Terry Knickerbocker on Unlabeled Leadership Podcast

Tune in at PART 3

Gary DePaul (Host): (18:35)
Part three, Terry, Nickerbocker innovates during the pandemic, during the pandemic, several organizations had to come up with some creative and innovative ways to meet performance needs at a financial Institute. One of the vice presidents in the technology department explained to me how their people had to come up with a way to enable their workers to work remotely. And they did it in a short period of time. Well, that’s not the only innovation that went on in this story. Terry explains how he and others found innovative ways to teach their students. Here’s Terry to explain.

Terry Knickerbocker: (19:18)
And this goes back to March of 2020 when the pandemic was coming upon us. And honestly, as an acting teacher who runs his own business, I was convinced that we were gonna have to go out of business. I knew that NYU, where I used to teach was charging all their professors in all departments to move online for. It’s hard to believe this now, but for like three weeks, that was the idea. There would be three weeks and then we’d be back to normal. I got scared, terrified, and angry because I was there. Like, there’s no way you can teach act movement, voice. These are embodied practices online. You could teach poetry, you could teach a history lecture, but how you gonna teach the things that happen between bodies in a story, how you gonna do a kiss or an embrace or a shove? I honestly thought, I mean, I got into some very catastrophic thinking and started to think, well, I’m gonna have to go outta business as a business.

Terry Knickerbocker: (20:16)
I bootstrapped. I’m gonna have to sell my house and we’re gonna have to, I don’t know what you know, I have a seven year old son and a wife. I don’t know what we’re gonna do. It really, really rocked me on Thursday. The 11th of March, I had, for some reason, decided to walk down to NYU in Greenwich village, where used to teach in this mood, wanting to see my old boss. Who’s a woman, a very wise acting teacher named Rosemary Quinn, just to see what, what are you doing about this? And nobody was there. Then normally it would be bustling, but everyone had cleared out. Parents had said, kids come on home. None of the staff was there, but Rosemary was there in her office and she was jolly. And we did an elbow bump, which was like one of the first times I’d done that.

Terry Knickerbocker: (21:00)
You know, all these things that were sort of used to now, and she was so jolly. And I said, Rosemary, I’m really worried. What’s gonna happen. She, well, look, NYU said, either do this or you’re fired. So that’s it. And one of her teachers said, well, fire me, cuz I’m not gonna do it. And the rest said, we’ll figure it out. And she said, who better than us to figure this out? Because improvisation is at the heart and soul of what we teach, you know, which is another way of saying pivot it’s improvisation. Being able to sort of take a left or a right turn based on how things unfold, not having a script. And so somehow that without knowing how it was gonna happen, lifted my mood and gave me a little bit of hope that Saturday I’m a member of this, uh, wonderful sort of elite organization of acting teachers called the national Alliance of acting teachers.

Terry Knickerbocker: (21:49)
And we had our first zoom crisis meeting and there were like 70 acting teachers from across the country from Wisconsin and Wyoming and California and Connecticut and New York and et cetera, like the cream of the crop were all just going, like, what are we gonna do? How are we gonna do this? We didn’t have a map. And these two acting teachers were having a conversation on this zoom call with 70 people. And this one, his name’s Peter J. Fernandez. He’s a, a wonderful teacher at Columbia university. He was feeling like I was feeling, he was kind of angry and was saying, there’s no way you can teach the fullness of what we teach online. You can have some what we call tape work, where you have actors with scripts when they have to get up on their feet and start to put it into their bodies. There’s no way then there was this other woman, Cynthia, who’s in Ithaca college.

Terry Knickerbocker: (22:38)
And she’s saying on the call, but Peter, my husband and I he’s from Cameroon. We dated for two years on Skype. So much got transmitted between us, even in this weird video for format, it was meaningful and touching. And even the sense of touch, I would say, sweetheart, I wanna reach out and cares your cheek. And somehow that came through the screen and they went back and forth and we’re watching them start to have a really heated argument. And it got a little scary to have some colleagues really in the thick of it. And then sort of all of a sudden, collectively the penny he dropped and where they’re like, oh, they’re doing what we want our students to do. They’re having an embodied conflict, which is what acting’s all about is about embracing conflict. That’s what it plays about right in front of us, moment to moment it’s heated, it’s alive, it’s improvisational.

Terry Knickerbocker: (23:26)
In some ways it was delicious. It’s like, oh, that’s really cool. Then the third piece of this story was I was supposed to go on vacation that week. That was our spring break. Well, I canceled that because I was, we’re gonna go to Mexico. And I was frightened that we wouldn’t be able to get back into the country. There were some words, some stories about maybe some of the borders getting cross. So I stayed here and reached out to this very wise business advisor named Karen Rubino, who helped me a lot with the business aspects of my studio. I said, Karen, I want to do this, but I’m not sure what to do. And I had about a hundred students at the time. She said, I think people are gonna wanna online and they’re gonna wanna study for two reasons. One, they’re gonna wanna do something meaningful.

Terry Knickerbocker: (24:11)
This is a time when everything’s gonna get contracted and they’re gonna wanna do something that has meaning to them, which is why they’re training two. They’re gonna want to be in community. Everyone is isolated. Everyone’s in their own pod, in their own apartment, watching Netflix. And it’s very lonely. And it’s scary with those two ideas. She said, call every one of your students. Cuz our normal form of communication is email. Don’t email them, call them, have a conversation with all 100 and tell them what you’re doing and listen to them and see if they’ll buy in. So that was obviously a massive effort to call all a hundred people. But we used that week to get ready. We called everybody and everybody came back except one. And the one who didn’t come back was a mom who had three school aged kids. And she was going to acting class when they were in school. And without school cuz New York city schools closed. There was no way, but everyone else bought in. And we, we kind of started to figure out how to teach this work. That was a massive transformation in my thinking and in my staff’s thinking and in my students thinking thanks to the influences of that meeting with those actors, my meeting with Rosemary and my conversation with Karen.

Gary DePaul (Host): (25:22)
When you met with the students individually, how did those conversations affect you? And as far as your plans and in your thinking, did it validate, explain a little bit about what that experience was like?

Terry Knickerbocker: (25:38)
Sure. I mean there are, you know, the, the people who are taking class are between 20 and 30 plus years of age, it’s a bigger, wider demographic. They’re all kinds of people. What they share is this real passionate desire to be good actors, but they’re all different. And actors are very sensitive. So the conversations were very individual and all over the map, some people were like, yeah, I’m in, you’ll see me. Others were very angry, scared, doubtful. The common thing was we don’t know that this will work. And in fact I got some group emails. I have another teacher who also teaches for me. And so I got a, a group email from his students saying, we beg you not to do this instead. Let’s pause. And let’s come back in a couple weeks. You know, they had different ideas of how to organize it curricularly so that we could take some of the parts of the work that would normally be best in person and wait till we could be in person.

Terry Knickerbocker: (26:36)
Nobody knew that. I mean, I’m still teaching online. I’ll be going back in person, come September. But we couldn’t predict that. So I met with all those people on a zoom call and then I got another group email from many of my students with a similar sentiment. Like just, we don’t think this is a good idea. We trust you, but we don’t think this is gonna work. We ask you to think about it. We ask you to pause. And so I met with each of those on a group zoom call and then we came to March 20th or 22nd after that week off and everyone was nervous. I made space, you know, it’s a three and a half hour class, three hours of the first class of each of my sections. I had four different sections was just for people to talk and to talk about among other things where they were, cuz we normally meet person in Brooklyn, New York, and many of them had gone home.

Terry Knickerbocker: (27:26)
So I had people who are now in Minneapolis, in California and Virginia and Florida. Where are you? Are you feeling safe? How does it feel to be here? And it was a very nervous, scared, worried group and what I proposed to them. And I meant it because the tagline of my studio is very aspirational. It’s training, the passionate actor committed to excellence. And that means that that value of excellence is in the DNA of everything I do. So it’s not just that I want them to be excellent, but I Al it also calls on me to be excellent. My staff to be excellent, my space to be excellent. We’re always looking to see how we can do things as well as possible. And when we fall short to take inventory and see how we can improve. And so it felt hypocritical to say, well, I expect you to show up.

Terry Knickerbocker: (28:15)
If this is gonna be a less than excellent experience, I said, it’s gonna be a different experience. Class meant twice a week. I’d like you to give it a week. Let’s see how it goes this week. If it doesn’t feel excellent, we’ll pull the plug and we’ll come back when we can in person. And that’s not what I had been thinking the week before I was thinking like, okay, we’ll be back, but given their doubts. And even some of my doubts, I thought we had to see after three hours of conversation in each of these classes, I gently steered it towards doing a little basic work, which is something we call the repetition exercise. And it’s just two people on screen. Normally they’d be in person facing each other. It starts with listening and being just present in the moment. One person might say to the other, I like your hair today.

Terry Knickerbocker: (29:03)
And the other person will repeat you like my hair. And that kind of goes back and forth like ping pong. And it starts to develop a kind of improvisational listening and responding experience that sort of tunes you into yourself, into the other person. And it was profound what was happening on zoom. And in fact there were some unexpected advantages for instance, in a classroom I’m off to one side and there are 20 people there. So the people on the other side are gonna see the back of my head when I’m facing the classroom where the work is and they’ll be far away, but on zoom, everybody’s got a good seat and everybody could see me and I could see some details in these exercises. I have a big screen computer. So I had the zoom screen as big as it could be. And I was seeing details in their faces and their expression that I wouldn’t be able to see when they were in class 10 or 15 feet away from me.

Terry Knickerbocker: (29:52)
And something sort of clicked that week. And we went on and then we graduated. We had a virtual, you know, everyone’s there like when will we back be back in person? And we’re like, we’ll be back when it’s safe to be back. So we finished the year for those first and second years in may, June, July of last year, we did a completely online summer session and had 80 students for that. And that was an extraordinary experience. Most of those people I’ve never met, but it also opened up, uh, some borders like I had, but from Canada and Israel and Australia taking class at all kinds of crazy times of the day and night, because they wanted to train and they’d rather train and do something meaningful as Karen suggested than sit at home and watch Netflix.

Gary DePaul (Host): (30:34)
One of the things in a previous episode that Patrick Ward said is that when the pandemic started for him, he had a daily meeting for, I don’t know, maybe about 30 minutes or something like that. They talked about the situation, how they were feeling, what they were experiencing afterwards, when it came time for performance reviews, the feedback was that saved me. Hmm. That made all the difference in the world. So I wonder when you had those individual meetings, when you had the three hour session and talked about this and allowed, you know, people were able to share and express themselves, how much of an impact did, did that have compared to, if you had just started and say, okay, we’re gonna begin teaching and we’re gonna do the repetition exercise.

Terry Knickerbocker: (31:20)
I would’ve lost them. They wouldn’t have been there. Uh, my intuition said that I needed to make space for everyone to be there. And in fact it changed the way I teach for this time because nor, you know, I always do attendance in the beginning. Attendance now takes about half an hour because it’s really a check-in and it’s really a warm up for me to get the temperature of the, and see where everyone’s at. And you would notice strange things. You’d notice, oh, they’re in a different environment or, oh, there’s their dog or you’d say, oh Sally, did you, uh, it doesn’t look like your room. Oh no, I’m at my, my dad’s house in Florida. Oh, it really became very important for me to hold them and invite them into the space of work because acting is about brave free play. You know, we like to call it a safe space or even a brave space. And there’s no way if you’re worried about something or don’t feel, or in a kind of a trauma state, you’re not gonna be able to act. So it really called for a little bit more cajoling and, and connecting on my part to settle them.

Gary DePaul (Host): (32:31)
My thanks to my guests. If you like to learn more about them, go to the show notes. And if you have a question or comment, go to unle, the leadership.com, click the message icon, and you can leave a voicemail or up to one minute. I like to thank those who contribute to the show. Your contributions makes a difference because this is an all volunteer service. I like to thank you for listening. This is Gary DePaul until next time lead on.