Transform in a moment . . . through performance!

I’ve been thinking a lot about coaching this week — maybe because I’ve been coaching a lot this week!

In the early part of the week I had the chance to participate in a corporate training for a leading management consulting firm thanks to my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime ( who hired me as a coach and role player for this gig. Our fantastic, talented team of improviser/role players spent the day being interviewed by teams of young consultants (fresh out of college); at the end of the day each of us coached teams of these young consultants based on feedback from those interviews.

Later in the week, I had coaching sessions with a few of my young colleagues at a client company where I’m the “communication specialist”.

It’s wonderful to give young people the chance to use performance as a tool for growth, no matter what the context!  It’s very gratifying to share how performance helps us grow and develop.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching a video of a talk that one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, gave at Town Hall back in 1997 on “performance therapy”.  Fred is the chief architect of the methodology that I was trained in (and that Performance of A Lifetime utilizes in their work).  As always Fred had many thought provoking things to share; given what’s been on my mind this week this sentence jumped out at me:

“We have the capacity to transform ourselves in a moment through performance.”

What got me thinking was this notion of transforming ourselves in a moment.  Our psychologically-overdetermined culture sends the message that transformation is about introspection, explanation and knowing — and that it can take years of therapy! Along comes Fred Newman saying that we can tranform ourselves in a moment!

When Newman talks about performance therapy he is acknowledging the essential human activity of being who we are and who we are not at the same time.  Each of us has the capacity and can make the choice, moment-to-moment, to perform — to be other than who we are — and thereby to transform ourselves.

How liberating!

For more information about Newman, performance therapy/social therapy, and learning more about the performance approach see the website of the East Side Institute at

Showing who we are – A storytelling approach

I’ve been taking a class — Talking to People in Public: A Storytelling Approach with Cathy Rose Salit, President & CEO of Performance of a Lifetime and Chris Helm, a talented teacher of all things philosophical — in order to learn more about coaching whilst I improve my own presentation abilities.

At this week’s class we began making presentations that Cathy then redirected to help us develop our capacity to not only talk about ourselves but to show our audience who we are.  This was a very instructive and creative exercise.

I chose to make the presentation “Why Improvisation?” that I’ve recently made in a corporate setting.  I gave my presentation to the class.  Then Cathy shared with the class that she and I know each other quite well.  In fact we currently perform together in an improv troupe at the Castillo Theatre – The Proverbial Loons; we have been performing together for 20 years.  She made the following suggestion:  She asked me to ask the audience for a list of characters and to write them on a whiteboard; then I was to give my presentation again, only this time as the characters on the list, the class could tell me when to switch to a new character.

I did my presentation again, this time I started out as a Russian man, then I was a dog, then I was a college student barista at Starbucks and I ended the presentation as a nagging mother — it was very funny and entertaining.

Cathy was teaching me and us how to show who we are; rather than lecturing about improvisation, I improvised! We then discussed how this would impact the audience for this presentation within a corporate setting.  It was a very rich and valuable dialogue.  In my letting people see who I am as a 20 year veteran improviser (and giving them this fun experience) it might create more of an environment for them to trust me in taking them through a workshop to teach these skills, which they can then apply to their own work (cold calling and developing better communication capabilities).

This approach to storytelling and sharing who we are by demonstrating who we are rather than talking about who we are is much more intimate and vastly more creative.

I’d love to hear how you can use this approach in your own presentation work.

For more information about classes at the East Side Institute and Cathy Rose Salit please see these links:

How to ennoble the human spirit at work? Perform and play!

This morning I read a terrific article in the Sunday New York Times — Do Happier People Work Harder? by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

I can’t say that anything in this article surprised me, as I’ve had these experiences, many of which led me to become a freelance consultant.  I am confident that I’m not alone and certainly the research cited in the article sadly conveys the extent to which Americans suffer on the job:

The results were sobering. In one-third of the 12,000 diary entries, the diarist was unhappy, unmotivated or both. In fact, workers often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust. Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

I wholeheartedly agree with Amabile and Kramer’s statement:

Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit.

The use of improvisation and play in the workplace is, of course, in my mind (and happily many others) a critical activity that can help the human spirit to thrive.  Reading the article this morning, my thoughts led to the brilliant work that my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime do every day bringing improvisation and play into corporations — and the writings of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman.  Here’s a passage from Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play that I see as a response to Amabile and Steven’s article:

To the extent that business and organizations are structurally and functionally designed to relate to social units (work teams, units, themselves, their industry, their customers, the market, etc.) and not to individuals, they are potentially developmental environments.  To the extent that business and organizations need to (or believe they need to) innovative in order to be responsive to rapid and intense changes in the global culture, and bring the innovations and play and improvisational performance to the work-place, the people in organizations have opportunities to create developmental stages* even as they get the job done.

* The “stages” that Holzman refers to are the performatory stages that we create for our life performances, wherever they may be.

Why improv?

On Friday I was having a conversation with a new friend and colleague I met at the NYC Applied Improvisation Network and he asked me the question, “Why improv?” in business.  My response had a lot to do with my understanding of and appreciation for “the power of play” – play is where development, creativity and innovation takes place.  I invited him to a fundraiser that was held yesterday for the East Side Institute to get a taste of the cutting edge approaches to learning, development, therapeutics and community-building that are sponsored by the organization.   

At the event I introduced my entrepreneurial colleague to the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, Cathy Salit. POAL is one of the premier training organizations doing theatre-based executive education and Cathy happens to be a long-time colleague of mine (we perform musical improv comedy together in the Proverbial Loons).  It was helpful to hear Cathy talk about the therapeutic aspect of the work she and POAL does, creating new possibilities for individuals and therefore for groups/organizations.

On Sundays I always enjoy reading Adam Bryan’s “Corner Office” column in the New York Times.  Ironically yesterday he started his interview with Mark Fuller, CEO of WET Design with a discussion of improvisation.  I was happy to see this and sent the link to my friend.  This is the quote that jumped out at me:

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

I love that Fuller starts out by talking about the mundane arguments we all have and, although he doesn’t say that, the activity of improvisation, of performing, of pretending in life in a self-conscious manner is undeniably developmental.  And I have to say that most of my day is spent interviewing people and I do have to underline what Fuller is saying about “serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening” but I will save that topic for another blog post!

Back to the fundraiser at the East Side Institute – Dr. Lenora Fulani, the Dean of the All Stars Project’s new initiative UX, and a co-founder of the All Stars gave a presentation on her work.  She has recently co-written a paper with Dr. Fred Newman, her fellow co-founder of the All Stars called “Let’s Pretend” (use this link to download “Let’s Pretend” ).  Although the paper was written to solve the education crisis in America, I think there is enormous value in taking the fundamental methodology of this paper into boardrooms and offices as well.  If we pretend we can become … better learners, better leaders and better people.

Why improv?  Let’s keep performing our answer to this most important question.