This essay was written on June 19, 2015 but it seems worth telling again. Be wary of ballrooms
Anatomy of an Improv Workshop Failure
The Tyranny of Tables
By Patricia Ryan Madson
I’m an improviser so nothing really seems an obstacle to me when I consider the location for an appearance. I have given workshops in a wide variety of physical setups and I’ve always found a way to work around a less than optimal working space . . . until this time. My husband is fond of reminding me that my anxiety and sleeplessness the night before I’m going to teach or present is just a fact of life. I can’t remember a time when my phone call home immediately following an engagement didn’t begin with: “It went great!! Until yesterday. Instead my reply was: “It was a disaster. Everybody rolled their eyes and reached for their cellphones. I could not find a way to salvage it.”
I’m going to keep the details of this particular engagement anonymous so that I don’t appear to cast blame on the client. As the featured presenter it’s my job to “prepare” something suitable for the client. This event was a weekend retreat to celebrate the accomplishments of educators who were supervisors and principles in a specific region of the state. These men and women sit in the trenches all day in school admin offices likely hearing complaints from staff, teachers, parents and children. They are “where the buck stops” in most cases. This particular event, staged at a very elegant winery complete with gourmet meals and wine tasting, was capped with an evening of awards and thanks.
For the two days leading up to the awards banquet, the 300+ participants had been sitting in a 6000 sq. foot dining room with fifty round tables facing the podium and a medium sized screen for the projection of the obligatory Power Point that by law, I think, must accompany all presentation events in the twentieth century. My hostess had inquired the day before I arrived if I would like to send my Power Point for inclusion to their website.
Truth be told: I hate Power Points. Their linear composition is ANTI Improv, if you think about it. However, in the past, when I’ve had the poor judgment (or greed) to accept a gig as a Keynote Speaker rather than a workshop leader I have done the occasional Power Point of slides that provide graphic support to such ideas as Say YES, Try Stuff, Really Listen . . . etc. Recently I’ve been creating these mindless backups as little colorful artworks on my digital app.
Okay, so I sent my Power Point via email to the event organizer and carried my laptop to the event in case I’d need to plug it in.
I arrived two hours early to spec out the location in an attempt to figure out a strategy for managing a workshop in a less than desirable space. And, by the way, the optimal space for teaching improv is a semi-empty room with a circle of chairs that can be moved and rearranged. It needs to be large enough that the full group of folks participating in the workshop can stand in a circle or four or five circles and be able to see each other. This was not the case here.
I should have known I was in trouble when I was greeted with the news that my “presentation” would be held in the large ballroom with the fifty tables. There was a small ring of space around the perimeter of the room. I asked my host if it would be okay to move some of the tables to provide an open space to assemble people to do exercises and try things. The reply was, “no, I’m sorry, we really can’t move any of the tables . . . there is an event immediately following yours that needs the setup just as it is.” Okey, dokey. So, we will work with that. Hmmmmm
My hostess introduced me as an important professor from Stanford who was a “serious researcher” in this field. (Really, these were her words.) And not to expect any fluffy, airy fairy kinds of games, etc. Indeed they were to be assured that no one would have to do anything and would not be called on to make a fool of themselves. Welcome, Dr. Patricia Madson.” (Quickest PhD in history . . .)
Oh, and when I suggested that the random 89 people scattered at the fifty tables all move closer or together so that they were sitting in groups, she said: “No, they aren’t going to do that.” Mama mia.
So, here we go. Slide one: “Trust your own voice. “ As I looked out onto the scattering of people all around the room . . . sitting mostly near the exits and walls I tried one futile suggestion. “Hello, how is everyone today? How about those of you sitting alone or in the back to move forward so that we can work together better. “ I shouted encouragingly About six people moved a few inches closer. “How will I ever get people to work together in this setting? At least in a large auditorium you have shoulder to shoulder proximity and a way to “turn to a partner.”
I am now milling around the tables with a hand held mike smiling and trying to seem encouraging about a workshop that it didn’t appear anyone was pleased to be attending. Okay, lets try this: “Three things in common!” (This is Rebecca’s great beginning to get things moving and laughing.) Okay: GO, find three thing things in common not connected to work. Go) Mild roaring for a while. So then I started going around to each table to get the results. I told everybody who was also included to shout out: ME TOO!! First table: “Clothes, shoes, we have kids.” Okay. So, you all have on clothes! (Everybody that does too, shout: Me Too) Two people say Me Too in a monotone. Next table: “We have kids. We like travel. We have shoes on.” I continued to try and get the whole room roaring Me TOO over some obvious thing, but it wasn’t happening. I kept trying to salvage the game and as I roamed around the tables folks just seemed mildly annoyed at this stupid exercise. Lordy, I am dying here, I thought.
I wish I could say that I somehow turned it around. I wasn’t about to simply give up the idea of a workshop in favor of me just talking about improv for an hour. So, I lead every exercise I could mange to organize with this setup. I gave up wondering or worrying over what someone without a partner would do. Most of them used the occasions to check their messages. I led listening exercises. I led group YES games, planning a meeting first with blocking, then with Yes-And! I demonstrated and cajoled the “Reminisce” story game. Whenever the participants were supposed to be doing one of the partner games I noticed that only about half of the group were actually trying the game. And once this became the norm there didn’t seem to be any way to get everybody doing anything! Some would try the game, others looked on apprehensively, a few quietly left the room.
At the end I said that I wanted to finish our session by giving everyone a gift and I invited them to “see” the gift in front of them. I asked each of them to open the package and lift out what they found. When I encouraged them to “share what you received” at least one person at every table said: “There was nothing in my box.” Nope. Nothing.
And, that’s the way it was. Nothing in my box. Mercifully the hour ended and I thanked everyone for their “participation” such as it was. Lordy how those ballroom tables can kill connection. So, be wary, my friends, and tuck some strategy away, or simply announce at the outset: This isn’t going to work. Want to join me doing something different?