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By Renee Bacher

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When Gary Hirsch arrives at the Bonneville Power Administration, a Federal utility agency in Portland, Oregon, he takes a quick tour of the facility, then heads to a conference room and moves out all the furniture, leaving behind a few chairs and an overhead projector. He's about to lead some 30 Bonneville employees through his seminar, "On Your Feet, Improvisation for Business." By the time he's through, the zombies and workaholics among them will be -- if not completely reformed -- sprightlier workaholics and zombies.

The participants begin to arrive. Most attend only because they have to, and, as a bunch, they don't exactly glow with the fire of life.

"Everyone is stressed out," Hirsch says to me confidentially. "They're going to have to be stand-up comics for the next few hours." Then he launches into his performance, beginning with a micro-spiel about who he is and what he does (artist, actor, dad; teaches principles of improvisation to business people), but keeps it short.

"I know it's hard for you to really listen right now because you're all so nervous about what you're going to have to do," Hirsch says to the group, "so let's just do it."

On command, the group forms a circle to play "Bunny Bunny." The game goes like this: Hirsch sits in the middle, looking at each person in succession and saying "bunny," matter-of-factly. When he shouts "bunny!" however, the person he's looking at must curl his hands under his chin and wriggle his nose, while the people on either side of him each hold up an arm to form the "bunny's" ears. Sounds stupid, right?

The participants clearly think so: at first, they groan. They all seem to be thinking, "Is this how we'll spend the next five hours?"

But gradually, the point of all this foolishness reveals itself: everybody's loosening up. This hodgepodge of executives, middle managers, secretaries, and grunts are overcoming the psychological and emotional barriers of the workplace hierarchy. That's the goal of the seminar: to plant in their heads the idea that, if they can interact naturally playing "Bunny, Bunny," maybe they can interact naturally at work, enabling them to work in efficient harmony.

Even fun requires effort, though.

"If you're [lost in your thoughts] when you get to be the bunny, you will have obvious low energy and we'll all know you are pissed-off," Hirsch says. "So since you're here, why don't you actually be here. If you're the bunny, be the bunny." It's a brilliant metaphor, really: if you're lost in your thoughts or derailed by the formality of the workplace, it will show in your work.

Hirsch picks up the speed of the game and people lose themselves in it. If you don't form the bunny properly and fast, you're eliminated -- and who wants to lose?

At the end of "Bunny Bunny," the analysis begins. Pen and post-it notes in hand, Hirsch asks them to make lists of what was required of them to play the game well.

"I had to pay attention," says one.

"I had to let down my inhibitions," says another.

"I had to be silly," they all say.

"Great," says Hirsch to each response. "Now I want you to make a list of what happens in your meetings at work."

"Nobody listens."

"People feel judged."

"Nobody takes risks without deferring to the hierarchy."

Without further comment, Hirsch starts a new game. Everyone has to mill around the room until somebody suddenly freezes and starts barking some sound and shaking some limb, he says. Everybody else has to copy that action until the instigator stops. Then someone else takes over.

Hirsch gets fewer strange looks than with "Bunny, Bunny," and in the end the new game is a success: People are cracking up, falling down, and clutching their sides. They didn't know they were capable of such clowning. They're breaking down walls of judgment and pushing through what Hirsch calls "The Fun Barrier" -- the misconception that if you're having a good time, you must not be working.

All of the silliness is about being human and bringing it into the machine.


"Business operates under a mechanical model," he says. "Humans don't, but they are asked to. All of the silliness is about being human and bringing it into the machine."

After lunch, Hirsch and a professional actor he's hired for the day demonstrate that "more heads are better than one" by enacting the three principles of improvisation -- listening, accepting, and understanding. Hirsch sets up a scene and feeds his fellow player a line: "I can't understand why some people dye their hair blond."

The actor looks at him, smiles, then picks up a book and starts to read. Scene over.

Hirsch calls this response (or non-response) "blocking" -- an unwillingness to engage other people, which can make the workplace a hard place. "Now watch again," Hirsch says. "'I can't understand why some people dye their hair blond,'" he repeats.

"I like redheads myself," the actor says.

"My grandmother was a redhead," continues Hirsch, "and she always freckled and fried in the summer if she didn't wear a wide-brimmed hat. She was an incredible woman. You should have seen her in the garden with her long sleeves and pants and hat on a scorching August day on Cape Cod."

"I spent summers on Cape Cod when I was a kid," says the actor. "Ever been to First Encounter Beach?" A story -- an interaction -- begins to take shape.

Hirsch calls this "accepting," and the audience applauds. Other demonstrations follow. When Hirsch asks participants which scenes they like best, they identify those in which all offers are accepted. "That's because there is flow and there is a story," he says. "When people block, there is no story and you lose the opportunity for interesting interactions to take place."

Next Hirsch asks everyone to write a line of dialogue and toss it into a big pot. Then he pulls people out of the audience and has them do a scene together. "You're a father and daughter in McDonalds together," he tells them, handing the man a line from the pot that reads, "That's the biggest fish I've ever seen!" Soon the audience is rolling with laughter and the actors are taking all kinds of risks: by now they're used to it. Next Hirsch has them making up lectures on the spot about things like tuna fish. People in the audience are allowed to object if they don't like something about the lecture, and an appointed "judge" gets to rule on the objection. If it's overruled, the objector has to come up and continue the lecture.

When all the games are over, the participants make lists of what they did and how they felt doing it. Then they make lists of workplace habits and interactions brought to mind by the games.

Hirsch asks each member of the group to commit to changing those work habits they now might consider unproductive. One workaholic says he'll get his work done by five p.m. and walk out the door. His boss one-upps him by committing to ring the bell at five and kick everybody out. Participants make requests of each other, too.

When the day is done, Hirsch goes out for drinks with a few workshoppers and then heads home. His wife and four-year-old son are already asleep. He transcribes his notes from the day, including a list of employees' commitments and requests to send to his client in the morning. Just before climbing into bed, Hirsch checks email and an online improvisation newsgroup. It's a small, almost incestuous group, and tonight there's been mention of a workshop Hirsch had recently conducted in Texas. He's thrilled. Feedback is everything.


June 2, 1999
Edited by Eric Gershon
Illustration by Lawrence San
Production by Keith Gendel
  We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

Renee Bacher is a freelance writer who lives in Greenport, New York. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.


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