While on the road filming MADE, REDF learned about something unique The Empowerment Plan was doing for employee supports. Frankie Piccirilli runs Detroit Coffee Bar-Prov which uses improvisational comedy exercises to help with teambuilding and soft skills training for social enterprise employees.
REDF had the chance to meet Frankie and sat down for a chat to learn more.
Okay, cool. Thank you so much for kind of taking the time to chat with me. I’m really interested to learn more about what you’re doing. First, I thought I could give you a brief introduction of who I am and explain my interest in the work that you’re doing, and then we can just jump into questions.
Traditionally REDF had the mindset: “Let’s support the social enterprise, help that business grow, strive, and so forth.” Over time, however, there has been a growing recognition that we need to also think about what we call employee supports, or those wraparound services, in order to ensure an individual is not only successful in a job, but also has stability in their life and supporting them in navigating the world, even after they leave whatever organization or social enterprise that they’re a part of.
And I think what REDF realized along the way was that, because of lack of capacity and so forth, nonprofits often didn’t have access to information on promising practices or interesting or innovative ideas and so forth. We’re really interested in learning about those wraparound services and thinking about ways that organizations can best support individuals that have had real challenges securing employment. So hearing about what you’re doing in Detroit is super interesting. Could you explain what Detroit Coffee Bar-prov is?
Sure. Bar-prov is when different teams of improv actors meet up in bars after classes and perform for one another, basically as a way to practice the craft for free, network with peers, and get to know other people in the improv community. It’s really popular in Chicago because the improv community is so huge and there are many different places where you can take improv classes — whether it’s iO Comedy or Second City.
I have a theater degree and, like every other improv actor, wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. So I spent most of my 20s in Chicago doing that, and for my real big girl job during the day I was a teacher for a privately funded all-girls Catholic school. It was a great learning experience for me because I learned that I was very good at advocating for people in need, and that I was not afraid to ask.
While I love what I do, I really missed my creative outlet. One day I read an article in Forbes (“Why Improv Training Is Great Business Training”) about how and why improvisation is so important for the business professional, and I wanted to do something with that. I wanted to kind of use it as an avenue to practice my craft again but with business professionals. And that has kind of really evolved into what I do with The Empowerment Plan.
The idea behind it was to give people an outlet — almost like a workout, but a laugh-out. How different would the day look if you started it with some joy? People always talk about how much a workout in the morning makes a difference for them, but how much would true connection and laughter make a difference as well?
So every other Wednesday I’ve been going to The Empowerment Plan — which originally started as a way to help build some confidence, shape some leadership skills, and really dive in to what it means to be a good listener, all through these silly games and laughter.
How different would the day look if you started it with some joy?
What is it about improv that you thought, “this would be great for individuals that have experienced homelessness, or that are seeking employment,” or whatever it may be?
I think that it applies to everybody, but particularly for the women that I’ve really grown to love. There are two things that I originally started focusing on — and these were really highlighted in the Forbes article. The first is what’s called “Yes, and.” In improv, you always have to say yes. So if you’re on stage with your partner and your partner says, “Oh, I really love your purple shoes,” you can’t turn around and be like, “My shoes are red,” because you’re being unsupportive. It’s all about support, so we try to remain positive and always be supportive.
The Forbes article really focused on this as a management principle. Say you’re a manager and one of your staff comes to you with a great idea. What are you best suited to do? Should you let them take that idea and run with it because they’re going to be more passionate about the work that they’re doing, or should you tell them no? And really what the Forbes article was focusing on is here’s why improv is important and why the business community should listen up — is because when you say, “Yes, and” you give somebody the power to take their passion and run with it, they’re going to be that much more invested in their work. I think it’s so important, especially with the women at The Empowerment Plan, that they do feel empowered.
So they can take their ideas and they can run with it, essentially.
Absolutely. And then the second thing that the Forbes article focused on — which I really have taken from my improv days and have tried to keep in mind constantly — is how important names are. When you’re on stage, you always give somebody a name, and to even go a step further, you also give a relationship — so, “This is John — John my cousin.” And when we talk about that in improv, we talk about the importance of giving value to every person you meet, and not just value for them, but value for you.
So we use very silly games to focus on how we’re going to remember somebody’s name or how we’re going to establish a relationship or a rapport with them. And some of that I just think is really fundamental best business practices. When you meet somebody, you shake their hand, you look them in the eye, and you confidently say your name. So we talk a lot about that stuff, and we use really funny, silly exercises to demonstrate all of that and practice it. And what this hour long session does is it brings us all together in the same space to have a shared experience — joy, or laughter, or just silliness — and it gives them something else to focus on in their workday other than the task at hand.
Just a bit of an escape — I think very rarely now do you get to have good laughs and just kind of be silly, particularly as an adult. So those moments where you can just kind of let go I can imagine are empowering in a way.
Right. And, you know, it’s really evolved into some other things too. We also have some elements of meditation. So when I walk in the room and I can tell that the air is thick, and that people maybe just aren’t ready to get there, we’ll sit in a circle and we’ll start class with a meditation instead of just jumping right into this.
And then we’ve also done a lot of poem writing where we’ll pick a scene, and then we’ll just go around the room, and each person takes a turn writing a sentence of the poem — and some of those have turned out so beautifully. I captured one of them in an art painting. We also captured a few on audio recording. And really it’s kind of more from improv games to like, all right, what is the game of life about and how can we get through this day?
So how have you adapted more traditional Chicago improv for everyday individuals? Did you have to adapt anything?
I think it’s more about explanation. So if we take a simple improv game like Zip, Zap, Zop — I’ll teach them how to do it, then we’ll play a couple rounds. And in between each round, I’ll say, “Okay, this is why this is practicing our listening skills, because we don’t just listen with our ears. We also listen with our eyes, and with our body language, and with our hearts and our minds, and what does that really mean?” And so some of it is just weaving that into the lessons over, and over, and over again.
I would say that when I’m weaving dialog into the lessons, it’s around three specific themes: I would say the biggest one is supporting one another, and secondly, communication skills, and thirdly, how do we confidently relay our own messages? And that’s all weaved into games that I’ve played as a 20-year-old, that high-schoolers play, that middle-schoolers use to practice improv. And they’re really simple games, I think that they can be applied to everyday business practices, and sometimes it does feel good just to let go and be silLy.
Absolutely — particularly in a work environment. I think we all have our different identities — your home identity, your work identity. So to let loose within a work environment, I think it sounds like it creates some sense of community.
Absolutely. Something that we’ve done really recently was a game from a book called “Gamestorming”, which is a great source of solution based, interactive games. We took the coat that The Empowerment Plan manufactures and we gave it a name. And after we gave it a name, we drew the coat on five different big sticky pads and we imagined if this coat is a person, what is this person like? What are their values? What is this person’s community and who are they serving? What makes them different?
So we named the coat Jackie and we did this whole exercise. Then their homework — I gave them homework for the first time ever – was that they had to present either a eulogy of Jackie or a toast at Jackie’s wedding. After everybody performed their eulogy or their toast at the wedding, we had a discussion about the biggest take away from that experience for all of us and how much a reflection of their own lives came out, particularly in the eulogies. They talked about how Jackie was a strong, single mom, and that she was just trying to do the best for her kids, and how every time life pushed her down, she got back up. It was probably the best session that we’ve had.
That’s amazing. Sometimes it’s challenging to talk about oneself, but it seems as though they saw themselves in Jackie and it was more external, and were able to celebrate her, which I’m sure we all don’t do personally with ourselves, so it sounds beautiful.
Do you remember your first session at The Empowerment Plan and how it went?
Oh, gosh — the very first time? I remember going in there very nervous — you just never know how people are going to take to this. The first game that we played was Big Booty, and it’s a really silly, fun game — but also it’s a competition. And I thought, “They are going to kill me.” [Laughs] I was worried they were just not going to like it at all. But it took a couple times, and there were a couple people in the room who really took to it pretty quickly and enjoyed it. And so built on that. We played a few other silly games, like Zip, Zap, Zop. And then we also played a game where you say your name and you make an action out of your name, and then everyone else has to say your name and do your action as well, as if to say, “I support you. You’re awesome. I want to do what you did.”
But every week it got a little bit easier, and then I could tell that people enjoyed it and were looking forward to it. Or even now, like when we have to miss a week for whatever, the women will say, “When are you coming back? You haven’t been here in a while.” But I do remember feeling pretty intimidated at first.
Give somebody the power to take their passion and run with it, they’re going to be that much more invested in their work.
Since you started, how have you changed? Do you believe that the women that have been participating have changed?
Yeah, I think so. I think that the women and I have been able to have some pretty candid conversations. It’s been really nice to have some open conversation about their experiences at the homeless shelter and at work. Some of the women have just come out of their shells so much.
One woman who was new at The Empowerment Plan was so nervous when she started that when we did the eulogy or the toast for Jackie she couldn’t finish. Not long after she was chosen to speak at their big fundraiser, but with some practice and encouragement, and a bathroom pep talk – and she did awesome! To think, a few months ago she was living in a shelter, and now here she is with this great job, and she’s at this beautiful party, and she’s telling everyone her story. And that, I think — those opportunities, they cannot be overlooked. I mean, these opportunities to let people shine the way that they should are really going to bring people out of their discomfort.
It sounds like it’s really gained momentum in the short amount of time that you really started. What are your overall objectives for this program, and are there any objectives that you hope that individuals will achieve as they do an hour or two-hour session or even weekly session?
I’m really interested in the psychology of it — so if I have something going on a consistent level and then could come back and get some quantitative and qualitative data about what does this really mean for your workday? So after your spend an hour laughing with random people you don’t know but really getting to create something, and meet new people, and laugh, and kind of let go of your inhibitions for that one hour before work, does this really make your day better? I would really be interested in the long-term effects of that. There are all these studies about working out before the workday. What would it mean to laugh-out before the workday, and how much data would I need to prove that this is something that could really help people just enjoy their day?
So I think long-term I would really like to see it as a tool that people use, just like going to the gym — maybe a tool that they use once or twice a week to come in and start their day off on a really joyful step. And I would like to speak from a really balanced look at what this can do to improve your day or your outlook on your week. I think it’s a wonderful way to build community, when you’re meeting new people in the community doing their thing, whatever that is. Detroit right now is such a wonderful place of connection, and I think we could really use this as a tool for connection.
Detroit’s been through so much over the last decade or two decades, and I think some good laughs, and building community, and laughing with strangers I think really, certainly kind of takes it to another level in terms of that community.
So I just wanted to thank you again for your time. I guess one final question — one fun question — would be if you could give one piece of advice that you think everyone should try or take a lesson from improv, what do you think that would be?
I do think the “Yes, and” is the most important thing, because when people feel supported, they can be the best version of themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 10-year-old or a 25-year-old or a 52-year-old, I think just saying “Yes, and” is a great way to conduct your personal life, and your personal relationships, and your professional world. It’s really just meeting people where they are — and not only meeting them, but allowing them and encouraging them to be who they are. That’s definitely been the biggest takeaway for me.
Well, I will definitely be practicing, let me just say. Well, thank you again, Frankie. I appreciate your time, and it’s been nice talking with you.