Extra-Theatrical Performance: Acting Leaves Home and Finds a Whole New World

Back Stage, August 1-7, 2003, pp. 24-27

By Dan Friedman


   Nick Fracaro, artistic director of Thieves Theatre since 1981 and a co-founder of the RAT conference, an alliance of independent theatres, earns his living performing as a patient for the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.
   Lisa Tracy, a member of The McKellog Report, an improvisational comedy troupe that appears regularly at Gotham City Improv, also appears regularly at law schools performing as a witness for trial attorneys in training.
   David Nackman, who made his Broadway debut in 1987 in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound and has been a member of New York’s Castillo Theatre acting ensemble for some 15 years, is the director of Performance of a Lifetime, a company that brings performance into corporations such as Prudential, Condé Nash, and Merrill Lynch.
   They are part of a small but growing group of actors who are finding ways of earning part or all of their livings performing outside the confines of the institutions of theatre, film or television.
   That performance takes place in all sorts of places is not a new discovery.  In fact, a whole academic discipline, Performance Studies, has evolved over the last 25 years to study performance outside the theatre. It has provided us with much insight into the performatory aspects of everyday life from church to courtroom, from football stadiums to singles bars. 
   What does appear to be new is that trained actors are now actively engaged in using their theatrically based performance skills in a growing variety of non-theatre venues.
   The fact that paying performance work is popping up in the oddest places—usually without a playwright, a director or even an audience in sight—is not only providing actors with new opportunities to use their skills, it is also raising interesting questions about the very nature of acting.


The Emergence of a New Market

   Most actors performing in these extra-theatrical venues found them by accident. After all, no colleges or acting schools give courses in finding performance work outside of the entertainment business.
   Dave DeChristopher, who recently appeared in the title role in the Staten Island Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s production of Sweeny Todd, began performing as a "witness" for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy five years ago. He learned about the work while appearing in a play produced by the Interborough Repertory Theatre, which has become the major conduit between the theatre and law professions. 
   "It started with someone on our board who was a lawyer who taught at Hofstra Law School," recalled Jonathan Fluck, executive director of the IRT. "He said they were trying to revamp their program to use real actors instead of law students. When we brought them actors, they liked it very much. The actors were able to provide much more realism, and therefore provide much better training for the lawyers."
   “It really changed things for the better having actors,” added Jim Sable, IRT’s managing director who has done many of these performances himself. “The law students didn’t know how to be ‘the other;’ they just giggled and stammered.”
   In addition to Hofstra, IRT now regularly supplies actors for the Rutgers Law School in Newark as well as the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, which promotes continuing education for lawyers and hosts programs at various law schools in the region.
   Similarly, Fracaro developed a second career as a "standardized patient" because he happened to be doing theatre work in Philadelphia and, it turns out, Philly is a center of medical training. It is the headquarters of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which certifies foreign-trained doctors to practice in the United States, and of the National Board of Internal Medicine, as well as numerous medical schools.
   Fracaro now works up to five days a week for ECFMG interacting with foreign physicians while performing as patient. He then rates the doctors on their skills in such things as taking a medical history, giving a physical exam and, of course, communicating with patients.
   "I was looking for a day job and there were a lot standardized patient jobs around, and not quite as many actors as in New York," said Fracaro with a smile. He is quick to add that not all standardized patients are trained actors, that it is a performance that all sorts of people can, and are doing. 
   Liz Ingraham, manager of publications for the ECFMG, added: "There is much diversity in the background of our standardized patients. There are lots of retired people and housewives as well as many actors."
   Most of the actors doing performance work in the corporate world, much of which is based in improvisation, have come to it, not surprisingly, through improvisational theatres. 
   Second City is best known for its improv comedy clubs in Chicago, Toronto, Detroit and, most recently, Las Vegas, but it has also been bringing performance into corporate boardrooms, on and off, for almost 40 years. At first it would simply bring variations of its improv shows to business meetings and conferences.
   "Like most theatres, we would get business people in our audiences," said Tom Yorton, president and managing director of Second City Communications, the theatre's corporate performance division. "They would see one of our three national touring companies and they'd say, 'Hey, can you come in and do something like that for my company? Could you do a scene or two that are tailored to our issues?'"
   Gradually over the last ten years, Second City’s corporate work grew to include not only performing for companies but also performing with corporate employees as a means of training. (Equity provides a “Live Corporate Communications” contract that covers the live performance of shows for corporate events and meetings. The union, as of yet, has no provisions covering the kind of extra-theatrical performances focused on here.)
   "We apply the principals of improvisation to various business communications issues, things like presentation skills or teamwork and collaboration skills or listening skills," said Yorton. "Any kind of business where people are on their feet communicating with others—sales organizations, IT organizations, marketing teams—that's where improvisation training really has relevance."
   Yorton describes the growth of Second City's corporate work as "organic and ad hoc. We gradually realized there was a pretty good market out there. As we saw that, we became more disciplined about pursuing it."
   BATS Improv (formerly Bay Area Theatre Sports) is a 17-year-old old improvisational theatre in San Francisco. In addition to doing improv shows in their Bay Front theatre in Fort Mason every Friday and Saturday night 45 weeks a year, BATS also maintains a successful improvisational school and, most recently, has begun to bring performance off-stage.
   "Our corporate work started during the tech boom," said Dan Klein, dean of BATS Improv School. "Companies had money to spend and were looking for people to do creative team building and spontaneity training and turned to us. After a while, they got a sense of how valuable our work was to them. Now our work is more specialized, tailored to the needs of particular companies and designed to deliver results."
   For example, for a large California-based HMO in which the doctors typically have only a short time to interact with patients, BATS developed an exercise in which the group (a mixture of actors and doctors) were divided into two groups. The performance situation was a cocktail party. One group was told to avoid eye contact, the other to seek out and hold eye contacts. After the performance they talked about how and why the improvised interactions developed  (or didn’t develop) as they did.
   “It’s like crafting a long-form improv show,” said Klein. “To do it well you have to rely on the group you’re working with, teaching them ‘yes/and’ and other improv techniques. It’s a whole different game; a different genre of performance is emerging.”
    At least one organization has emerged in recent years to specifically develop this emerging genre—a genre that might be called the performance of everyday life.
   Performance of a Lifetime was founded in 1996 by Fred Newman, Cathy Salit and David Nackman, all alumni of the Gayggles, the Castillo Theatre’s late night improv comedy troupe. The explicit purpose of POAL is to bring performance out of the confines of the theatre and to involve “non-performers” in performance activity.
   “It’s very unfortunate that in our culture the only people who are allowed to perform, besides children, are professional performers—and them only when they can find work,” said Newman, who is also the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre. “At a certain point in life you’re supposed to sit in the audience and watch. We think that’s unfortunate because performance is something that’s too development and too useful, not to mention too much fun, to stop.”
   At first POAL did what it called “Interactive Growth Theatre,” an activity in which “non-performers” worked with Newman, Nackman, Salit and other actors to create a full-length improvised play which was performed for the public at the end of a four-week creative process. The market for this proved limited, but like Second City and BATS, POAL discovered a desire for performance in the work-a-day world.
   “The bulk of our work still has its roots in interactive growth theatre,” said Nackman, POAL’s director. “We take a group of people who don’t consider themselves to be performers and in response to some stated need, perform with them.  The difference, of course, is that instead of coming of their own volition, in the corporate world they’re coming, for the most part, because their boss told them to… Nonetheless, we teach them to improvise; we re-acquaint them with their need and ability to perform, to be able to break out of their accepted societal roles.”
   “Part of what we’re trying to help people with is not just seeing what’s going on (in the company), but helping them to change and transform,” added Cathy Salit, POAL’s president and CEO. “Through improvisation and performance they discover what actors discover—that we can be other than ourselves. There are different ways of moving, talking, relating to others. All that can have a serious impact on relations within the company.”
   Salit reported that business is good and getting better despite the slow economy. “There is an appetite for radicalism, for breaking out of the mold,” she said. “And there’s a need, because of the hard economic times, for innovation.”
    “There is a growing interest in performance in corporate America,” agreed Klein. He noted that 60 percent of BATS’ income now comes from improv classes and corporate performance training. “I think it has to do with both corporate training people realizing that performance and improv, no matter what the content or context, can be growthful and with improv theatre people getting a lot better at marketing the value of what they do.”
   Yorton reported that Second City’s corporate performance work has spread beyond Chicago to Las Vegas, Detroit and, especially, Toronto. “Here in Chicago in busy months we can be doing multiple gigs everyday,” he said. “It’s grown tremendously. We’re on a pace to double what we did last year. That’s a real victory in a down economy.”


Performing in the Hospital, the School, the Conference Room

   What exactly, does this non-theatrical performance consist of? Obviously, the specifics of the work vary a great deal. What it all has in common, however, are 1) improvisation, and 2) performing, in various ways, with people who have had no performance training.
   Four or five times a year DeChristopher spends up to three days at Law Schools such as Rutgers and Hofstra putting law students or lawyers without much trail experience through their paces.
   "We (actors) get this book with all the facts of the case that we have to study,” said DeChristopher. “Then we're deposed by the lawyers. Sometimes it's trail testimony, but mostly its dispositions, one-on-one with the lawyers who are trying to get the facts they need to build a case. They question us and we work to answer their questions within character.”
   “The most difficult part is memorizing all the facts of the case,” observed Tracy. “There are lots of facts and names and dates that we have to know as if we lived them. We usually get a week to memorize them.
   “Once they asked me to play it a person who was trying to get the lawyer to lie,” recalled DeChristopher. “Another time I was someone who wasn't listening at all. Another time I was asked to try and hit on the female lawyers—all with the same set of facts. It’s really fun. Afterwards you want to talk about it with your friends because you don’t get the usual feedback that you get from performing with an audience.”
   The interactions between lawyer and witness last about ten minutes and are usually observed by others in the class and followed by discussion.  In the course of a three-day training, DeChristopher said he plays between 10 and 30 different characters.
   There isn’t as much latitude in performing a standardized patient.
   “You adopt a ‘real’ case history, down to what foods the patient likes, what his hobbies are, if he’s married, what he does for a living, all that,” said Farcaro.  He then might perform the same patient for two months for all the second year students in the medical school.  When working for ECFMG he often performs the same character for up to a year. “That’s why its called ‘standardized patient’,” Farcaro continued. “They want a patient who is typical, the type of patient a doctor is going to encounter over and over again.”
   The doctor or medical student knows that the standardized patient is performing, but Fracaro said, “It doesn’t take much for everyone to fall into a suspension of disbelief, to fall into the fiction.” The interaction is one-on-one and lasts about 25 minutes and a ‘standardized patient’ performs with about 10 doctors a day.  Sometimes a supervising doctor is watching and sometimes the interaction is video taped so the doctor can observe her or his encounter with the performer.
   Actors who perform standardized patients as well as those who perform as witnesses for attorneys made note of how naturalistic the work is. 
   “It’s like acting because you’re playing someone you’re not,” said Farcaro. “But it’s so naturalistic that you endow the patient with a lot of things that are you.”
   “You have to be a good actor, to be believable as the character, but you don’t have to play to the house; there is no house. You don’t have to project or anything like that,” agreed Tracy. “It’s so much smaller and more specific, more intimate and real in a way. I guess it’s more like film acting.”
   Although they have to “be in the moment” with their doctors and lawyers, these extra-theatrical performers also have to keep their critical facilities in overdrive. 
   The standardized patient is taking mental notes throughout the process and rates the doctor’s skills after she or he leaves the room. Although the actors doing the trail training don’t grade the attorneys, they are expected to be able to discuss the performance afterwards.
   “Part of you is always outside your performance,” noted Farcaro. “You would never have so much of your critical mind engaged in stage acting.  It’s closer to an interview than to performing on stage.”
   Much of the training-through-improvisation that Second City, BATS and POAL do also requires a dual focus.
   “Many of the exercises we do demand that you (the actor/trainer) be performing and directing the scene from within,” said Nackman. “Some of the attributes of successful performance on stage—vulnerability, availability, going with what happens in the moment—comes up against the competing energy of watching how the scene is going and making strategic moves that an actor in a improv scene should never make.
   “People who do this work need more than acting ability,” he continued. “They also need the explanatory and facilitatory abilities of a good teacher. They need the emotional sensitivity and awareness of a good therapist. And they need to be able learn and internalize a sense of corporate demeanor.”


Performing With ‘Non-Performers’

   The other thing all these strains of extra-theatrical performance have in common is that the actor functions as the catalyst that allows non-performers to perform. This, more than any other characteristic, is what differentiates this kind of performance from acting on stage where the roles of performer and audience are separate and distinct.
   “It’s not like the theatre in that you only have an audience of one—and that audience-of-one is also a performer,” said Farcaro. “They’re performing the role of doctor and we’re both performing to find out what a good relationship between a doctor and a patient would be.”
   “The lawyers are performing too, of course, as themselves,” said Tracy. “They take their cues from our character choices. They perform differently if my character is very vulnerable and breaks into tears than they do if I’m cold and aloof.”
   Those involved with improvisational corporate training make the same point. 
   “The difference between what we at Second City do and what many training organizations do is that improvisation is, by definition, completely interactive and participatory,” said Yorton. “You’re on your feet, doing.”
   “It’s not the same as ropes or being blindfolded and falling backward to be caught by your fellow-workers,” agreed Salit. “Those exercises provide metaphors to bring back to the workplace.  Performance is not a metaphor; it is human beings interacting. It creates an environment that allows people to actually do things in new ways.”
   “The learning that comes through performance sticks better,” added Yorton. “It’s experiential learning. You’re not just engaging people from the neck up; you’re engaging the whole person.  People are not just hearing someone say in a power point presentation why it’s important to listen. They’re actually feeling what it’s like to be treated respectfully or disrespectfully in the moment. They’re experiencing an interaction and that helps retention enormously.”
   From the point of view of the professions that are beginning to embrace performance work, it is the involvement of the “non-performer” in the improv that is attractive.
   Dr. Susan Massad is the director of ambulatory medicine at Long Island College Hospital where she oversees a staff of six other internists and teaches 60 medical residents.  Shortly after she took the job 10 years ago, she launched a program to teach interpersonal skills to her residents.
   “Initially I hired two family therapists to teach the program,” she recalled. “They were good at the traditional model of teaching interpersonal skills. They did some role playing. They’d say, ‘You could have said this there. Let’s rerun it.’ They gave the doctors some good lines like, ‘Is there anything more you want to tell me?’ They were good at sequencing and it helped the doctors to be more attentive to how they were conducting conversations.
   “But it had its limitations,” Massad continued. “It didn’t take into consideration who the patient was, who the person you’re having the conversation with is. Perhaps you have a patient who has just lost a family member. If you come in with your rehearsed line, it might be completely inappropriate to what that patient needs.”
   Six years ago she turned to POAL, which developed a program for Long Island College Hospital called “The Performance of Doctoring.” 
   “Performance of a Lifetime teaches them (the medical residents) how to improvise with another person,” explained Massad. “Improvisation is a performance activity in which you have to focus on what the other person is doing, not on yourself and not on getting the right line out. This probably sounds very basic to actors, but it’s a big step for doctors to understand how to accept an offer and build on that.”
   The permission given to non-performers to perform, to be other-than-who-they-are and to try new things, including new emotions, can have a significant impact on their development.
   “This work helps to humanize people,” claimed Salit. “The way corporate people talk about performance is that it’s an equalizer. To quote them: ‘We’re all equally bad at this (performance).’ So the hierarchy that exists within the corporate structure takes a back seat. It’s not that it doesn’t exist anymore, but for the period of the workshop there’s this experience of, ‘Hey, we’re all human beings doing something we don’t know how to do.’ That frees them up. It allows other forms of interaction to take place.”
   Performing with non-performers in the sites of “everyday life” raises questions about some of the deepest assumptions that theatre people hold about performance—that it is for trained specialists only, that it only takes place on a stage or in front of a camera, that it needs an audience. 
   Intentionally or not those pioneering this work are opening up whole new frontiers for actors. They are providing the actor with both new sources of income and a whole other way of impacting on the world. 


Resistance and Reward

   Like anything new, there is resistance. Those interested in this kind of work need to be aware of what they’ll be up against.
   “This work is not for the timid,” warned Klein. “You often have to build something with people who are reluctant to be there, people who will challenge you.  When you bring performance work into a corporation, you’re there to challenge assumptions and change behavior. Not everyone likes that.”
   The resistance can be to the most basic things about performance. “We always start with a movement warm-up, which immediately sends them into a tizzy of discomfort, ” said Nackman. “Given how the corporate world is structured, the people we work with tend to be mostly male. Moving your body tends to be seen as gay, so there’s a lot of resistance to that—which is why we do it.”
   In addition to overcoming resistance to performance, working with non-performers, ironically, takes a great deal of performance, particularly improvisational, skill. As Salit put it: “It’s very hard to do improvisation with people who have no skill at it, who bring virtually nothing to the process. If you can help them look good, you can help anyone.”
   “The skill you develop is finding the nugget of performance gold in the dross of incompetence,” added Nackman.
   All of which can be very helpful in other performance situations. “Actors get a lot more than a paycheck from this work,” said Yorton. “It’s really good discipline. Frankly, corporate work presents all sorts of challenges, particularly if you’re only thinking about getting laughs or other results. Working with those challenges helps actors with their stage work as well.”
   Salit said it has helped her, as a stage actress, to better deal better with what she calls the “in-betweens” on stage. “When you’re working with people who are not skilled performers, every often all you have is the in-betweens,” she said. 
   “It’s very good training for actors,” agreed the IRT’s Fluck. “It’s a pressured structured improv situation, great for developing your concentration and your ability to build with whatever is handed you.”
   In addition to honing one’s skills for stage performance, extra-theatrical performance can, some of those involved claim, impact beyond one’s professional work. Salit said actors who have worked with POAL for any length of time tend to feel its impact in their personal lives as well.
   “What they tell me is that the activity of performing in non-theatre situations is helping with their own personal development,” she said.  “As good as they are on stage, actors are often not such good performers in everyday life.  Now they’re bringing some of those skills to bear in other parts of their lives.”
   There is also the financial side of it. 
   “The corporate pay scale is mind boggling for most actors. That’s one reason why it’s catching in such a big way,” said Nackman, noting that POAL already has a stable of actors far beyond its ability to provide regular work. 
   “The number of lattes you have to serve to equal what one of the big four accounting firms pay an actor to role-play with one of their partners—well, there’s just not that much espresso in the world.”
   The potential for the expansion of extra-theatrical performance is also mind boggling. 
   In 2005 the American Board of Internal Medicine is going to require all medical school internists to do a performance with a “standardized patient,” and the interest among corporate training people in performance continues to grow.
   “The professional development category is a $6 billion market in the U.S.,” concluded Yorton. “The vast majority of the training out there is training that employees don’t want to participate in. They are underwhelmed.  If you can combine getting people into a room to play and perform and at the same time make it relevant to business problems, as performance training can do, you’ve built a better mouse trap. That’s what we’re in the early stages of now.”