Review: The Shift by Twin Alchemy Collective
by David Glen Robinson
The Shift is a wry para-theatrical parody with a good heart. The latest offering from Katie Green’s Twin Alchemy Collective colors outside the lines bigtime as we’ve come to expect, and it is billed as a devised work. Interior scripts and conceptual texts serve nonetheless as guides for the actors and producers in building this performance event. The result is a highly original, ridiculously funny, and multilevel commentary on the inspirational seminar industry. The Shift is the title of this evening's devised theatre piece; 'The Shift' is the name of the imagined human potential movement embraced by this troupe.
Walking into the leafy green yards surrounding the Off Shoot, the Off Center Theatre’s rehearsal studio, audience members are greeted as clients and paying seminar attendees by the color-coded seminar staff. This redefinition of theatergoers as seminar clients is subtle and well done. Everyone registers for a training instead of buying tickets for a show. Name tags are important, first names only. The questionnaire and survey are also important, especially the question asking participants to state what the concept of community means to them.
The outdoor area is for chatting and introductory game playing; later it serves as a studio for one of the aspirational trainings. The inside is entirely a mobile, hotel-style training auditorium, with client chairs in the middle facing a low platform stage. Training bays are arranged around the periphery. The training starts with high-energy inspirational exercises and a graphics-heavy short video introducing 'The Shift.'
As performance, The Shift gets off to a fast start. The seminar staff actors are entrenched deeply within their seminar staff personas from the moment the audience members walk into the yard. Actors do not break character nor do they take a frame-breaking curtain call at the end. Those who accomplish the arduous work of the seminar are Christopher Alvarenga, Katie Green, Tal Leeds, Tim Mateer, Sean Moran, Heidi Penix, and Mary Catherine Rochford. They are under the skilled direction of Katie Green, who is also the producing artistic director of Twin Alchemy Collective.
The action proceeds as would any Tony Robbins or EST training seminar but without the high-pressure lean, bank account-emptying commitments, and snake oil purchases. The Shift shines a light on this service industry employed heavily by corporations for workforce improvement. Seminar innovators market themselves directly to the public, too. They gain profits on the minor or major insecurities almost all adult humans have, mining the flaws in the human psyche, as it were. The U.S. Constitution was written before psychology was invented; otherwise this stuff might be illegal. Scarier still, the industry is integrating vertically with the health supplements and beauty products industries.
So what is The Shift from the perspective of its producers? It is definitely a composite. The show’s subject matter defines it as a picture of an inspirational seminar, with high-saturation parodic aspects. All such cable-TV and traveling hotel seminars employ heightened dramatic and theatrical features. Producers of The Shift may be thought of as simply borrowing back from a secondary para-theatrical form. That faithful borrowing renders The Shift a para-theatrical form itself, with a few core differences.
The introductory material describes the show as a devised performance. That it is, with fresh material presented by its highly talented cast. Even so, themes were scripted, notably those of community and the desired shift from feeling to action. The video had a clearly scripted videoplay and voiceover script. There were other scripted bits, too, along with a tone of theatre experiment and a degree of theatre ritual. The ritual aspects were not developed to the degree of Twin Alchemy Collective’s earlier work, The Society for Hard Determinists. The Shift referred to that earlier show more than once, tongue in cheek, as a 'cult.' But The Shift is not. Oh, no. Why bother denying that to us? Has anybody been asking? The dry self-referential wit was refreshing, and it served to further some of the show’s essential contrasts.
The Shift found much fertile ground for humor in parodying seminar psych-speak, word salad, and outright gobbledegook. It all went down easily, and the staff ensured the audience’s safety and confidence at all points, even while subjecting them to the funny and often embarrassing (but not humiliating) trainings. We the audience made funny for each other, with respect.
This is not to say The Shift lacked a core of committed seriousness. The titular shift is from feelings to action, and the human action called for is to enhance community, that thing which is becoming an ever more elusive value in this increasingly fragmented world. And Twin Alchemy Collective’s choice of community as a goal is singularly apt.
To make the transition from feeling to action, The Shift gives us five inspirations as tools to use in taking action. They are: playfulness, commitment, empathy, vulnerability, and honesty. The breakout training sessions, in groups of six, were all on how to access and apply the inspirations for the heightening of community. The trainers assured each group that their particular inspirations, trained in ways ranging from blowing better bubbles to staring fixedly into a partner’s eyes, were the foundation of the whole system and the most important tool to learn.
The Shift did not forget or ignore its theatrical commitment to plot, theme, and subtheme. At the slight risk of giving away a surprise to a few, there is a subtheme that illuminates the character of some staff members and their perceived career paths. The subtheme is transgressive in that it subverts the show’s own premise. It suffices to say that secrets are traded over cigarettes and honey buns, oaths of secrecy are sworn; and a night drive is taken through the streets of east Austin, boulevards of broken dreams for many but pathways to the future for those in the know.
The parodic elements of The Shift are strong, especially in the gaudy, menu-driven and tacky graphics of the introductory video. Even so, good therapy is where you find it. The funny, absurd, and slightly belittling trainings actually assist individuial introspection and reflection on the manifest value of community (remember: 'community' was defined by the individual on the entry surveys). We seldom have space and directed focus to think about things meaningful to us. So to be offered hypothetical tools for activating our agency and accomplishing the worthy goal may truly promote our actions toward that end. The Shift may be thought of as an actual gentle nudge toward greater commitment in our lives.
Twin Alchemy Collective’s parody is thoroughly enjoyable, as proved when at the end the audience faced the back of the seminar room and happily recited, arms out, palms up, The Shift’s creed as printed on a banner there. Few showed any lingering shyness about the strong audience participation throughout the program. This full participation is one mark of Twin Alchemy Collective’s success with The Shift. If the troupe knew that their approach also had social and personal therapeutic value, certainly they’d triple their ticket prices. So let’s keep this quiet, shall we?
At one point in the performance we were asked to write down answers to questions about our community as we had defined it at the beginning of the seminar. The most pertinent question was how we could take action to solve the problems of that community. These were certainly serious, thought-provoking questions. But then the answer pages were quickly taken up; they were not for us. The speaker said the questionnaire would be mailed back to each of us in six months as our progress check.
This was such a simple yet effective device. It gave an immediate heartwarming sensation. These seminar “teachers” had extended us encouragement and support over the course of six months. Having an effect in our communities, however we defined them, may seem like a daunting task for anyone unaccustomed to taking that one step outside one’s circle of comfort. For the producers and performers of The Shift to reach out to us in playfulness, commitment, empathy, vulnerability, and honesty was only to say they cared.
Everyone wants that feeling, but few can say they have felt it. Yet in The Shift Twin Alchemy Collective formed it well and handed it to us, seemingly with ease. Alchemy in the collective, indeed.
Additional Thoughts about THE SHIFT
by Michael Meigs
This gentle and non-threatening parody of positivist self-help movements teases participants with the lightest of invitations to cooperation, openness and community. You accept the assertion that these missionaries of good feeling are stopping over in Austin on their way to points elsewhere, and you're there for a seminar. In the heart of the evening you become a member of a group, randomly assigned, moving from one hosted activity to another. Each of the earnest facilitators guides and encourages in the few minutes available before music signals the requirement to move to the next way station.
These are simple games with simple lessons, embodied in random collections of objects, guided choices, projected images and an outdoor celebration with beanbags and bubbles. Once the circuit is completed you have a minute or two to share your feelings with another participant. Then you’ll gather for a buoyant presentation by the character played by Christopher Alvarenga, who strides back and forth onstage in front of the beaming choir of facilitators. It’s a ‘come to Jesus’ moment.
With the quiet irony that there is no Jesus to come to. There's no appeal for additional donations. You won’t be prey to much self-exposure or to the strong emotions generated by the encounter exercises or the T-groups of the 60’s and 70’s. Sean Moran as the facilitator Jason already dismissed those techniques in passing while projecting a series of strong images for your consideration.
The Shift’s exercises are structured to offer points of approach to others in your random group, but they’re too limited in time to oblige any development or revelation. You probably won’t even learn the names of other participants, unless you’re the sort of individual who memorizes name tags.
For the majority of those present the starkest moment comes during Alvarenga’s testimony about the redemption he received through The Shift. His character, a television child star in the 1990’s, hit bottom but now he’s bringing The Shift’s message of hope to others. He urges you to close your eyes, envision your community and its problems, and then imagine goals and pathways to reach those goals over the next six months.
The teachings go down like Skittles. The Shift is distributing verities in a millennial reworking. Some of these truths you might have received via expositions such as Robert Fulham's 1986 All I Really Know I Learned in Kindergarten or even Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People. Or various of those self-help books filling long shelves at Book People. These are messages directed to those hopeful of achieving acceptance, virtue and approval — individuals still in the process of becoming, situating themselves amongst the possibilities of this life.
Secular, smiling and non-specific, The Shift is not offering faith, dogma or a guide to the perplexed. It’s not admitting the random surprises, positive and negative, of life over years and decades; its six-month time horizon seems about right.
Twin Alchemy founder Katie Green and her companions know that. To me the best way to understand this ninety minutes of stagecraft and sacred space is as a graceful exercise in irony. CTX Live Theatre reviewer Dr. David Glen Robinson and I, both fans of Twin Alchemy, bring to this scene several more decades of life experience than most of the creators and enactors of the evening — and most of the participants. Our perspectives necessarily are different, and some of the issues floating vaguely in The Shift’s discourse have been definitely settled by us in one fashion or another, perhaps long ago.
We attended different performances. Toward the end of the circuit, facilitator Mary Catherine, a quiet slim young woman modestly draped in Buddhist orange, summoned the reviewer apart. For each evening she carries out a private session or two. Mary Catherine brought me into an enclosed space reworked from a closet, and in that dim quiet refuge she offered herbal tea. As we sat facing one another, knee to knee, she asked me to respond to questions she chose from a short stack of index cards.
Suddenly removed from the protective hubbub of the moving audience, I found myself responding to quiet questions about myself, always with the opportunity simply to decline. Some questions invited thoughts of self concept; others addressed matters of the heart. Many, it seemed, would have been appropriate for those young people in search of something whom I mentioned earlier. In this setting and the unexpected intimacy of the enclosure, Mary Catherine’s simple queries suggested a sincere interest. They evoked responses from me that were less confessional than confiding.
And on the drive home afterwards both the questions and my answers kept replaying themselves. Mary Catherine had endowed The Shift’s anodyne messages with additional, unexpected meaning, not by exhorting but instead by exploring. The protection offered by the conventions of the sacred space of theatre was breached — the same sort of subtle successful attack that Twin Alchemy carried out two years earllier in its work The Society for Hard Determinists.
This past weekend Twin Alchemy intrigued these two experienced reviewers into putting down more than 2200 words about the world this troupe created. That's a powerful indicator. By way of comparison, virtually all theatre reviews in Austin's print media are shorter than 500 words The non-CTXLT theatre writing on-line isn't much more extensive.
Food for thought, indeed!
The Shift by Twin Alchemy Collective featuring Sean Francis Moran, Tim Mateer, Mary Catherine Rochford, Christopher Alvarenga, Heidi Penix, Tal Leeds, and Katie Green runs October 7 through 16, 2016 at the Off Shoot. A maximum of 30 can be accommodated. Reservations are required.
October 07 - October 16, 2016
2121-A Hidalgo Street (eastern section)
Austin, TX, 78702
Fri-Sun, Oct 7-9 and 14-16, 2016 @ 8 pm
TICKETS: sliding scale of $12 students, $17 general admission, $22 supporters, plus service fee