't have to be buried in that book, if you're looking at them, and you're just talking as if you're kind of making this up off the top of your head. And that's a really tricky thing too, Clint, is you can't try to recreate your last rehearsal back at the apartment. You have to be reading this thing as if it's the first time you've ever said it. And it's just something genuine that you're thinking of because then people buy in to it, you know? Yeah, I'm a big old ham up there. I use my body. I get into things. I do voices. I try to make what's invisible, visible for people in the storytelling. I do every trick I ever learned to try to make it more interesting for everyone.
Okay, at a future episode, Chris, we're gonna have to dive into the voices that you use during the ceremony. Don't do it now. That's the teaser. That's the teaser for the next time we have you on the episode. Oh my gosh, that'd be so great. Well, we've run out of time, Chris. So tell everybody how they can get in touch with you.
Christopher Shelley 30:32
My website is illuminatingceremonies.com. That's illuminatingceremonies.com. And there's a form on the front page where you can fill out some information and email it to me, and I will email you back as soon as I can. You can call me at 718-222-0110 Is it okay to give out phone numbers? Oh, yeah, absolutely. 718-220-110. If I don't recognize your number, I probably won't answer the phone. But I will call you back if you leave me a voicemail. And good point. Other writing I do. ChristopherShelleywrites.com, where I have information about how I help couples write their vows, or edit their vows. And for the humor writing I do which has pretty much nothing to do with weddings.
But I want to make sure that people understand how to spell your name for Christopher Shelley writes, it's a CH ri s t o p h ER and Shelley has two E's and it's a sh e Ll e y. Christopher Shelly rights.com. All right, everybody. That's it for this episode of the wedding ceremony podcast. This is Clint and On behalf of Chris, We will see you next time.