Morning sunlight penetrates through the windows, through the locked gate drawn down over the opening to the main gallery of the Salem Convention Center, and onto the volunteers making final preparations for the oncoming rush. Gift bags are laid out in dozens of rows, next to name badges for over 400 attendees, guests, volunteers and speakers. A chaos of activity the night before, of late-night pizza boxes and missing tables and frantic last-minute errands, drifts into a calm of anticipation in the final minutes before the doors open.
Inside the locked, darkened Santiam Ballroom, technicians finish laying and taping cables across the floor, checking sound, video angles, lighting, seating, volume. Glow sticks light the path to the stage; cymbals complete the drum set in front of the TEDx Salem logo.
In a loose purple robe, Lou Radja walks to his mark, a red carpet at center stage, and takes in the scene to be. The last speaker of the day, he worries if his finale will resonate. He spends a few moments with event co-curator Brian Hart, and then turns away toward the backstage area, robe billowing behind. Many speakers are similarly anxious. Many months of preparation, of rehearsals and retakes and revisions have led to this moment.
The last sounds are a medley of snare drums, mic checks, clinking glassware, and voices both pleasant and urgent. A cacophony before the symphony.
Keith Seckel sits backstage, index cards sprawled across a table as he prepares for his first appearance onstage. For the host of TEDx Salem 2015, though the theme is “FEARLESS,” the day is about togetherness. It’s his biggest hope, he says, to connect an audience of individuals as a community.
“A lot of us are alone,” he says.
“I like the idea of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” Seckel says. “So with a community there is togetherness and a group identity; an ethos which cannot exist solely in the individual. Together we comfort and support, encourage and exhort. Together we achieve and grow as we learn from one another.”
“That being said, I believe there is still an ‘I’ in the midst of community,” he says. “Belonging to a group does not abrogate my individuality or in any way lessen my value as one person in a crowd.”
“When I remove myself from the crowd I allow my own creativity to rise free, but if I isolate myself altogether that singularity is without effect, without response.”
The RiverCity Rock Star Academy band sprawls across all the seats and armrests available backstage. Guitars and bass in hand, they pound out an unplugged walk-through of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and “Cherry Bomb,” by the Runaways, before giving it full-volume to the TEDx Salem crowd.
Keith Seckel is a blur of motion as he changes costume for his introductory comments. Notecards now in mouth, he stuffs his yellow and black bag, and heads to a quiet spot in the service area around the convention center. He re-enters moments later with a gray rain jacket, then enters the door to the stage.
Applause means it’s go time.
How we interact with others, he says in his introduction, either lets people in or pushes people away. “What would you think if I approached you” wearing the gray jacket, or a priest’s collar, or a nurse’s scrubs, he asks the audience, as he removes each item to reveal the next in his costume.
It’s an auspicious start, one of the best moments of the day for him, he says, “sensing everyone’s hearts and minds really leaning into the day with eager anticipation.”
“I find it true in my life that I judge others on their actions, yet want to be judged for my motives,” Seckel says.
“Rather than make assumptions about someone’s character based solely on their appearance, I’m learning to stay open — to risk vulnerability — and adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude.”
Keith approaches a nervous yet prepared Brianna Miller, the event artist-in-residence, and offers a reassuring tip about the crowd below the stage lighting: You can’t see them.
“You can make eye contact, without making eye contact,” he says.
Keith Seckel kneels before a board, both a red and a black marker in his hands. Written on the board is the prompt: “Fearless is…”
With both makers, Seckel carefully writes, upside down: “Doing things your own way.”
“Fearless is, paradoxically, not the simple absence of fear,” he says. “Fear is a gut response: a visceral and emotional knee-jerk reaction.”
“Fearlessness does not negate that response,” he says, “it simply mitigates it.”
“Fearlessness is a choice: choosing the action one believes to be best despite the fear roiling inside.”
Everything on cue… Rich McCloud up next.
“There’s a saying in endurance running, ‘Trust your training,'” Keith Seckel says to a visibly relieved C.M. Hall, after she emerges backstage from her wildly successful TED talk. Behind them both, Maya Kaup finishes her final laps around the coffee table, rehearsing her talk in her mind a few more times for good measure.
Seckel meets and greets attendees between lunch tables, and starts conversations with one simple question: “What was your favorite moment so far?”
Halfway into the day his view of the role of host evolved, he says.
“As a connector of things, I saw myself as ‘just a semi-colon,'” he says. “I didn’t want to distract from the speakers and those who were on stage.”
“I went into this knowing my role was important, but also not wanting to make too big a deal out of it. During and afterward though, I realized that while the flow of the day and the seamlessness of people’s experiences were everything I wanted them to be, I was far from invisible, and that was OK. I like to think I did not distract from anyone’s presentation, and yet I now know that being intensely visible is actually important!”
“TED’s brand recognition is growing constantly,” Keith Seckel says. “Salem’s longstanding reputation is of a sleepy backwater. [That reputation] was perhaps warranted in the past, but not any more. TEDxSalem helps put the TED brand with the best of Salem, opening the eyes of people both inside and outside the local community to the merits of Salem and its residents and businesses.”
“In terms of what I got out of hosting I’d say the most significant is: connection — to the core team, the speakers, and the audience; the Salem community at large.
“I left this year’s event knowing that I am part of something much larger than myself…and yet owing to that experience I am myself that much more enriched as an individual.”