00:00 Michael Port: Welcome to ‘Steal the Show’ with Michael Port. This is Michael. Today’s guest is Melissa Friedman. And she’s here to talk, not just about public speaking, but we’re gonna focus on how someone young or old can change how they behave, interact, collaborate, and even transform their lives as a result of learning performance skills. Because you know the work that I do in Steal the Show is not just about public speaking. So, you may be a public speaker but you may also be somebody who just wants to improve how they perform during life’s high-stakes situations.
00:40 Michael Port: So, Melissa Friedman is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Epic Theatre Ensemble. As an actor, Melissa has performed in numerous Epic Off-Broadway productions including Hannah and Martin, Einstein’s Gift, and A Hard Heart. As a Director, her credits include 13 Shakespeare remix productions for which, on behalf of Epic, she received the 2009 National Arts and Humanitarian… Humanities, excuse me. Humanities… And this is another demonstration of how you can be professional and still mess up. And I don’t cut these out because I want to demonstrate to people that we all make mistakes.
01:20 Melissa Friedman: That’s right.
01:20 Michael Port: So, in any event, 2009 National Arts and Humanity… Humanities, there we go, for some reason I have a problem with that word, Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Melissa holds a BA in theatre from Oberlin, which is where my partner and soon-to-be bride, Amy, soon-to-be Port, went, and that’s how they know each other and that’s how I was introduced to Melissa. And she has an MFA in Acting from the University of San Diego. Hi.
01:51 Melissa Friedman: Hi!
01:52 Michael Port: How are you?
01:53 Melissa Friedman: I’m good. I’m good. I’m happy to be on this show.
01:56 Michael Port: Good. You just have such a lovely, positive sounding voice. I know everybody’s gonna love you.
02:00 Melissa Friedman: Oh, thank you.
02:02 Michael Port: So listen, let’s get to the really, really important stuff first. I mean, this is critical. My assistant, Laura, she really wants to know if Michelle Obama’s arms are as glorious in person as they are on television.
02:19 Melissa Friedman: Yes. The answer is yes. And she is more beautiful in person than you see on-screen or in photographs. She’s really luminous. Everybody was beaming and smiling when they saw her. And it was an amazing opportunity to receive an award from her. She gave me a hug and she thanked me. So, that was…
02:42 Michael Port: Wow!
02:43 Melissa Friedman: That was a highlight of my life.
02:45 Michael Port: That’s fantastic.
02:46 Melissa Friedman: So, it was great. It was wonderful.
02:47 Michael Port: That’s really cool. That’s fantastic. So, tell us a little bit about Epic. Why did Epic start? And how? And where is it now?
02:55 Melissa Friedman: Yeah. Epic… We’re based in New York City, although we’ve been all over the country with the work we do. We were founded in 2001. And in fact, the very first day of operations for us at Epic was on September 11, 2001.
03:09 Michael Port: Oh, wow.
03:09 Melissa Friedman: Yeah. That was our founding day. We had been planning for about nine, 10 months prior to the founding of Epic, raising money, and that was our official first day of work. And so, you can imagine. That was a challenge. But we, at Epic, we founded the company because we believe, we believe collectively that theatre has the power for social change. Theatre can be at the center of civic and social dialogue. And we, as a result, were put to the test on September 11th… When we say that kind of thing and then something like that happens, we have to really make good on that promise.
03:49 Melissa Friedman: And so, we went immediately and worked with our emerging school partners and helped to transform school communities after this horrible event. And we… We really took on that challenge. And it panned out. We really were recognized for the work that we did. After 9/11 we felt that our work was more important than ever. So, we founded the company then, and it’s our 15th season now, which is hard to believe…
04:19 Michael Port: Wow!
04:19 Melissa Friedman: That time has gone. And so, we do a combination of Off-Broadway professional work and work in our schools. Our approach is very holistic. We don’t have wings that are like the educational theatre part of what we do and the professional art making part of what we do. It’s all connected. The artists who work for us on the Off-Broadway stages are the same artists who work as artistic mentors to our public school students. And we find that that really builds bridges between professional artists and our students, and our other communities that we serve.
04:54 Michael Port: You used the word “change”. And change is such a… Such an interesting word. It’s sometimes said that the only person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.
05:06 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
05:06 Michael Port: And I mean, I love change, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I was drawn to performance at a younger age. I love the ability we have to transform. I love that we can adopt lots of different styles of behavior ways of being. We can see the world from so many different perspectives. And I think that’s the performer’s mindset. So, let’s talk about change and transformation because it’s something you do with people who are non-actors. This is a big part of your mission, a big part of your work. And for those of us that want to change, I think we can take a lot away from the kind of work that you do…
05:45 Michael Port: And for those of us that are in the business of trying to get other people to think differently or to feel differently or to act differently, we can also take a lot away from the work you do. So, let’s start with how arts education can teach us and what… Let’s talk about, what does arts education teach us that we maybe can’t learn from other subjects?
06:11 Melissa Friedman: Yes. I do different kinds of arts education. There is the work that I do after school which is, students work with us, on an arts project and they go in, knowing they self-selected. And then I have work that I do in our partner schools where I go into an English, or History, or Science classroom, and I partner with the teacher and many of the students in that room don’t want me to be there. Not me specifically, but just don’t want someone who’s disrupting the flow of the room. And I have to meet resistance and deal with the change of the energy in the room. So, change for me is at the cornerstone of what we do. My belief in change is where is the root of my optimism, the root of my activism, my belief in transformation.
06:56 Melissa Friedman: And I am constantly fighting a battle within myself, of my belief in that change and in the world. But I… There are lots of ways I see it. I see students who really firmly believe in their lack of ability to change because they’re living in an entrenched poverty. They’re living in communities that are consistently being told they can’t change. And so, I go in and I have a creative project, that accesses different potentials in students, that accesses different possibilities. And I also give them the tools that we have, as performers, that allow for possible change. The tools of using your voice in a different way, and your body in a different way, to collaborate in a different way.
07:46 Melissa Friedman: And I see students who say, “I can’t do this,” or “I can’t do that.” And then, by the end of the project, they are transformed by the experience of making theatre together. So, it’s really inspiring. But I think that, I hear the phrase, “I have stage fright.” And sometimes the phrase which is interesting, it’s been translated for some students as, “I am stage fright,” which I think is kind of a, “I am stage fright.” “I have stage fright” or “I am stage fright,” I hear that a lot. So, more and more, I become kind of a coach for that process of overcoming stage fright.
08:23 Michael Port: And stage fright is something that I think people relate to in many different high-stakes situations, not necessarily just you’re giving a speech, or trying to perform in some sort of theatrical production.
08:35 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
08:35 Michael Port: Now, it’s so much more than that, and it really can be paralysing for so many people.
08:39 Melissa Friedman: It can.
08:40 Michael Port: I wanna talk about that further. I wanna touch on something, first however, that you mentioned just a few minutes ago. You talked about the lack of ability to change or their perceived lack of ability to change, in part because of the environment that these students live in, this entrenched poverty, etcetera. And it’s interesting because, the… A lot… Most of the folks who listen to this show are not in that situation now.
09:15 Melissa Friedman: Right.
09:15 Michael Port: And some of them may have come from that kind of environment, but many haven’t.
09:22 Melissa Friedman: Right.
09:22 Michael Port: And it’s interesting, because when you come from an environment like that, it’s understandable and it’s accepted, and when you don’t, you don’t really have an excuse.
09:41 Michael Port: And it’s interesting to me because I think a lot of our listeners and a lot of our students, they often feel that they have a lack of ability to change. Now, this is of course before they get into the work with us, but this happens. I see it very often. Being stuck, feeling like, “I am who I am, and that’s really all that I’m gonna be. And I can do this and I can’t do that.” And it’s a very constrained way of thinking. So, do you agree that many people feel this way even if they don’t have these environmental conditions that are put upon them?
10:24 Melissa Friedman: Oh, yeah.
10:24 Michael Port: Yeah?
10:25 Melissa Friedman: Absolutely. I mean, I think that, it’s very comforting to believe you can change, to feel like… It’s a sense of self, like, “I know myself. I am someone who doesn’t speak well in front of people. I am shy.” And they… Seeing that as a fixed perspective is very comforting, and I think, one of the things that I value and that I think is the most beautiful thing is our moments of courage. And what I will say to my students, and I think it can extend to anyone, it doesn’t have to be someone who’s living in poverty or living in extreme circumstances, extend to anyone is this idea that, if you are scared, if you are feeling fear, it’s an opportunity for courage, that whole idea of there is no courage without fear. That someone getting up on stage who has a real comfort level with getting up on stage, that’s not a courageous act. It may be really cool. It may be a beautiful thing, but it’s not courageous to get up on stage when you’re not scared.
11:21 Michael Port: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
11:22 Melissa Friedman: But if you feel fear, then you have an opportunity for courage, and seeing that as an opportunity. If they say, “I’m scared.” I say, “Great!” And they look at me like I’m [chuckle] crazy… “But that’s amazing, you’re afraid, that means that you care… ”
11:35 Michael Port: So, what do you think people…
11:36 Melissa Friedman: And that means you’re… Yeah.
11:37 Michael Port: Yeah, what do you think people are afraid of? ‘Cause, there’s this, “I think” myth out there, that public speaking is the number one fear and death is the number two fear. I don’t know where this…
11:49 Melissa Friedman: I don’t know where that study… But I…
11:50 Michael Port: Yeah, “study”, I’m pretty sure there was no actual study, it’s sort of like, “67% of statistics are made up on the spot”…
11:57 Melissa Friedman: Yeah…
11:57 Michael Port: You know, that…
12:00 Michael Port: Including that one.
12:00 Melissa Friedman: Yeah, totally.
12:01 Michael Port: So, it’s one of those things that if someone said, “Listen, I’m afraid of giving a speech.” And you pulled out… Held a weapon to their head and said, “Listen, you have two choices, you die or you give a speech.” They’re gonna give the speech.
12:14 Melissa Friedman: Exactly. Every time I give that statistics, students look at me like, “Really?”
12:18 Michael Port: Yeah.
12:18 Melissa Friedman: “Really? Really?” People are more afraid of public speaking than death. I think it’s because it comes up, when are you not… I mean, you’re speaking publicly all the time.
12:27 Michael Port: Right. So, it’s something that’s present whereas death is not something we think a lot about, fortunately, until extreme circumstances present themselves. So, that really make sense to me. So, why is it? What are we actually afraid of?
12:43 Melissa Friedman: Well, it’s funny because in reality, many of my students are afraid of something very real which is, their peers laughing at them, which they do, by the way.
12:53 Michael Port: Yeah. Yeah.
12:53 Melissa Friedman: So, it’s not like… And it is a constant feedback that I see happening in classes, and it’s one of the big things that I work to address is a positive environment, positive energy in the room. And so, I think adults who don’t actually necessarily have people making comments, or sucking their teeth, or having kind of immediate negative feedback, they imagine it. And, but our students actually potentially have it. So I say, “The further you go, which defies your logic here… The further you go, the more you commit, the more you’re gonna have a positive response. If you have commit, you leave yourself open for negative feedback from your audience.”
13:35 Michael Port: Yeah. This is really… And let’s talk about this ’cause this is something that the trained performer adheres to, this idea of full commitment. You know, small choices don’t take you too far.
13:46 Melissa Friedman: No.
13:47 Michael Port: A very… We choose early, we choose often, and the bigger your choices are, the more compelling you can be. And that doesn’t mean that they’re always gonna be right…
13:55 Melissa Friedman: Right.
13:55 Michael Port: But we know that we make choices, and that produces action, and that action is something that we can evaluate to, “Well, is this working for us or is it not? Well, I found another way to improve, I make another choice.”
14:08 Melissa Friedman: Exactly.
14:08 Michael Port: And these kids, adults, so many people have trouble with choice because they’re afraid of making the wrong choice.
14:16 Melissa Friedman: Exactly.
14:17 Michael Port: And you hit the nail on the head when you… At least from my perspective, when you talked about rejection. And a lot of folks, even if they’re not in the classroom like that, they really fear others laughing at them, telling, or saying they’re stupid, they don’t know what they’re talking about because there are a lot of people out there who like to push others down to lift themselves up.
14:37 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
14:37 Michael Port: And so, they may have people laughing at them. So, what can we do to silence some of these critics?
14:47 Melissa Friedman: I don’t know if we can… I don’t know if we can do a lot to silence the critics. I work on it, but I think one of the things I tell my students all of the time which is, one of the things that contributes to stage fright and fear, and worry about judgement is a focus on yourself…
15:02 Michael Port: Yes!
15:02 Melissa Friedman: Too much that you think about, “What are my hands doing? What’s my voice doing? What am I doing? What am I? I, I… ” Rather than thinking about, “What do you want? What is your objective to speak in theatre terms? What are you trying to do?”, and to focus on another person or people you’re trying to persuade or convince, or charm, or whatever the thing is you’re trying to do, to focus on them. And I talk a lot about your scene, part. And sometimes in a Shakespeare play, I do a lot of Shakespeare with my students. And sometimes in a Shakespeare play, in a soliloquy, you’re speaking to an audience, but you’re really… Basically, I try to dispel the myth that the way to overcome stage fright is to imagine things, like imagine the audience naked or… I think that’s really bizarre to me.
15:45 Michael Port: Yes. That’s the weirdest piece of advice in the world.
15:48 Melissa Friedman: It would be horrifying… That’s a nightmare, right?
15:50 Michael Port: Yeah, yeah.
15:50 Melissa Friedman: You don’t want to speak to naked people…
15:53 Melissa Friedman: So…
15:54 Michael Port: You know what I love? You know what I love, Melissa? Is that, you are just highlighting point, after point, after point, to… In Steal The Show…
16:02 Melissa Friedman: Oh, good.
16:02 Michael Port: And it’s just great. Of course, it’s always lovely to have guests who affirm your work, but it’s just another demonstration of how effective performance skills, and the performer’s mindset are. And I really… This is so strange. This “Imagine the audience naked.” And then, another weird one is rehearse in front of a mirror.
16:25 Melissa Friedman: Oh My God! Terrible idea.
16:26 Michael Port: Terrible idea! I’ve never in my entire life seen a professional performer or actor rehearse in front of a mirror unless they wanted to admire their jaw line.
16:35 Melissa Friedman: Right.
16:36 Michael Port: And that’s something that actors enjoy doing but no, it’s just a weird piece of advice. So…
16:40 Melissa Friedman: It’s a terrible piece of advice. But what I ask them to do instead of, is to actually try to impact the audience. Just try to take them in and make a connection to them. And try to change the energy of the room. And also, focusing on your scene partners in the scene. So, I feel like the more that you think about how you’re making an impact and actually making that impact, and then commitment for me is landing the idea, and landing the thought, and seeing what it does to the room, the energy, the scene partner, whatever it is. Rather than thinking about, “How does my voice sound? What are my gestures doing?”… I mean, if…
17:13 Michael Port: Yeah.
17:14 Melissa Friedman: The second a student says, “What should my facial expressions be?” or “What should I do with my hands?”. I think, “Oh, they’re really internalizing, not in a good way… What their task is and not thinking about how to pursue their objective”. So, that to me is the way you overcome stage fright, is get outside of yourself and go out to… And no, that doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t work on skills that have to do with voice and physicality, and all of those things, and working on text, and how to deliver, and what words are the most important words to emphasize and all of that. But in terms of the performance skill, what do you do when you’re on stage? You have to land that thought. Full commitment is about really landing it. So…
18:02 Michael Port: I love it. I love it. I love it. So, let’s talk about authenticity.
18:06 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
18:08 Michael Port: One of the performer’s principles is acting “as if”.
18:12 Melissa Friedman: Mm-hmm.
18:13 Michael Port: It’s such a wonderful imagination technique.
18:15 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
18:15 Michael Port: So, do you ever find resistance to this? That people feel like, “Well, that means I’m phony or fake… ”
18:26 Melissa Friedman: No. I mean, I think truth is everything for me. Truth and courage, those are my kind of mantras… As I work with students… And I think the work proves out. They’re extraordinary. There’s no fake kid acting happening on stage. It’s really quite something to see. My kids have gone on to like… One of my students won the National Shakespeare Competition.
18:48 Michael Port: Wow! Wow!
18:49 Melissa Friedman: And went to study in London.
18:50 Michael Port: Wow!
18:52 Melissa Friedman: And another one of my students this past year was in the top 10 in the country. And we’d only just begun competing in that competition and we kind of have hit a winning streak. And so, I think partly because of this incredible sense of authenticity that when they walk on stage, they are bringing the work to… They are speaking in their authentic voice. They are finding truth. So… And the other thing that… It’s sort of thrilling working in front of students. I would kind of recommend any theatre group or any public speaker speaking for my students…
19:29 Melissa Friedman: Because they will tell you when you’re lying. They will tell you when you’re not being authentic. They will… And they won’t necessarily say it, but you’ll know. They will stop listening if you are not your true self, if you don’t have proper subtext going on, if you don’t have the right thing in your head like, “I’m happy to be here. I’m excited to hear what you have to say.” If you’re thinking kind of thoughts that are condescending or if you’re not really present, they will let you know. And I watched teachers in classrooms many, many times. I helped to train teachers with, who aren’t being authentic or not being themselves in front of students and it’s not a good scene. It’s not a good scene. But, yeah…
20:12 Melissa Friedman: So, being authentic I think, is why the students get in there. They’re very passionate about theatre, my students, those who… Especially those who self-select to be part of my after-school Shakespeare Remix program or my… We have a youth company called “Epic NEXT”. Those students who actually put in extra hours and times and give their summers to what we do, they love the idea of “as if”, and transforming to another character, and finding how they contribute to that circumstance.
20:42 Michael Port: So, let’s talk about that as it relates to public speaking.
20:45 Melissa Friedman: Mm-hmm.
20:45 Michael Port: Because, sometimes when we suggest to an adult that they use the principle of acting as if, they get a little uncomfortable because they say, “Well, no, but I’m just being me up here, and if I use that technique, then maybe I’ll be inauthentic.” You know?
21:10 Melissa Friedman: Right.
21:11 Michael Port: And sometimes… So, one of the things that we do as public speakers, is we develop a character, as a speaker, that is an authentic amplified version of our best self that is most relevant to the audience. So, can you speak to that resistance that an adult will sometimes feel, to the idea of stepping outside of their constrained perspective or this fear they have of people thinking that they’re phony?
21:48 Melissa Friedman: Oh God, yes. I feel like there is this idea that you should just go in with whatever energy you’re feeling at that moment. It’s just the worst idea in the world to walk into a room… If I’m having a terrible day and the subway gave me hell that day and I walk into a classroom and I come in with that energy, it’s the worst idea in the world because it’s only about me. It’s not about what I want, which is I want to engage these students in this task. I want to inspire them and so, I have to always just tap back into what I want. For me, it’s always an action on stage. And so, if I use an as if, when I’m working or I’m asking the students to work, I think it’s really to feel that objective. So, if I’m not in the place that is naturally connecting to that objective, if I’m in a place of negativity, I have to re-imagine my circumstances. But I… It’s always about seeking truth because I’m seeking that objective. I mean, objective is truth, you know?
22:51 Michael Port: Let’s go…
22:52 Melissa Friedman: You have to… Yeah.
22:52 Michael Port: Let’s go deeper into that…
22:53 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
22:54 Michael Port: Because one of the… I did an episode a number of weeks ago to address this and I’d like you to take it a little bit deeper because in one… And I have a Facebook group with a bunch of other professional speakers that I’m part of, and one of the guys asked others how they get into the right state, like physical state, emotional state, before they give a speech. And most professional speakers didn’t have acting training, and they can still be great professional speakers. You don’t have to have that as a background, of course, but what was interesting to me about the conversation that ensued was that it was mostly focused on manufacturing a state.
23:39 Melissa Friedman: Hmm.
23:40 Michael Port: And it was interesting to me because I had never thought about manufacturing a state. I always felt… I always focus on pursuing an objective. And that influences the way that I behave, and that influences the way that I feel. And, of course, pursuing that objective is for the audience, so that will influence how they feel, what they think, how they behave etc. So, you really, you just touched on this and, I’d like you to highlight it a little bit more, so that people understand how much you change when you are pursuing objectives for others.
24:17 Melissa Friedman: Yes. You just… You have to know what you want. What I say to my students is, “An objective is something that you should be able to accomplish.” If your objective is, “I am going to… My objective is to convince this room that they have the power within them to make a compelling adaptation of antagony.” You know?
24:44 Melissa Friedman: I am going… That is my objective today, and they have the power within them and I have to…
24:48 Michael Port: That’s not an easy objective, I might add.
24:50 Melissa Friedman: No! It isn’t, but we do that all the time, that kind of thing. And so, I find myself… If I’m thinking, “Oh God, this class… I have four classes and one of them is really challenging”, that’s pretty common, and maybe two or three of them are extremely easygoing for me and has a flow, and I have a really strong connection with them, but this particular class resists me and I have to really go in. Rather than coming in with a different set of, a different kind of energy, I have to still pursue that objective. I just have to find different tactics to use, different actions to use. And, it transforms me when I believe that I have the power to change that room. And so, if I don’t… I have to take a look at my beliefs.
25:35 Melissa Friedman: If I’m not able to get there, I’d have to say, “Do I believe that I can do this?” And, I have to go back and think about examples of other moments where I’ve faced incredible resistance and I have somehow broken through and I have to, I have to just really work that objective. And, for me preparing is about zeroing in on that and making sure I know what it is and I know what it looks like when it’s accomplished. And that’s really the thing for me, that helps me prepare. I mean, I also think understanding how energy works in a room and how to capture energy and how to use my own energy and get my own energy up, and tools to change the room… Like, the way the room looks. I will focus a lot about how to, if not everybody is facing me, for example.
26:35 Michael Port: Yeah.
26:37 Melissa Friedman: I will see teachers go into a room or students are facing in all different directions because of the way in which a room is set up. And, I’m like, “Oh, no no.” We all have to face each other. We have to see each other. We have to either get in a circle or everyone has to face the front, or I’ll have to say, “Alright, everyone put their stuff down… ”
26:54 Michael Port: Yes. It’s interesting. Yes, it’s interesting, Melissa, because sometimes adults who are giving speeches, say in a business setting, they’re nervous about asking the audience to change what they’re doing.
27:11 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
27:11 Michael Port: And, it’s very important to have “control” over the room to the best of your ability.
27:18 Melissa Friedman: Right.
27:20 Michael Port: For a lot of different reasons… The audience needs to be comfortable that you’ve got everything under control. And that nobody’s gonna take over and that you are present and in the moment and have some control. And, sometimes you’ll give a speech and there are people sitting in round tables. And, you’re at one side of the room, and they have their backs to you. From day one… I mean, I remember the first day I ever gave a speech in a room like that, I just said, “Okay, everybody you turn your chairs around.”
27:50 Melissa Friedman: Yes, yes.
27:51 Michael Port: But I’ve had a lot of students who come and say, I couldn’t ask them to do that, because they’re not my students, they’re not kids or something. Or, for example, if you go to a room and speak and there are a 100 chairs but there’s only 50 people there, first thing that I suggest folks do is get rid of those other 50 chairs.
28:10 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
28:11 Michael Port: Because you never want a room to feel half empty. Now, you can’t do that in a Broadway theatre ’cause the chairs are actually…
28:18 Melissa Friedman: Right.
28:18 Michael Port: They’re screwed into the floor. But, in a hotel room you have that ability, you can do that. So, you design the room according to what you are trying to accomplish in that particular situation.
28:30 Melissa Friedman: Yes. I have found myself, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have found myself in situations where, I have gone into that where I can’t ask them to change the room. And, I always suffer if I do that [chuckle] I always do. It’s just, “Okay, well that today was my lesson.” That doesn’t work…
28:47 Michael Port: That you’re the professional, you’re the professional and you know what you need.
28:50 Melissa Friedman: I know what I need and I need to do that.
28:53 Michael Port: And it’s not for you either, that’s the thing. None of it’s for you. It’s for the experience of the people in the room.
29:01 Melissa Friedman: Mm-hmm. And I believe, the theatre we make has, always has some kind of audience interaction. And, I believe that it’s most effective when it isn’t just you on stage, that there is a moment when the audience must engage with you in some way even if it’s an enormous audience that they… There is a… We have an Off-Broadway show running right now that, called “Pike Street”, and the actress Nilaja Sun… There is a moment when she’s sort of without exactly saying it, she gets everyone to clap with her three times, and then take a breath in over the course of the show. It’s a particular character that does this. And so…
29:40 Michael Port: Hmm. That’s neat.
29:40 Melissa Friedman: And it’s really cool. Because, the energy changes and you see the audience move from sitting in their programs in a position of judgement into an openness and it really changes the energy of the space. It’s really effective. So, I find that an audience tests you, and it’s more true for my students than maybe in a circumstance you might find yourself in, but my audience will test me all the time, and they are literally like, “If I do this, will you notice?”
30:12 Michael Port: Mm-hmm. Sure.
30:12 Melissa Friedman: They’re asking me this question like, “If I put my head down, will you care?” And I have to go, “Hey, hey, right, heads up.” And I have to find a way to do it. “Will you yell at me if I do this? Will you treat me with love, or will you treat me with punishment? Will you treat… What will happen if I do this?” And I get tested, and I have to just try to pass those tests and kind of transform the energy on my own terms. So, it’s fascinating. People will often say to me, “Oh, my God. Wow, I’m so impressed with what you do and where you go and the communities you serve.” And I think, “Oh, my God. It’s so… I love it so much.”
30:49 Melissa Friedman: I love working in the communities I work in, and I love the fact that there’s so much potential for change and transformation and discovery. It’s very exciting. I mean, I have so many beautiful stories of young people finding their voices. And literally, I had a moment where a young woman, when I met her when she was 14, was working with me on a project. And she was so quiet and so lacking confidence that I couldn’t hear her and I was sitting a foot away. And I was like, “I can’t, I can’t.” And bringing out her voice over the next, the following few years and allowing her to explore her own creativity has led her to… She’s a sophomore in private college right now, and she is a tour guide, and she is an activist, and…
31:35 Michael Port: Wow!
31:35 Melissa Friedman: She is leading sit-ins about racial injustice. She is a power house, and her voice is so heard on that campus. And I think, “Oh God, she discovered that voice. Through theatre, she discovered that voice.” And she’s not gonna be a theatre major, she is not going to be an actor, although she could be because she’s a brilliantly talented woman. But she’s an activist. So, that is amazing.
32:06 Michael Port: Well, do you think that when you first met her, her fear was stronger than her desire to make a difference? And then, overtime, her desire to make a difference became stronger than her fear?
32:23 Melissa Friedman: Yes, I do, I do think that that is the case. I also think that she was engaged in creativity and discovered… I had a student say to me, and they say stuff like this to me all the time where they’re like, “I didn’t ever know I was creative until today.”
32:39 Michael Port: Oh wow!
32:39 Melissa Friedman: And I’m like, “Wow, I love it.” That fills my life hearing those things. But I discovered, I thought I was this, and now I’m this. I thought I was shy, but now I’m this. And I think it’s because I was that way. I didn’t speak and I was quiet, and I considered myself an introvert for so long, and I discovered my voice. And I think that if I could do it, so, I’m gonna just pass on those skills of how to discover. And it’s through action, it’s through doing that you start to learn about another possible path.
33:13 Michael Port: And change is an action-oriented concept.
33:16 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
33:17 Michael Port: And I love how you are circling back to change, based on this way of being, or way of thinking about yourself. “I thought I was this. Oh, but now I’m this. I thought I was this, but now I’m this.” And if we can recognize that we can do that all the time, the thing that we now think we are, we will go farther in a week, and then another week, and another week.
33:44 Melissa Friedman: And the idea of change to me, I’ve discovered along the way, is very different. It’s a map and it’s a journey of change. It’s not, “I was shy yesterday, and today, I’m courageous.” It’s everyday, you have to find your way. And then, I watched students who will discover their voice one day and then the next day, they will hide again. And you think, “Oh, but I thought… Wait a second. I thought that the story was that you’re courageous now.” No, it’s a journey. It’s a movement. And that sometimes, there are real defeats and setbacks.
34:20 Melissa Friedman: And like I said, I have a sort of code of the way that I work, but I will betray that own code, my code, if I’m in a bad state, and I will not ask everyone to turn and face me if I’m in the wrong mood, and I will discover that that mistake led me to not really affecting my audience. I have to say, that isn’t very common [chuckle] But there are times when I take these little setbacks, when I don’t listen to my own code of working, code of action. So, yeah. So, change is possible, but it is also something that is constantly being tested, and it’s an evolution.
35:00 Melissa Friedman: It’s not necessarily, “I was this thing, and now I’m this thing.” I think it’s equally dangerous to say, “I am a great speaker. I am this now. I am comfortable in front of a crowd”, because suddenly, what happens if Barack Obama is in the crowd? Then suddenly, you’re like, “Oh God, I have to go back to those tools and think again about how to just actively do the work.”
35:25 Michael Port: Yeah, that’s right. So, one of the things that people often say, at least we hear, is that they’re not ready. We say, “Listen… So, we talk about, let’s say working on doing this kind of work, doing this kind of training, working on your ability to speak publicly”. They’ll say, “Well, I’m not ready yet.”
35:47 Melissa Friedman: Right.
35:48 Michael Port: And so, it’s an interesting statement because I always wonder, how do you get ready to do the work that’s supposed to get you ready? And the work is about getting ready. The work is about improving your ability to perform, increasing your skills, so that you actually know what you’re doing when the spotlight is on you.
36:12 Melissa Friedman: Right.
36:13 Michael Port: So, let’s talk about the balance…
36:14 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
36:15 Michael Port: Yeah, between rehearsal and improvisation.
36:18 Melissa Friedman: Yes. The whole, “I’m not ready” thing is very interesting because you have to figure out what’s that goal that’s just really challenging but it’s not so far fetched. You don’t wanna have your first speaking engagement be in front of 100,000 people… Right?
36:35 Michael Port: Yeah. That’s right.
36:35 Melissa Friedman: The very first time. So, one of the things I work on with my students is, we have presentations we’re sharing on a consistent basis, so that a student can practice within a safer environment and make their way before they’re on stage in front of 200 people in the theatre with lights on them. Right? So, it’s idea of, how do you… Instead of waiting, holding your breath and waiting, or hiding and not doing anything and saying, “I’m not ready”, knowing the difference between a stalling tactic and actually taking smaller steps and letting those steps get bigger and bigger and tracking it and saying… You know, when you think about stand-up comedians, they do the 3:00 AM spot at a club…
37:20 Michael Port: Sure.
37:21 Melissa Friedman: And they try out new material in a smaller venue or a smaller audience and then they move their way up. And it’s similar to the way that you would work as you rehearse theatre. And when you speak publicly, just moving forward and saying, “Well, what did I learn today about my breath, what did I learn today about how do I try to pursue my objective?” We have… I believe, and I think what you do is great, with the idea of mentoring people because I think the mentor/mentee relationship is really important, having someone listening to you and looking out for you, and watching to see if you’re moving forward is really effective, someone you trust.
38:02 Melissa Friedman: So, that’s what we do, we have a mentorship program where our mentors will give notes back to their students in a more private way, and less publicly sometimes, to say, “Hey, I observed that when you got up on stage you were really holding your breath, and that your voice was suffering as a result. So, let’s try the next time, let’s try this one thing. You know those rehearsals where you do the run through of the play where you’re just focusing on your physicality…
38:30 Michael Port: Mm-hmm.
38:30 Melissa Friedman: Or I’m just focusing on transition so I just wanna know, on this run through, my focus is just on how do I… Where are my exits and entrances? . And, of course, you’re not actually only focusing on that, you’re paying mind to that because it can be overwhelming and that’s where the “I’m not ready” comes in. It’s overwhelming when you are trying to focus on all of the notes that you could ever get or give yourself for that performance task. You have to really look at one sliver at a time. So, I will give my students one thing to focus on. “We’re just gonna focus today on, what are the power words in what you do in this Shakespeare text? What are the words that help fuel the meaning of the text, for example?”.
39:13 Michael Port: When somebody is working on a speech that they’ve been asked to give or they have asked to give, they may try to do a little bit of rehearsal. And then, when they perform, they feel stiff, and then they will often reject the idea of rehearsal. And I think it’s because they’ve done a little bit of rehearsal.
39:39 Melissa Friedman: Yeah [chuckle]
39:39 Michael Port: So, in the moment, they’re trying to recall what they did in the rehearsal and it’s hard to remember what you did, if you only did a little bit and, as a result, they’re not in the moment and they feel very stiff. So, I’d like you to speak to that. How much rehearsal is necessary so that you can be in the moment and be spontaneous and authentic?
40:01 Melissa Friedman: There’s a great quote, and I don’t know who to attribute it to, so, I’m just gonna put it out there. Which is, “Amateurs rehearse until they get it right, professionals rehearse until they can’t get it wrong”.
40:13 Michael Port: Oh wait, this must be written down.
40:15 Michael Port: So that I’m gonna research to see who it was.
40:17 Melissa Friedman: Right, I know. Actually, I think it’s a really great one and I’ve said it to my students. And I’ve watched my older students who become mentors to the younger students give that quote out, remember it word for word, and it really seems to make an impact. Because my students will say, “I’m done.”
40:34 Michael Port: Yeah [chuckle]
40:35 Melissa Friedman: “I’m done, I got it”.
40:36 Michael Port: Right, right.
40:37 Melissa Friedman: And then, they’ll get up and I’m like, “You’re not done… Sorry, you’re not done”. So, I think tons and tons and tons of rehearsal is really effective so that you have the ability to improvise. If you’re really comfortable with the material, you really know what you’re gonna say, then you are prepared to improvise.
40:56 Michael Port: And to reduce the pressure on our students, we suggest that the amount of rehearsal you do for these different types of situations should probably be proportionate to the stakes of that situation.
41:11 Melissa Friedman: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
41:12 Michael Port: So, we’re not gonna put 200 hours of rehearsal into something that is not gonna make that much of a difference in your life or anybody else’s life. But if it’s a high-stakes situation, putting together a slide deck and then running through it in your head a few times before you do it for the first time is probably not enough.
41:31 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
41:31 Michael Port: Yeah.
41:32 Melissa Friedman: Yeah. I think, for me, that there are improvisational moments that you can say, “Okay, this moment, I know that I’m hitting this moment”. For me, when I… I do a lot of workshops and presentations for artists and artists who wanna teach or teachers who are teaching arts, and a lot of times I will say… I’ll go over what I’m, what my line up is and I’ll say, “This moment is really dependent on what’s happening in the room”. So I will say, “This is my goal for this moment but how I approach it will just simply depend on how many people are there, what’s their response to the question I asked them”. And I will go there and then I will go back to something that is more rehearsed. But I do believe in the power of rehearsal. We rehearse a lot with our students. Of course, we’re doing a play which is a little different, but at the same time there is, even with that, a resistance. I’ve got it. I know my lines and that’s enough as opposed to like…
42:32 Michael Port: Right.
42:33 Melissa Friedman: For me, rehearsal’s a lot about, well… Is about risk/failure, is saying like, “I’m gonna rehearse so that I can try this choice here and find out whether or not it works”, rather than just…
42:46 Michael Port: Yeah, and it’s a messy process, isn’t it?
42:48 Melissa Friedman: Yeah, it’s messy…
42:49 Michael Port: It’s messy. So, back to the quote that you shared, “Amateurs rehearse until they get it right and performers rehearse until they can’t get it wrong.” The… Another thing that I think people find challenging about rehearsal is that it’s messy.
43:03 Melissa Friedman: Yeah.
43:03 Michael Port: That, when you’re rehearsing something that’s new, it’s not very good. Most of it doesn’t work and the performer’s comfortable with that. And they’re comfortable with trying things that may not be brilliant in front of other people.
43:18 Melissa Friedman: Yes.
43:19 Michael Port: And so, it’s the…
43:20 Melissa Friedman: That approval seeking, that is so fueling it, right?
43:23 Michael Port: Yeah, exactly. We’re looking for results instead of approval.
43:29 Melissa Friedman: Yes. Yes, indeed, ’cause you can’t control that. You can’t really necessarily control the approval of your audience, but you can believe in yourself, you can feel amazing about the work that you’re doing…
43:45 Michael Port: That you’re doing… So, let’s… In terms of control, if people get very nervous about going blank during a presentation, this idea that your mind can go blank, as if it… Meaning like, if you’ll say you sit and you meditate and you’d clear your mind and you blank your mind and someone drops a pen, you still hear the pen. I mean, you can’t actually stop thinking.
44:08 Melissa Friedman: No.
44:09 Michael Port: Your brain is always processing. So, you really can’t go blank so to speak, but sometimes people forget what they wanted to do next or where they were.
44:19 Melissa Friedman: Yes. I mean, I… Status, this sort of idea of… This is related to what you’re asking. I think this idea of status is very interesting to me. You know the Keith Johnstone book “Impro”, he goes into this idea of status interactions and I like to play with status a bit with my audience where I’m supposedly an expert coming in to a group of teachers or whatever my audience is, at a conference or wherever I’m at and if I have a moment where I forget what I’m saying, I can say to them, “Hey, where was I?”
44:51 Michael Port: Yes. Yeah.
44:53 Melissa Friedman: And to turn to somebody and go like, “Ooh.” I lower my status a little bit and I raise them up, they remind me, I go, “Thank you,” and then I continue, as opposed to me having to firmly set myself in this high status position, they are lower than I am, I am high status and…
45:09 Melissa Friedman: And high… Not that. But I… I’m a high status and then, if I say, “Well, what if it’s an interplay? What if I play around with status?” Not that I’m sort of the low status/high status thing. If I am saying to them, “You know something. You know where I left off. You remember because I made an impact on you, so tell me where I was.” ‘Cause that can happen to me if I do three workshops in a row at a conference, there’ll be a moment where I’ll go, “God, did I do that? That bit?” Yeah, you know [chuckle]
45:44 Michael Port: Right, ’cause you can’t remember if you don’t have the 12 o’clock or the 1 o’clock…
45:47 Melissa Friedman: Yeah, it’s like, “Did I say that already?”.
45:49 Michael Port: Yeah, exactly.
45:49 Melissa Friedman: And I can say that to them and they’ll be like, “Ahh.” They’ll feel I’m present in that room and that they’re seeing a one time only experience, as long as it’s met with positive energy and humor, if they see that I’m sweating up there, that’s a different story.
46:07 Michael Port: And they’ll forgive many, many “mistakes”, if you are there to serve them.
46:14 Melissa Friedman: Yeah. I have a little trick that I do whenever I’m doing a PowerPoint is I’ll go, “Check it out, I got a PowerPoint. Like you didn’t expect that I’m an artist and I did a PowerPoint. Look at that. Check out the font.” As opposed to… ‘Cause they’re so used to seeing PowerPoints, right?
46:30 Michael Port: Yeah, yeah.
46:30 Melissa Friedman: And so, I’ll be like, “Look at that. You like my font on that one?” “Yeah.” And then I will continue and so therefore, if I have a technical error, which I often do, I will have fun with it.
46:43 Michael Port: That’s right. So ultimately, I’m hearing a lot of fun in you and the way that you approach all of these. I mean, you’re just full of fun.
46:51 Melissa Friedman: Yeah, I’m full of fun.
46:53 Michael Port: And they call a play a play ’cause you’re playing. So maybe we can bring more of that play into the lives of people who don’t get the opportunity to be in plays, and that’s why we’re here. So, how can people learn more about Epic Theatre?
47:09 Melissa Friedman: Well, we have a website, epictheatreensemble.org and we are currently producing a show called “Pike Street”, which is a fantastic play. We also have a youth company that is regularly performing. We have a piece right now called “10467”, which is a zip code in the Bronx, which is one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. It is sometimes been the poorest congressional district depending on the moment of research and it’s where many of our students live. And it’s a play about educational equity and the fight for educational equity in this company of our young artists are performing this play throughout New York State. We’re taking them to Scotland next summer where they’re gonna…
47:55 Michael Port: Wow!
47:55 Melissa Friedman: Be a part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s international exchange program. But that is consistently being performed in venues that are, like in Albany, they’re performing for the statewide Parent-Teacher Association. They’ve performed on the steps of City Hall, they’ve performed for the Board of Regents and they’re making change with this work. So, there are ways to see our work. There’s a lot of opportunities to see our work both professionally and our Shakespeare Remix program I’m working on directing a remix performance of ‘Taming of the Shrew’, which is really interesting. And so there is consistent opportunities to see our work and many of those opportunities are free. So, you can learn about us that way. That’s the best way and of course, social media, Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all of those ways.
48:46 Michael Port: So, it’s epictheatreensemble.org.
48:49 Melissa Friedman: Yes. Yeah.
48:50 Michael Port: Melissa Friedman, you have been nothing short of exceptional. Thank you so much for being here.
48:54 Melissa Friedman: Oh, thank you, Michael. Thank you.
48:55 Michael Port: Thank you. And this is Steal the Show with Michael Port. Keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. I love you very much and not in a weird way, but I do love you because you are taking risks, you are choosing early and often and you are out in the world helping other people think bigger about who they are and about what they offer the world. Bye for now.