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Posts tagged ‘Theatre Basics’

Physical Performance for Singers – PART II – the “how”

 When the spoken word begins to fall short, a performer launches into song (or dance) that takes the level of expression to a whole new place.    The same way music is an important part of contemporary dance, movement is an important part of contemporary music. 

Here are some simple tips for improving your physical performance when singing.

Watch your feet and knees.  We all learned in jr. high choir not to lock our knees or we risk passing out, but planting your  feet can also make you look stiff on stage.  When you look stiff, it can make your audience nervous on your

Strong vs. Stiff

 behalf.  Often, a performer with feet glued to a single spot on the floor has also locked their knees.  

Don’t be fooled, guys, into thinking a stiff posture looks masculine… “disciplined” maybe, but not masculine when performing.  Not sure how many praise songs call for a posture of discipline, but hey, maybe you can use it some day.

With the lower body stagnant, when the tempo is up and the performer wants to move, the only place for that movement to go is in the upper body. 

Bobbing birds plant their feet and lock their knees.

The “knee locker” may bend and straighten repeatedly at the waist – which combined with no movement in the lower body makes the performer look like one of those bobbing bird toys that dips its beak in water over and over. 

The solution?  Simply try putting one foot slightly in front of the other.  Feet shoulder width apart.  Make a conscious effort to move your feet once in a while and keep your knees loose.  This may feel (and look) awkward at first,  but it’s a step in the right direction.  Get it?  Snort!

Resist the temptation to repeat a footwork pattern for the whole song.  Step touch, step touch, step touch… somebody SAVE ME from step touch, step touch!

Next,  watch your hands.  Stiff hands with fingers spread wide is called “jazz hands” and it’s hard to imagine a time when sustaining that gesture for more than a beat or two would be appropriate for praise music. 

Careful with the jazz hands


Similarly, watch the ballet hands. 

Careful with the ballet hands

This may be beautiful when dancing Swan Lake, but it looks artificial on a singer.

Solution?  Relax the hands completely.

Relax your hands.

Shake them out to relieve tension and hold them slightly cupped like a choir conductor or contemporary dancer.  Even when raised above the head, a relaxed, slightly cupped hand looks great.  You can use this hand position when keeping time by slapping your thigh to the beat (don’t flick your wrists), when “fake clapping” with a microphone in one hand, when raising your hands in praise, or just standing still wondering what to do with your hands.  When in doubt, relax into conductor hands.

The angle of your chin matters.  Hold your chin too high (head tilted too far back) and you look arrogant, not praise-filled. 


Not this.

When your chin is tilted down the temptation will be to cast our eyes down at the floor.  Do that and the audience looses all the expression on your face.

downcast eyes. distraction? shame? an otherwise neutral expression changes dramatically with downcast eyes.

If your chin is down and your eyes are elevated, you risk looking flirtatious at best and slightly insane or evil at worst. 

the cast of the head and the angle of the eyes are important

Subtle differences in th angle of your hands send very different non-verbal messages.

Without honest feedback, we might not really know how we are perceived.

click to enlarge

And wanna know the clincher?  There is no set formula for how a particular gesture will look on every person.  The same or very similar hand position may work perfectly for one performer and not at all for another.  So what do you do?  Find someone you trust to give you feedback and welcome their feedback like a gift!  (Proverbs 25:12)  That someone might also be your mirror or a video camera.  If your church records services on video, watch the playback of your performance with an eye toward improving your technique. 

Lastly, be patient with yourself and the others on your praise team.  It can take a while to learn how to get what you feel to match up with your stage presence.  Make small changes and try to make every performance a little better than the last.  Remember, God wants you to be FREE!  Relax and worship!  Loosen up!  Try “going big” at rehearsal one night… people will probably tell you they LOVE the way you worship God!  Believe that, trust that, and serve with your WHOLE SELF! 

hugs, v-


Physical Performance for Singers – PART I – the “why”

Creating an environment for worship without being a distraction is probably one of the toughest challenges praise team members face.  There is so much more to this than sheet music! First, you iron out all the musicality, the vocal technique, the style, the acoustics, the sound system … and then comes the hardest problem of all…. looking “right” on stage. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not about your personal “looks” or how you dress.  I am a chunky monkey and the poster child for the “BEFORE” part of What Not To Wear – so don’t expect me to go there.  The topic of this post is how you physically present yourself on stage.  Recent studies show only 7% of our communication of attitudes and feelings is verbal.  Over 90% of the way we share our attitudes and feelings is NON-VERBAL.     

At RMCC,  our auditorium seats something like 1200 people.  LOTS of folks like to sit in the back, and there, they can’t actually see facial expressions without looking at the overhead screens.  (Your face counts too when it is 8′ high on the wall behind you!)  If the congregation looks at YOU, not the screen, from that distance, will they know what you are singing about?  Or does your performance say, “I am stuck in the 1980’s”  or “Petrified for Jesus”  or “Really Don’t Give A Rip About You, This Is The Only Time I Spend With God All Week!” or my personal pet peeve… “It’s just me and Jesus up here in our own little world.”  That expression/posture totally has its place in authentic worship, but if I have to sit there every Sunday for a 15-minute worship set watching you in a spotlight,  clinching your hands over your chest, eyes squeezed shut with a look of pained, self-indulgent rapture on your face, Im’ma get up and go the Perks and Pages coffee shop for a latte until the preacher gets here.

When we are on stage leading worship on Sunday morning, the part we play in the service is to warm the hearts and focus the minds of the congregation so they can hear the rest of the message.  The message in song is usually more about attitudes and feelings and less about conducting a lecture on fracture mechanics, wouldn’t you say?  So according to that study, physicality counts in what we do.  It matters. 

The Bible is full of examples of the use of physicality and gestures to powerful effect.  

C.H. parts the Red Sea. Notice how he "commands" our attention with a simple gesture. Get it? Snort.

Moses held his arms up in the air to signal battle (he could have just used messengers, but he stood in plain sight with his arms in the air).   Charlton Heston used lots of grand gestures in his role of Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments.”  His portrayal of this Biblical character has probably defined the mental picture of Moses in the minds of more than one generation.


Entering Jerusalem

Christ  rode a donkey into Jerusalem with the crowd waiving palm branches and shouting (talk about an entrance!)

David Dancing by Richard McBee

2 Sam 6:13  David danced before the Lord with all his might.

Israel Blesses Ephraim with the Birthright, by Keith Larson

In Gen 48, Joseph takes his two sons to be blessed by their grand-father Jacob.  Jacob crossed his arms, significantly placing his right hand on the head of the younger brother  and his left hand on the older grandson.  With this physical gesture, he made the point that the younger son would be the greater man.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is full of drama, intrigue, mystery, danger, and scandal.  It’s that of the woman caught in adultery. 

Why this physical gesture?

When asked by the religious leaders of the day what they should do with the woman, Jesus said basically, Hey, if your conscience is clean, throw the first rock to kill her.  That’s important, but heeeeeere’s the part that intrigues me…   Not much happened when Jesus talked … but then…. Christ stopped talking and made a simple physical gesture.  He stooped down and wrote in the dirt.  In the middle of a highly charged, potentially violent situation where a woman’s life was at stake!? Whah?!  (John 8)  Why that?  Why stoop down and write in the dirt? Why do it twice? Could he have been physically expressing Jeremiah 17:13 by writing the names of the accusers?   ” Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water”? Talk about a visual analogy!! What an interesting physical choice the Lord made in that moment.  But the Bible is clear. The gesture was the turning point.  The physical statement Jesus made was just as powerful as the words he spoke on that day.

If your physical presence on the stage were not important, your church leaders could just project the latest artists on screens at the front of the auditorium and ensure perfectly produced sound and visuals.  But it’s your physical presence that matters to your congregation. Your being there in person creates the worshipful environment and personal connection that is so meaningful to the audience.  Presenting a worshipful presence to a room full of people can be harder than you might think.  Is what you think you look like on stage what you actually look like?  Is the physical story you tell the minute you step on stage the one you are actually trying to tell?  Often there is a reality gap between what we feel and how we look.

Praise Team members are wonderfully diverse! This isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you move.

 It’s not about age, or weight, or height, or how many tattoos you do (or do not) have, or the body shape of the performer. It is about physical gestures and postures that you MUST learn to control so that you can communicate with the audience.

A big complaint we often hear from beginners is, “This just doesn’t feel “natural” and “How can I worship if I feel fake up here?”  Most of these same people will say that singing feels natural but moving around on stage does not.   So I ask this…  Does the physical act of singing really come “naturally” to us?  If you answered “yes”, let me ask you how often you resort to song in your day-to-day activities.  Do you “sing” your thanks to the grocery clerk, or sing your fast food order at the drive thru window? Do you sing “please pass the salt” at the dinner table?  Reaching for the salt is far more natural than singing about it.  SO!  No more nonsense about “singing is natural” and “physicality” is not, OK?  Singing is a LEARNED SKILL, you may have learned it very early in your life, but singing and speaking are NOT “natural” behaviors.  They are learned, practiced, and refined over our lives so that we can better express ourselves to each other.  It takes a lot of hard work to learn to speak and sing and walk.  

EFFECTIVE physical communication works the same way.   In an adult, awkward physicality does not appear “natural” to an audience, it usually just gets in the way of the message you want to share as a performer.  (unless your name is Mick Jagger).  However, a skilled physical performer can actually create an intense feeling of intimacy and trust between the audience member and the performer.  As a worship leader you wash the feet of those you serve with your gifts, so set your ego aside and get to the business of presenting your story with ALL your self, not just your singing voice. 

Sometimes, you have to de-construct bad physical performance habits that interfere with your ability to show your honest feelings on stage.  Sometimes, you will have to practice movements and postures that will not feel comfortable at first.  Like riding a bike, dancing, or perfecting a golf swing, think consciously about what you are doing, find a coach you trust, use the mirror, and soon your body will be able to reflect your heart from across a progressively larger area. 

Hal Holbrook plays the drunk in Mark Twain Tonight

Recently, I was fortunate to see a live performance of Hal Holbrook playing his famous Mark Twain character.   Below is a link to the part of the show where Hal’s physical acting really shines……  (caution, this clip is an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn which portrays drunkenness and use of the n-word) .  You will see him play a middle-aged drunk, a 12-year-old boy wrestling with a life-changing question,  and if you watch to the end, he steps back into the role of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) with the simple act of closing a book and lighting a cigar.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-JtcC7mRTw&feature=relatedAfter After procrastinating about buying tickets, they were almost sold out.  We sat literally against the back wall of a large auditorium. We were too far away to see facial expressions without opera glasses, but I was riveted by his physical performance. Hal is 80 years old and  even though he was standing there with wild Mark Twain hair and a Colonel Sanders white suit, he carried us with him down the Mississippi River.   I sat there wondering if I could “reach” an audience member in the back row of our church auditorium.

You may not want to spend the time and effort required to become a master actor and story-teller like Mr. Holbrook, but setting the modest goal of thinking through the motions of your next song would be a great first step! 

Changing your physical performance can feel artificial at first, so begin with small, deliberate observations and changes.  Pay attention to what you are doing with your hands and feet.   Learn a few easy tricks of the trade, and soon your congregation will be focused on your message and not your stage fright or the “canned” moves you think look so praise-filled.

Mick's signature moves never change do they? Like, ever?

We all have our “go-to” moves.  Those automatic gestures we use over and over again.  If you don’t know what yours are, you are simply not paying attention.  Whitney Houston and Carrie Underwood flick their fingers up and down on the microphone,  Nicole C. Mullens covers here heart with her hands a lot, comedians have fun with all Mick Jagger’s mannerisms. 

In part two on this topic, we’ll look at some specific, practical things to be aware of… but for now turn an ANALYTICAL eye toward some of these examples of Singers who are also Great Story-Tellers with their Physicality.

Nicole also gets the award for most beautiful arms on the planet, btw.

 Nicole C. Mullins – When I call on Jesus – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpHSGP6U1Ws&feature=channel   What a wonderful graceful performance.  Note the movements get bigger when the song gets bigger.  Nicole is a dancer, and her complete performance is probably beyond the average beginner, but is there a hand gesture or the angle of her head and arms that might fit into your movement repertoire?

These rascals know how to perform

Rascal Flats – Broken Road – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkWGwY5nq7A&feature=channel   Studied, subtle, relaxed and intimate performance.  Note the guitar player’s posture sitting on the stool. All he can really do is lean forward and back and tilt his head, tense and relax his legs and shoulders… but he uses those limited movements to great effect.   Men, you do not have to dance like David or wave your arms around wildly to have a powerful stage presence.  You do need to be deliberate about the way you move, though.

Elvis is trying to get to us.

Elvis – Trying to get to you – http://www.youtube.com/user/elvis?blend=1&ob=4#p/u/7/2xtfazXu45U  (this link is kinda flaky, just look for the song in the right colum on the page when you get to the site) in this tune about a man’s romantic frustration, Elvis masterfully controls his audience with his movements (no racy stuff here).  By moving in and out of extreme tension on his face and in his body, the performer tells his story.  Watch the girls react to him at time marker 2:15 when he looks like he’s going to charge out of his seat.  But he keeps it light, tongue-in-cheek, by nearly laughing at himself several times.  It’s all fun, we’re all in on the joke (which creates intimacy with the performer), but when he wants to turn on the masculine charm, he knows how to do it without vulgarity.  Just good ‘ol physical story-telling, the man holding back the tiger inside.

Sanctus Real is alright!

Sanctus Real – I’m Not Alright – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2LCvCBaqVg  great illustration of some fairly “stock” movements used to very good effect.  This is a textbook example of how powerful the simple act of opening and closing your eyes can be.  He is very introspective when his eyes are closed, but looks right into your soul with eyes open.  He doesn’t spend the whole song with his eyes shut! These guys have a young, awkward all elbows-and-knees attitude, which works perfectly for them.  You don’t have to be a dancer to use studied movement to great effect.

Stay Tuned for “Physical Performance for Singers – PART II”  which will have less theory and more practical examples.                     hugs, V-

Memorizing tips

It’s late at night, and once again I find myself sitting up in bed reviewing my lines for a performance tomorrow.  During the Rush Hour season, the memorizin’ requirements can be substantial, so here are some tips…

Memorization gets easier with time.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

Start in a quiet place.  Minimize distractions until you really have your lines down.  At THAT point, distraction can actually become helpful!

READ IT FIRST!  Read the entire piece through at least 3 times before you try to memorize the first line.  This technique will help you understand what you are learning, how the words flow and what other characters are doing… all of which will add meaning to what you are learning, making it easier to remember.  This is a MUST DO for memorizing music!  Always be really, really familiar with the way an entire song sounds so that you can memorize your part in context. 

Say the lines out loud.

I write my lines down.  Just like spelling practice as a kid. As I get faster, I just write the first letter of each word until I can say the lines faster than I can write or scribble them down.

MOVE AROUND!  Once you think you know the lines, walk around.  Imagine the audience as you speak, envision the theatrical environment.  This will help prevent the deer in the headlights moments when you have to add blocking later (see glossary).

I use gestures to help me memorize.  Adding a specific movement to a line can trigger the words.  Just keep things natural looking, and don’t add a movement for every word! 

Add distraction.  Once you have the lines down pretty well, let the dogs in the house and keep practicing.  Go in the same room as the kids, turn the radio or the TV on, and keep working!  If you have kids old enough to read, hand them a script and have them read the other character’s lines.  Be sure to tell them not to rescue you unless you ask for help.  Be fair to your rehearsal partner by stating your expectations clearly before you start. Do you want them to correct you?  If so, should they correct every minor mistake, or just make sure you get the general idea of the line. 

Don’t memorize the “ACTING” as you learn the lines.  Unless you are directing yourself, memorizing HOW you will deliver the lines as you learn the words themselves can set your performance in stone, and cause problems when you begin acting with others.   A director may want a different interpretation and you may be so sure of your character’s own motivations that you don’t leave room for the other actors to explore THEIR parts because yours is so locked down.  Try memorizing the lines in a monotone at first, THEN memorize them using a different interpretation every time you read the line.   Play with different emotions, say the line happy, silly, angry, sarcastic, evil, with a lisp, with an accent.  Take a line and add an emphasis to a different word each time you say it. 

     example:  HOW now brown cow.  how NOW brown cow?  how now BROWN cow.  how now brown COW! 

I use that same technique when I am not sure how to interpret a line.  By changing the emphasis of each word, you can explore the writer’s intent in a variety of ways.

  Try this example out loud:  I will not go to the corner store right now.  I WILL not go to the corner store right now.  I will NOT go to the corner store right now.  I will not GO to the corner store right now.  I will not go to the CORNER store …. OK, you get the picture.

All the repetition helps. 

I have a friend who has a recorder app on his phone.  He records the entire script in various character voices including his own lines and listens to it over and over saying his lines “with himself.”  He records a second version where he omits his own lines and reads all the other characters’ lines.  He uses the first recording until he has it down, and uses the second version to test himself.

Often I get STUCK on the same line, forgetting in the same spot each time I come to it in a script.  If  I can’t remember what comes in the next sentence, I drill and drill about 5-6 words, over and over, taking the last few words I know and the first few words of the next line where I get stuck and repeating them. No breaks, no “punctuation”… just the words flowing from the solid phrase right into the trouble phrase.

Example:   “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”   Let’s say I get the first half, but can’t remember the method part… here’s the way I would say it over and over…. “madness yet, madness yet, madness yet”  Then add more….” madness yet there is method, madness yet there is method, madness yet there is method.”  Then I would do the whole phrase until I had it down.  THEN, and only then, would I allow myself to add the phrasing and interpretation for meaning.

I might set myself a goal such as saying a line perfectly 10 times before I allow myself to go onto the next line.

This will vary according to your own group and director’s preference, but generally… during a rehearsal, don’t keep your script open and in your hands… know your lines well enough to roll them up in your back pocket, tuck it under your arm, toss it on the floor nearby.  A rehearsal is not a first read-through… be better prepared than that if you possibly can.  (This assumes, of course, that it is not a blocking rehearsal that requires you to make notes on your script).

During a rehearsal, there should be someone on book (watching lines) for you.   If there is, just say “LINE”  clearly and HOLD CHARACTER until you hear the line.  If there is no prompter… pick up your script, find the line and carry on with as little fuss as possible. 

Saving my number one tip for last…. I work on my lines right before I go to sleep.  I find that they solidify in my mind overnight. When I wake up, I review them in my head before I get up.  If there are weak spots, I work those that morning and voila!  I find giving myself two nights to sleep on it, cements things in very well.  For beginners, have your lines learned at least a week before you are expected to have them down, if at all possible. Then shorten the prep time as you get better at it.

NEVER wait until the day of the performance to memorize your lines.  Show up for the final run-through with a script in your hand???  Dont.  Just dont. That is the BEST way to send an entire cast into panic mode. When a director doesn’t trust you to be prepared, they will start making rules… rules that affect the whole cast and can cause hard feelings… and since creative people like us tend to dislike rules anyway, ‘tiz a far, far better thing thou doest when thou cometh to the play prepared.     

hugs,   v-

Makeup Demo – old age

For Rush hour, we do an old age makeup every Sunday to age Grandpa Henry.  I thought it might be helpful to you to see a demo of an old age makeup.  I’m frustrated with the quality of the video but I checked on my daughter’s laptop and it seems to be OK, so we’ll go with it as is.   

Thanks tons to my daughter who is only 19 and has beautiful, smooth skin.  Can’t BELIEVE she let me do this, she is SUCH a good sport!! 

Starting with a blank slate, a smooth face, you will want to apply wrinkles and stippling in these areas: 

For supplies… my favorite stage makeup is Ben Nye.    http://www.bennye.com/   This tends to be pricey, but will yield the best results.  All you really need is

  1. A medium foundation
  2. A white (or very, very light) cream     (in a pinch, “clown white” that you buy at the Halloween store will work)
  3. A VERY dark brown or black cream  (ditto the note about Halloween makeup)

I like to apply a basic moisturizer first.  This will protect the skin, and make the makeup easier to remove later.  It will also make the skin smoother and facilitate blending.  Men and teenagers usually protest the moisturizer the most, so I believe in the idea of natural consequences.  Just let em TRY to get heavy makeup off without that nice layer of moisturizer first.  Plus, with rough, dry man-skin, the application will take longer and be more uncomfortable for them.   Mwahahahahaha! 

As with any “art project”  applying old age wrinkles uses the concept of highlights and shadow (aka lowlights).  I explain this in the video. 

One note I wanted to explain about aging and symmetry is something I was kind of  incoherent about during the video.    Here’s what I was TRYING to say….   I’ve read some scientific articles about how skin cells are constantly regenerating, replacing themselves.  As we age, skin overexposed to the cigarette smoke, the sun, or tanning booths, or a bad diet, will cause DNA inside the skin cells to become damaged.  When that cell tries to read the DNA instructions to reproduce itself,  it will read the flaws in the damaged DNA and reproduce imperfectly.  Magnify these imperfections over a lifetime, and you get skin that is damaged by more than just lack of collagen.  What that means to applying an old age makeup is… perfect symmetry is not only un-necessary… it’s incorrect.

You don’t have to be this elaborate with your makeup.  Simplification of these basic ideas will give you a nice look from a distance, but practice is the best way to speed the process up. 

hugs, V-

Makeup Idea

Makeup idea.  This humpty dumpty idea was re-DONK-u-lous!  Reminds me of some of the makeup stuff we did in college.   

I highlighted the actor's actual features on the right. (click to enlarge)


at the link below is the animated version I found via Stumble Upon.  http://memeparty.com/i/5a46bc78cc4c02d40a4105c0424e65d9.gif  

hugs,   v-

Backdrop Ideas

I am a fan of “StumbleUpon” and I ran across this art installation by Viennese/Croatian design collective For Use/Numen.  Here’s the web address:  http://www.fastcompany.com/1656197/designers-create-spiderman-worthy-cave-from-packing-tape


This design is entirely made from packing tape.  It is so strong people can crawl inside it!  I think a scaled down version would make an INCREDIBLE theatrical backdrop with the right lighting!

Another idea for a VERY inexpensive backdrop “Scrim” is to staple together soda six-pack plastic holders into a large curtain.  Light it blue and voila! … instant abstract ocean.  Light it green… forest!  Red lights? … fires of Hell, you get the idea.




Three types of stage configurations

There are three commonly used stage configurations.  A proscenium stage, a thrust stage, and theatre in the round.  A proscenium is probably what you saw in high school or your elementary school cafeteria.        

The proscenium stage


When you think of a thrust stage, think of the Miss America pageant or a New York fashion show with runway models.  Theatre in the round means the audience is on all sides, and the actors have to be aware of their stage positions as seen from 360 degrees.      


A thrust stage setup


My favorite?  Theatre in the round, of course.  It’s the most challenging and I like a challenge. I spent two years in junior college learning to be aware of 360-degree acting.  There is nothing like it.  Ever notice how Jack Nicholson can even act with his BACK!?  I bet he spent some time doing theatre in the round. Just a guess.  If you know Jack, point him to my blog so he can tell us himself.        

Of course the old Casper College theatre in the round is a computer lab now, and my Junior college has a newer stage that is sort of a thrust/proscenium hybrid.          

Best stage for beginners?  It might surprise you, but I would not say a pure proscenium.  I would say a modified proscenium with a generous apron on the front.  Sight lines can be harder to manage on an old-school proscenium stage with just 2-3 feet of space in front of the curtain. (see my glossary for term definitions).       

Theatre in the round


Things get really interesting when you start to combine aspects of these various stages.  By adding an extention onto the front of a proscenium stage, you can extend your acting space and make it a modified thrust. That approach may overcome the problem with a proscenium stage where all the action happens near the back wall and half the audience can’t see what’s going on.  By removing one set of seats from a theatre in the round, you can add set pieces and a backdrop to one side of the room and turn it into a modified thrust as well.       

Picture in your mind the American idol stage when the judges sit facing center stage and the stage configuration allows the performers to walk on a platform around the back of the judges.  That stage is a total hybrid proscenium that has elements of a theatre in the round depending upon where the singer is performing.  It can also be used as a thrust stage if the vocalists walk up to the area just in front of the judges table.  Sweet stage design.       

Want to give your actors the experience of the different stage setups?  Get in an empty room with a bunch of actors and mark the various stage types on the floor with masking tape.  Do some improvs or scene work in pairs. Have the other actors sit where the audience would normally sit, and ask them to complain if they can’t see something or if they get tired of staring at an actor’s back.        



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