Improving Through Improv 

CultureWorks summit provides plenty of laughs, but no shared goal.

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A group of people are gathered in a circle and asked to squeak like gnomes, perform James Brown impersonations and slap playing cards on their foreheads. A surrealist theater company? A Robin Williams impersonator convention? Nope. These are representatives from the Richmond arts community, mayor's office, police department and news media. … and they're bonding through comedy.

These handpicked residents have come downtown to CenterStage on a Saturday morning to participate in a two-hour session programmed by the ComedySportz organization. These 19 people will be exposed to the techniques of improvisational theater in order to better learn how to trust and cooperate with each other; to think like a group with a shared purpose.

And what a circle it is. Richmond Times-Dispatch Publisher Tom Silvestri is here, along with Mayor Dwight Jones' press secretary (and the only African-American in attendance) Tammy Hawley. There are representatives from the city police and economic development office, along with two sleepy eyed Style Weekly writers (who are told that no onlookers are allowed; presence requires participation).

The downtown art galleries are represented by Quirk's Katie Ukrop and Tom Robinson and his daughter, Amanda Robinson, from Gallery5. Lucy Meade from Venture Richmond is here. Author David Robbins, representing the Podium Foundation (and an ace class clown, it turns out) also joins in.

Nearly a quarter of the attendees represent the host venue, CenterStage, including board president Bob Mooney.

Today's giddiness is sponsored by CultureWorks, a new arts advocacy group that has emerged from the ashes of the defunct Arts Council. Before anyone can think to question Cultureworks' guest list, the session begins and ComedySportz' teambuilding instructors (Dave Gau and Christine Walters) start the group off with a series of role-playing scenarios and quick-thinking games. ComedySportz' Web site pitches the work this way: “Let us help you to create the team environment you want to work in, by playing improv games while learning the crucial skills of communication, acceptance and teamwork.”

In one game, members are each given a playing card, which they can't look at. Instead, they hold it to their forehead so everyone else can see. The cards indicate social status — from the “ace” and royal family on down to the lowly deuces. The assignment? Deduce your place in the social order by talking with the others and gauging their reactions to you. And, yes, you can learn a lot about people through parlor games. For example, Silvestri is a 7 who believes that he's an ace, while Mooney is an ace who believes he's an 8.

Another exercise has members reacting to random statements with an impromptu “Yes, and …” response. This, we're told, is the kind of answer that fosters coordination, cooperation and (maybe) communal laughter. Several folks, including this writer, have difficulty in this particular area.

What Bryan and his new CultureWorks co-chairman, Brooks Smith, obviously have in mind by planning this unusual meeting is healing. And who can blame them? With the city's dysfunctional dealings with the grassroots arts community, CenterStage's massive public subsidy and public relations problems, and the media's not-always-positive coverage of an often contentious arts scene, it must have seemed like a good time for the CultureWorks folks to gather everyone in a circle and have a kumbaya moment.

And this writer came away a believer. … in improv comedy, that is. ComedySportz' seminar is perfect for, say, a midsized company with a morale problem or a professional sports franchise on a losing streak. The glitch in this particular gathering of amateur comedians is that there's no shared goal. Everyone assembled here has a different mission statement, most by design. Journalists, for one, aren't in the business of just getting along — with competitors or subjects. It's not our job to say, “Yes and …” to folks like Hawley or Meade (or Silvestri). It's our job not to.

The downtown arts community? It's already been getting along — see Curated Culture's successful First Fridays. Those people just want the opportunity to keep getting along.

The City of Richmond is suddenly very eager to say “Yes and ...” City workers wouldn't be a part of these Not-Ready-For-Lunchtime players if a higher-up didn't think the harmony of the arts community was important stuff. But shouldn't these folks be bonding through comedy with a larger cross-section of the city's arts scene than this?

There's no doubt that CenterStage is the party that most wants to generate good vibes here. It becomes evident when a special guest cameo appearance is made. CenterStage chairman Jim Ukrop arrives midway through and observes the group in its play circle, as if he is monitoring the progress of an unusual experiment. Why wasn't he playing this game? And wasn't there a rule about no onlookers, only participants?

Toward the end, the group of 19 is divided into separate teams that must play against each other — or do they? In this game, “Win as Much as You Can,” rules and objectives are made purposefully unclear, the boundaries of who wins are unspoken, and team members are forbidden to discuss strategy. In this mock game show, the smiles get a little forced and uncomfortable truths emerge.

Some among the circle, on all teams, recognize that there's room for all on the game board and play accordingly. But some seem to be playing another game. Then Mooney cheats and gets away with it, Style reporter Chris Dovi follows suit in spite, and the whole thing breaks down into discussions about how big the pie is and the necessity of playing defense. The playacting is over as real life invades the playground. Nobody wins, but everyone gets a lovely parting gift bag for playing today's game.


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