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.
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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.”
So who is this guy?
Marks warms up his introductory class with memory games and warns, “I’m very competitive. I want to win at everything.” Yet he doesn’t take part in skits, preferring to observe and comment, or perform onstage. Says Woods, “Paul doesn’t have an ego when it comes to teaching. He does not need to be the center of attention.”
He came to North Carolina from the Boston suburbs at 12, when his mother started a nursery school in Charlotte. And for a while, Marks followed a conventional path: graduation from Myers Park High School in 1983, a political science degree from the UNC Chapel Hill in 1987, a few years of work at a bank.
The 1990s were a good decade: He wed Kelly, with whom he now has 10-year-old daughter Madison, and he failed as a stand-up comedian. Well, they did: He says Kelly and he are “a team, 24-7,” so she was part of that amateur night stumble.
“I never wanted to memorize lines,” says Marks. But he’d enjoyed emceeing shows in Chapel Hill, and he came across improv principles that acting teacher Viola Spolin laid down more than half a century ago. (Her son, Paul Sills, used them to create the troupe that led to Second City.)
And thus a second career was born.
He likes teaching adept performers to roll with the “get,” the audience suggestion that sets up the scene. Even more, he enjoys helping quiet or insecure folks find their tongues in his classes: “Some are never going to make the acting team; they just come to be stimulated,” he says. “One man has taken class over and over, because he likes being there Sunday nights.”
The hard parts of his job
Some things never get easy, of course. Audiences lean toward naughty “gets,” and Marks wants to keep his show at a PG-13 level. “Sex,” he says, “is sort of a default for comedy; you can always go to it. But my rule is, ‘Be clever, not crass.’ ”
And like any coach, he sometimes has to cut players who give their best: “Someone may be good at ad-libbing, but the team has grown beyond them. Perhaps they’re not good with object work (basically, mimed movement), and that can be 40 percent of the stage effect. I’ve had people cry when I dropped them, because it’s like asking them to leave a family.”
Fort Mill’s Joel Burns, a senior financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, has been part of that family almost since the start. He jokes that “People who do improvisational comedy desperately seek the approval of others. (Maybe) they confuse attention with validation. I have that horrific character flaw, as do all the friends I’ve made in this group. That’s why we take it so hard when something we do ends up bombing!”
Yet he knows improv’s deeper value.
“In a lot of cases, you don’t try something new because of fear of failure. Improv helps you get over that fear and handle the surprises that are always going to come up. Let’s say I’m doing a seminar, and someone spills a soda. That would be distracting, but I’m not flustered. (I) can turn that moment into a strength. I was doing improv first because it was fun, but ultimately, it has helped me.”