Shopping Out Our Work


Yesterday I ventured out to Pennsylvania to once again teach a workshop with Friend Heather under the auspices of Zuppa del Giorno, our contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. The workshop took place on Marywood University's campus, and was about five hours long. All of this is exceedingly normal. From our first production, Zuppa del Giorno has been teaching more and more workshops, either as educational appendages to our shows or as independent entities that spread the word of us and hopefully bring in more students, not to mention occasional income. Marywood University is gradually becoming a regular collaborator with The Northeast Theatre (last fall we worked with their theatre department to create Prohibitive Standards), and I have just about learned the routes between New York City and Scranton so well I could probably walk them if I had to (and gas prices being what they are...). This venture, however, had a distinctive element. It represented our first foray into the world of "corporate training."

Several of my friends work for companies that shop actors out into the corporate world to lead seminars in communication and team-building. Some time ago, it became apparent to we lunatics at Zuppa that this was an occupation well within our reach. We have over the past several years taught amazing things to people, I modestly confess. We usually come out of such sessions impressed with how well they went, and what everyone learned not only to do, but about themselves. That learning includes us, I'm hasty to add. Every time I try to teach new people how to execute a reasonable thigh-stand, I learn something new. Crazy? Sure. Crazy gets the job done really well in my little world.

Friend Heather has been particularly interested in getting the Zuppa del Giorno corporate education arm out there and swinging for the fences ever since she picked up and moved to Scranton. By and large, that move has been a good one for her. She's doing more acting work than ever since, and good work at that, and she's finding for herself a particular sense of community that those of us here in New York view with a certain envious uncertainty. ("That seems so great, that kind of intimate society; yet, where would I hide?") Hell: The Northeast Theatre is even ushering in a new era by becoming more of an ensemble company, of which Heather is a member, heralded with a name change and everything. More of that ahead. In the meantime, Heather still owes to Caesar what is owed to Caesar, and her desire is to be paid in full without the addition of another mind-numbing day job. Hence her particular enthusiasm for getting "Corporate Zuppa" to hit a homer.

Now, Thursday wasn't exactly our official corporate debut. In fact, it was a sort of paid audition for the Marywood staff who handle events and marketing, to see if they'd be interested in sort of advertising such workshops as part of what they can offer to private interests. Like most universities these days, every summer Marywood hosts conferences and such to keep up the rent payments and stay active in the commercial community. Our being a part of that would certainly provide a lot of opportunities we might not otherwise have. So we had ourselves a sort of dry run for adapting our skills (audiences only like theatre troupes with skills) to the "corporate" milieu.

It was, um.... It was okay. I think, by the end, everyone had enjoyed themselves at least a little bit. We definitely got a lot of helpful feedback, both from the experience itself and from discussion with the dozen-or-so participants afterward. It was a bit jarring, I must admit, to discover myself teaching a class of people who were required to be there. I mean to say, although we've taught high school classes under similar circumstances, this was a rather new domain. The bosses of the two departments required their employees to attend, and not all of them were happy to be there. In fact, the anxiety was increased by their ignorance of what exactly we were going to be subjecting them to. I was surprised, about two-thirds of the way through the initial warm-up, when I tried to help someone figure out a stretch we were doing. We were stretching our hips and glutes, and she had turned her torso the wrong way from her knees. I informed her she should twist the other way and, misreading me, she prepared to unfold her legs and turn everything in reverse. Realizing my miscommunication, I stood up from across the circle and said, "Oh, no--" preparing to demonstrate just for her. When she saw me coming, though, she immediately went on the defensive, saying, "It's me, I get confused, no, don't touch me!" I stopped in my tracks. "It's okay. I'm not going to touch you. It's okay."

But it threw me. I'm not going to lie to you. What I should have done was take a moment to acknowledge feeling affronted, and then move on both internally and externally. I did okay. I acknowledged she was scared, saying, "It's okay, I'm not going to touch you," and backed away. What I failed to do, however, was either find an alternate way to engage her or to put the rest of the class at ease after that kind of confrontation. I was surprised, to be sure, and it would be easy to chalk up my failure to simple shock over suddenly being confronted. But it was more than that. I took it personally, somehow. I reeled back, at least internally, and Heather took over for a moment or two. It made sense that the woman would respond the way she did. How often does the average person find themselves seated in an uncomfortable, confusing position on the floor while someone standing comes at them? I understood this logically; emotionally, I was offended. I didn't feel I could help it. It's a terrible feeling, that you and your work are unwelcome, and I never get used to it, and actors confront exactly this situation on a daily basis.

As I say, the day resolved itself, and everyone got involved. There was even a sort of blossoming from that particular woman as the course moved on. She went from flicking off her boss (totally permissible given the exercise we were doing) and exclaiming her hatred of having to be there to being one of the more engaged and entertained people overall. I can't take any credit at all for that evolution, and we were assisted by the fact that these people all generally had a rapport prior to the workshop. (I quiver at the thought of working with a group of people who are strangers to one another.) The work, however, does its work, and Heather and I can at least take a little credit for creating the most nurturing environment imaginable for risk-taking (short of installing emotion-sensitive airbags throughout the room [which, frankly, would be hilarious--you could distinguish the moment anyone started to feel insecure in themselves because they'd be immediately engulfed in pillowing]).

We're finding our balance. The course is predominantly aimed at using improvisation exercises to teach communication skills, but we reference acrobalance a bit (I'd like more, but can't quite figure how to do that without excluding injured or more corpulent folks) and are trying to develop ways to communicate the unique collaborative techniques we use in creating shows together. I'd like, frankly, to shift the focus off of improvisation, because I feel it's the least unique training we have to offer and that our enthusiasm lies elsewhere. (Plus improv's got a certain stigma built-in, thanks to its widespread use in such venues and the popularity of The Office [US].) I enjoy improvisation, so maybe it's just a way of incorporating it in a new way. Several times during the teaching I thought of the tremendous success of the Jeepform game The Upgrade that I played at Camp Nerdly 2. Some of the overt game theory applied in that particular improvisation may be a good model for easing people out of their fears and trepidations. Then again, that was another case of having all willing participants.

I'm remaining positive ("yes, and..."), but in so doing avoiding a strong reaction I had to the experience. There was something in that refusal, that fear reaction from the participant, that made me feel a complex wave of negativity. Verbalized that response would, compressed within less than a second, sound something like this, "Okay, I won't touch you! Hey, guess what? There's stuff I'd rather be doing too, but I've come here in spite of my fears and in the hopes of creating something together. I can tell that's unwelcome, and that pisses me off royal. I get enough of that in auditions. In fact, next time you want an actor to lay off, try 'thank you...'. Just like that: 'THANK you...'. Every actor will immediately understand that you aren't buyin' what they're sellin', and get the hell out of there just as fast as he or she can. In fact, maybe I'll do that altogether. No one wants a live experience, no one wants to connect, no one wants a leading man who can't bench press the state of North Dakota. So I'll just go, all right? Will that make your life so much better? Will that make it so much easier? MY. PLEASURE."

I'm glad I didn't go there at the moment it happened, but I'm also glad I went there just now. I'm not looking forward to our next go at corporate training (this feeling always reminds me of my private trombone lessons in high school, which I regarded with inevitable terror), but I'm aware that it's simply a challenge to be overcome step-by-step. I do like challenges. I just don't like when people think they have something to gain by avoiding them.
 
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