Theoretically, almost none of us should need help from Paul Marks.
As kids, we invent conversations with imaginary playmates, improvise games with whatever materials are on hand, instantly worm out of awkward situations. (“Did I break the lamp? No, Mom. The puppy got his tail tangled in the cord!”)
But en route to adulthood, some of us forget how to adapt quickly, how to listen alertly and respond in kind, how to seize the moment instead of seizing up in panic. That’s where Marks comes in. For three years, he has hosted shows by his Over the Counter Improv group and taught improv classes for anyone from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students to corporate executives.
You’ll find his OTC cast onstage Saturday at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, where they’ll zip through a show. You can observe (or join) his seven-week classes on Sunday nights, where a mixture of veterans and newbies run through word games and exercises likely to leave them mentally weary but physically boosted.
Marks’ life has accelerated wildly over those three years. He and wife Kelly still run Briarcliff Hall, the business they founded in 1992 to improve high schoolers’ SAT scores. (Perhaps unexpectedly, she handles the verbal side; he tutors math.)
Meanwhile, he has joined the Arts & Science Council’s roster of arts programs for CMS, led private sessions, run his own classes, hosted shows – where the audience has grown from 13 people in 2010 to 178 at a recent gig – and will conduct a workshop this November at the National Center for Student Leadership in Florida.
So it’s surprising to see him stick to water in our interview at a coffee house. But co-workers say he’s naturally caffeinated.
Galvanizing a crowd
“Paul’s level of enthusiasm is amazing,” says Holly Lambert. “In person, on the phone or in an email, his personality shines through. His energy spreads like wildfire when he enters the room, and students are hooked from the beginning.”
Her students were supposed to be a tough sell: She’s at Morgan School, where most of the kids are behaviorally and/or emotionally disabled. But, she says, “He was able to get students to participate who are normally very shy in large crowds.”
Those 10 sessions, twice the number originally planned, were more than simple entertainment: Marks, who conducted them with OTC veteran Sonja Goodwin, taught the “yes, and” rule (see the box on this page), so kids learned they didn’t have to disagree with someone who said or did something unexpected. He taught them not to give up – “I don’t know” wasn’t an acceptable answer – and helped them listen acutely, a skill they’ll need in job training. The “Taxicab” game, where everyone in a cab immediately adopts the personality of the newest passenger, made them adapt to sudden changes in environment.
Tammy Woods, director of recreation at Anne Springs Close Greenway, has hired Marks for weeklong summer camps. She likes the intangible skills he instills: “feeling stronger when you enter a room, knowing you can carry on a conversation without feeling insecure, laughing at yourself, finding laughter in everyday life. He also teaches (people) to project their voices and unique personalities. They’ll take this with them for the rest of their lives.”
The same could happen at Accenture Corporation or the Ford Foundation, both of which have hired him. He likes to play “Oracle,” in which each player speaks just one word to help construct a sentence, when he’s with businessmen. “It teaches them teamwork and helps them not to be anxious about things they can’t control,” Marks says. “No matter who you are, there are some things you cannot control.”