Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

I have been making grandiose allusions for some time to the internship that I'm currently engaged it but really haven't said very many concrete things about it. Which is a shame, really. Allow me to take the opportunity to finally do so and explain how I've finally (fully) accepted what I want to do with my life.

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Yours truly is currently an intern in the Education Department at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Though I have been working there for over two months now, I still get really giddy when I tell that to people. It's one of my favorite places in Minneapolis, a theater I greatly admire, and an interesting and exciting place all around. This past weekend I had the last day of an acting class I was able to participate in as well as the amazing opportunity to work in a corporate event through the education department.

The acting class helped me realize how much a part theater is already a part of my life. I'm deeply interested in people, I care about how people think, I want to explore how we communicate, how conflict arises, and how people deal with it. I write stories, want to give something back to all of the things that have fueled my imaginations, and express something through words and storytelling that I cannot express in any other way. Laura, my acting teacher, emphasized that acting is based on concentrating 1000%, focusing outward, not inward, to remember that it is about the characters you are interacting with, not what you yourself would do, and communicating and focusing on the thing that you want (because characters always want something, don't they?). Through activities such as re-imagining what a pencil could represent other than a pencil (a tiny javelin, a telephone pole, a light saber, what have you) the students in my class realized how imaginative and creative they could be and found a wonderful freedom and ease in acting. Acting, simply put, is playing (there's a reason theater shows are called plays, after all). Laura referred to our acting space as a sandbox and encouraged us to play in the sandbox, a metaphor I love very much. And it felt exactly like that - playing in the sandbox, molding nothing into something much more, turning simple scenarios into elaborate tales and neutral dialogues into complex scenes of conflict and characterization. It was the first class I took after being done with college or the last class to take, depending on how you want to think about it, and it was the perfect way to tie up all the academic things I've learned and translate them into modes of action by reawakening some of the more creative centers in my mind. Simply put, if you ever get the chance to take an acting class, DO IT. It's an experience you won't regret. It really built confidence in myself and helped me better understand the relationship between physical action and mental thought. Actually, I realized after the first class or so how much acting is like yoga - breathing is important, concentration is important, and I feel refreshed and cleansed afterwards. Now I understand why so many actors do both.

That's part of this realization. The other part was the corporate event with a company that works with designing technical devices to help create laboratory instruments for medical researchers. They partnered up with the Guthrie to kick-off their conference in Minneapolis this year with a mock trial of their products in order to better understand how their employees market their company. By having a "trial" of product versus system - does their company sell products or systems to customers? - in a staged court room in the Marriott in Minneapolis with legal teams built up of actors guiding marketing teams to develop this debate, rather than just having Powerpoint presentations for hours at a time about their services. Not only was this method much more engaging and entertaining, it was fun and incredibly useful to the company. The trial did not go as planned - the trial was slanted in favor of a certain outcome but it didn't necessarily have to turn out this way, as a jury made up of employees had the final say on which legal team won. The jury - by incredibly close margins - decided against the presumed outcome, which helped the company understand that perhaps their communication about sales wasn't getting through to their marketers the way they believed and understood that more information would need to be given to their employees in order to shift the focus internally.

I don't know much about technical lab instruments, but I do know a little bit about products vs. systems thanks to my dad's work in IT and management consulting and this is an important issue for the company. I also know a bit about how technical people work - they're pretty left-brained and such theatrical work would be a bit frightening to them when suggested, as was the case here. The corporation was a bit worried about how the event would work and how their employees would react. All the employees knew was that they had been summoned to court and when they walked into their meeting room face to face with a simulated courtroom (designed and set up by the Guthrie's Education Department), there was some confusion. But once the "legal case" began after a round of Powerpoint presentations to describe some of the work the company was doing and break-out sessions where groups formulated their arguments for product versus system debates, the entire atmosphere of the room changed. People willingly referred to Chris, our actor playing the part of the judge, as "Your Honor," objections were made, accusations of perjury were insinuated, and fun was had by all. Sitting in the courtroom, keeping time for the speakers, I found myself easily slipping into this narrative and had participants trying to coax me to manipulate the time keeping to cut off the questions being asked about their argument.

A room full of scientist willingly (and perhaps a little unknowingly) engaged in a play, becoming a part of this fictional courtroom that helped them think differently about their company and how they market themselves. They had fun, yes, but they also interacted with their work in a different and perhaps deeper way, seeing how others around them viewed the company's work differently. My left-brained friends argue all the time that they can't be creative and don't know how. This showed that that is entirely NOT the case. As Laura explained and revealed in acting class, everyone is creative. We think of plays and acting being about fictional stories and narratives taking place on stages, but it is so much more than that. Acting is everywhere. It's most clearly seen in kids doing make-believe and just generally playing, but it's in how we talk to each other, how we deal with conflict, how we try to understand our world. If you've ever talked to your parents differently from how you talk to your friends and talk to your co-workers in yet another way, then you've acted. If you've ever lied, done role playing, used body language to communicate - yep, acting. It was Shakespeare, after all, who said that all the world's a stage and perhaps we've heard those words so often that it sounds trite and we've forgotten how really true that is. Theater happens all around us and this project and the acting class has made me vividly recognize this.

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I'd like to end this with another bit of insight. Laura said in the last night of our acting class that actors don't do what they do to be famous. Some do, she admitted, but most do it for others - to better understand and explore the human condition. Doing so, she explained, helped to make people more understanding and inquisitive and, she proposed, if everyone played like this, the world would be a happier and more peaceful place. I certainly like to believe this. Perhaps it would explain why I've always felt so comfortable around actors and in theaters - they're people and places with understanding and acceptance, a place to work and imagine and change. It's a sandbox and a place to play.

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