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HR in the Car - Episode 25: "Take Your Circus Bow"

  • From teaching English as a Second Language, to living the theater/performer life, all the way to running her own successful pair of businesses in the heart of Schenectady. Kat Koppett joins HR in the Car to tell us about the history of their building (hint – it includes fire poles), and how we can all learn a lesson from the Circus Bow (celebrating failure) in work and home life.

    About Kat

    Kat Koppett  is the Eponymous Founder of Koppett, a consultancy specializing in the use of improv and storytelling techniques to enhance individual and group performance. She is the author of Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning, and a contributor to The Applied Improvisation Mindset ed. Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure. She has worked with diverse clients including Meta, Apple, Prezi, PwC, NASA, SUNY, the Workforce Development Institute, NYSID and the Clinton Global Initiative. 

    In 2019 was the winner of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA)’s Ifill-Raynolds Lifetime Achievement Award. She is the co-director and a performing member of the Mopco Improv Theatre, a founding member and the current vice-president of the Applied Improvisation Network, and the co-host of the podcast Performance Shift: The Art of Successfully Navigating Change.

    Kat Koppett
    Founder, Koppett

  • Speaker 1: Welcome to HR in the car with Miriam Dushane and Tom Schin of Alaant Workforce Solutions, where exciting HR professionals and business leaders share laughter, insider stories, and maybe even a few tears about HR in today's world. Buckle up for the best half hour of your week.

    Tom Schin: I am so excited we got this next guest onto our queue before the end of the first season.

    Miriam Dushane: I am too. I just recently did a program with her and it was very eye-opening and lots of aha moments about leadership and tying improv into it. So I'm super excited that we have her joining us.

    Tom Schin: Yeah. And I've always been really curious about how she got her start. So we're going to listen in and have that conversation with Kat Koppett, who owns Koppett Eponymous and MOPCO over in Schenectady. So we're so excited to welcome Kat Koppett to the show this week. Thanks for joining us today, Kat.

    Kat Koppett: I'm so excited to be here.

    Miriam Dushane: So Kat, tell us first a little bit about who you are and your organization.

    Kat Koppett: So we have two parts of our organization and I will tell you who I am in relation to those parts of the organization.

    Miriam Dushane: Perfect.

    Kat Koppett: How about that? So MOPCO is first and foremost an improvisational theater company in Schenectady, New York. My partner and partner, Michael Burns, bought an old 100-year-old firehouse by way of illicit strip club-

    Tom Schin: I'm jotting down notes.

    Kat Koppett: They got a lot of press recently because it was featured on the Jerry Springer show and he just recently passed away, the Daily Gazette and all sorts of other papers just had pictures of the old MOPCO when it was an illicit strip club. So we bought it, we refurbished it, and it is now a full-time working improv theater, doing shows on Friday and Saturday nights and all sorts of classes and other kinds of events. The other part of the business is called Koppett. So I am the Eponymous founder of Koppett, which is a word I like to use that I thought was just playful. But now I use it because people find it obnoxious because they don't know what it means, it just means it's named after me. Which is a organizational development consulting and training organization that uses improv and theater and storytelling techniques to help people expand their performance awareness and range in whatever scenes they find themselves in that are sort of non performatory, formal performatory settings. And the idea there is really just that human beings are improvising all the time.

    Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. So what's interesting is I had an opportunity to go through a mini session with a networking group that I'm part of, and when I came back from that, I implemented 'Yes, and'. And Tom says to me, "Where you just at MOPCO? Did you do something with MOPCO?" Because he knew what I was doing. And I was like, "yes, I did". And some people in my office find it obnoxious. But I love that even more because I am a yes and person. I've always been a yes and person. So it was just hilarious that I didn't tell anybody where I got it from. And then he was like, you've been at MOPCO?

    Tom Schin: I knew. I knew.

    Miriam Dushane: He knew.

    Tom Schin: Well, if you've ever read Tina Faye's Bossy Pants, she talks about her whole second city improv in Chicago and the whole 'Yes and' kind of discussion where it goes right, where it goes awry. And then I'd become aware of MOPCO, geez five, six years before the pandemic I want to say, because I was on a different board group and they paid for a group of performers to come down to West Point to perform as kind of an opening night thing.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, I remember that.

    Tom Schin: And it was really interesting. I'm like, "you guys are from Schenectady". They're like, "yeah." And then you would do performances at Proctors, I think at that point.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah.

    Tom Schin: Way back. It was the Mopping Bucket Company is how they label it then.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Tom Schin: Instead of just MOPCO. So yeah, so fascinating to kind of see here we are 2023 as we look at not dating ourselves.

    Kat Koppett: I know it.

    Tom Schin: But it's fascinating to see how far you've come.

    Kat Koppett: So just a couple of things to pull on there. So the Mop and Bucket company is our flagship troop of improvisers.

    Miriam Dushane: Oh, okay.

    Kat Koppett: That headline at the MOPCO. And they are the original company that Michael founded. We missed the 25th anniversary in the middle of that company in the middle of Covid. So I think we're probably coming up on 30 years ago that he founded the company. They started in Saratoga. We were in Albany for a while, and then yes, in residence at Proctors. So that's the Mop and Bucket Company, and that's where MOPCO comes from. The other thread to pull on there is this principle of 'Yes and' which has become sort of probably the most famous principle of improv, jargon from improv that gets applied and known out in the world, gets made fun of on shows like The Office and other things. It's a very useful concept both on stage and off in terms of saying, I can get good at seeing what exists, at recognizing offers, that's improv jargon, and then building with it with them. Because that's all you can do in improv, that's all you have is the offers that your partner makes. It can also be terribly abused and bastardized and misunderstood.

    Miriam Dushane: Yeah, I might have done that

    Tom Schin: Or will yet.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Miriam Dushane: Oh, true, true. Good point.

    Kat Koppett: It's a beloved and also-

    Tom Schin: Probably Hated.

    Kat Koppett: Hated yes, yes. Problem child of the improv world.

    Tom Schin: So how did you start, obviously the OD piece of it, the Koppett Eponymous piece, where did that start? How did that come to fruition?

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, so I was a classically trained actor in New York City and coming out of Conservatory, I had been told by a lot of my teachers that I should think less. They were saying... Which is not helpful, that's the right response, terribly unhelpful. But it was a time in the 80's when there was a real sort of deep actor studio, method acting-

    Miriam Dushane: Oh yeah.

    Kat Koppett: ... Sort of strain in the US theater especially. And what I think they were trying to say when they said things like, you're too smart to be an actor, was that I was stuck in my head a lot. That my rational sensor brain was too strong. But they didn't know how to teach me how to be more spontaneous and how to access and trust my impulses.
    And improv was a very separate world from classically trained theater. But I got lucky. And an improviser came to do a masterclass with a repertory theater company that I was part of in New York City called Manhattan Stage Company, whose claim to fame now years later, is that Aaron Sorkin was a member of that company.

    Tom Schin: Wow.

    Kat Koppett: He was an actor and writer with that company. Writer of West Wing, among other things people may know. Anyway, he hated the improv class because of course he was way beyond that. The last thing he wanted to do was co-create with other people, but I loved it. And Terry Summer, that teacher, sort of brought me into improv. And so I started to improvise, not because I liked comedy, not because I thought I was funny, but because it helped me access this way of being present with myself and connecting with other people and collaborating, and also having a sense of community and connection, which is really what I liked about the theater in the first place.
    Meanwhile, thought maybe this would be the short version but it's not. Meanwhile, my day job, I was teaching English as a second language to Russian refugees, Soviet refugees, and I became a trainer of trainers in that program and a supervisor. So I had a little bit of training experience. I started getting mentored by someone there in that work, training and supervision. And so I had people in my improv classes as I started to teach for the improv company who started to say, 'I really wish my boss knew this 'yes and' principle', or 'I wish my team at work could collaborate and support each other and co-create the way my improv troop the way we're doing it here in class'. And 'could you come and teach? Would you guys do some improv work for us in business?' Now everybody's doing it, right? West Point's doing it for goodness sake.

    Miriam Dushane: Yeah.

    Kat Koppett: But then it was a very weird, strange-

    Miriam Dushane: Context.

    Kat Koppett: ... Idea. I was tagged to do it because I had this teaching experience over here in terms of teaching ESL, and I was like, "okay, I'm a starving actor". Businesses have money-

    Tom Schin: Got to eat.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, right. Got to eat. And I did it for a while, but then very quickly I said, "I don't want to be sailing oil". I want to make sure this is legitimate. So I went back and got a master's in organizational psychology, Columbia.

    Tom Schin: Oh okay.

    Kat Koppett: And when I was doing that, there was one module of one course on organizational development that was around creativity, just one. And the moral of that story was creativity is an individual sport. There's no such thing as group creativity. It was very backwards. And it became very clear to me very quickly that of course there was value in what we were doing, that people were starving for what people in the theater and improv were taking for granted, and that there was really something here that we had to share. So I graduated there. I went back to San Francisco and joined some folks in San Francisco who were starting this burgeoning field that eventually became called Applied Improvisation, that wasn't the name at the time. Way earlier than I should have given experience and knowledge, I wrote a book about it that got me some traction and that was it.

    Miriam Dushane: So how did you end up in Schenectady?

    Kat Koppett: I married a guy.

    Miriam Dushane: Oh.

    Tom Schin: His fault.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, I married a guy.

    Miriam Dushane: I say the same thing.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: How'd you end up in Albany? A guy.

    Tom Schin: Oh that's a funny story. When I graduated from UAlbany, I had an offer at Berkeley, but I met a girl. It's all her fault, had kids.

    Kat Koppett: Girls, and boys.

    Miriam Dushane: It worked out okay.

    Tom Schin: Yeah.

    Kat Koppett: I ditched the guy and then I married a different guy who was Michael, who had Mop and Bucket. So I came with some ideas and some improv stuff. And then there was this already planted wonderful treatment.

    Tom Schin: I jokingly say practice spouse.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: Yes.

    Tom Schin: People laugh at me over it.

    Miriam Dushane: He does.

    Tom Schin: First draft. Right?

    Miriam Dushane: Well, I can say that the guy that made me do a lot of changing life decisions is still the guy today.

    Kat Koppett: Aw.

    Miriam Dushane: Very lucky about that.

    Kat Koppett: I will say that the first husband who brought me here, his name's Matt, you can actually give him a name. We co-created a daughter, which is probably why I stayed here. And we have pretty successfully co-parented her. She's amazing, she's just finished her sophomore year in college. And he's also been a great influence in terms of the organizational development side of the business. He's an expert in leadership and motivational theory and works with a wonderful guy that you both may know named Thiagi. Is that a name that means anything to you?

    Tom Schin: No.

    Miriam Dushane: No.

    Kat Koppett: Sivasailam Thiagarajan is a great guru.

    Miriam Dushane: I would definitely remember if I knew that name.

    Kat Koppett: I will say it again. Sivasailam Thiagarajan or Thiagi for short, is a great guru in the area of interactive strategies for learning and games for learning. And even if you don't know his name, I'm sure you've played some of his games in training sessions you've been in.

    Miriam Dushane: Interesting.

    Tom Schin: That's one we'll definitely have in the show notes.

    Miriam Dushane: Yes. Absolutely.

    Tom Schin: Just in terms of spelling at the very least.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Miriam Dushane: At a minimum. Yeah. We're going to need you to write that down for us.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Tom Schin: So at what point did you and Michael, or you decide to take the resident theater program over at Proctors and bring it into your own space?

    Kat Koppett: We realized that to really grow the company and be able to do what we needed to do, we needed to have control over our own space. Proctors was incredibly supportive of us when we were young and looking for a place to be. They gave us free rehearsal space. We were in various performance spaces there, and they didn't charge us for that. I think they took a cut of-

    Tom Schin: Tickets, right.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah.

    Tom Schin: Yep.

    Kat Koppett: So they're incredibly supportive as we were growing as a company. But at some point, if we wanted to be teaching classes and develop secondary companies as our students developed, and do more than one show a week, we needed to have a space of our own.

    Miriam Dushane: So you went out and found a strip club.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah. So we found a strip club-

    Miriam Dushane: Natural progression.

    Kat Koppett: Well, our financial advisor said, "well, you can have a retirement or you can buy a theater".

    Miriam Dushane: You can buy a strip club. Sorry I-

    Tom Schin: She's going to stay in the strip club, not the firehouse, the strip club.

    Kat Koppett: I've learned a lot about firehouses and strip clubs, and the most important thing is that a stripper pole and a fire pole are two very different things.

    Miriam Dushane: Yes, they are.

    Kat Koppett: I would think that a pole is a pole.

    Tom Schin: I am not aware of this, so I'm a little shocked for both of you.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: I'm high fiving her right now in the air.

    Tom Schin: Really?

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Tom Schin: That's too funny.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah. So we bought our own space so that we could, because the goal really was not just to perform shows, but to create community. The core principles of improv around making your partner look good, around taking risks and celebrating failure so that you can grow and learn and create. Those are all things that are important. And they've become values, and they're not just about putting on a show on stage.

    Miriam Dushane: Exactly.

    Kat Koppett: Which is why we can apply them in business, but also why we have self-advocacy classes for developmentally disabled communities. Why people come to us who never, ever want to get on a stage, but say, I might have social anxiety, or I just want to meet people, or there's a third space where I can find community to hang out with.

    Tom Schin: I'm having these thought bubbles go off in my head, what it must be like at home for you. Would you take out the garbage, Michael? Yes. And would you go clean the toilet? Yes. And-

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, it's exactly like that.

    Tom Schin: ... And on and on.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, it's exactly like that. Oh, it's exactly like that. We never have any-

    Miriam Dushane: Yeah. I wish that would work in my house.

    Kat Koppett: ... Any conflict. Yeah. No, it's amazing how much you cannot practice what you preach.

    Miriam Dushane: Well, you know what's so apparent and completely obvious here, like Captain obvious duh, is these principles are the same principles that are just used over and over again. Like you said, in business, in theater, in our lives, in interpersonal communication, in school, whatever it is.

    Tom Schin: Volunteerism even.

    Miriam Dushane: But people don't think of it that way.

    Kat Koppett: Right.

    Miriam Dushane: And it's like, keep it simple, stupid. That's really what's going on here. It's not any different then, because even when I went through the mini session with you, I was fascinated by the aha moments I had. Because I went with an open mind, I didn't know what to expect, I wanted to check it out. We schedule these great outings and they always are great, but I didn't know what to expect. And then I walked away going, 'huh, wow. That was really good.'

    Tom Schin: I'm going to try this at work and pull a fast one on people.

    Miriam Dushane: So it really is, and again, that's a whole purpose of this podcast, is to show not just HR professionals, but business professionals and other people in the community, how we're all intertwined and how we all can help each other and what you are doing can help this business and what this business is doing can help that community organization and so on and so forth.

    Tom Schin: Yeah. And just in this conversation, I'm jotting notes because I had two people reach out to me this week about finding somebody to help them with difficult conversation kind of topics. I'm like, "Oh, duh. This is perfect".

    Kat Koppett: Exactly. Absolutely.

    Tom Schin: So we'll talk about that offline.

    Kat Koppett: Perfect. Well, I love what you just said about it being obvious, and I think what's great about improv and my clients have really brought me into believing in what we do. As I say, I'm sort of pulled into it and I was like, is this real? What's especially useful about it is that it's exercising the muscles. So we talk about these things all the time, but one of the ways we say it sometimes is improv is the gym for the muscles of skills that we know are important, but how do we build them? So everyone says listening is so important, or executive presence or collaboration or creative thinking, creative problem solving. That's great. Okay. We want those things. We can talk about those things or give presentations about them, read books on them, but how do you actually exercise those muscles? And what improvisers have figured out how to do is that, how do I do reps? How do I get better at practicing that? And so I think you had some of those ahas probably that you had, not because you hadn't heard anything that I'd said before-

    Miriam Dushane: Right.

    Kat Koppett: But because you were doing, it was an active way of engaging and feeling a difference. Like lifting a weight, as opposed to just getting a tour of the gym.

    Miriam Dushane: Yeah.

    Tom Schin: It's so true. You go to a workshop, you're drawn away from all the emails and the phone calls and the texts and everything else because you've put all those things away and your brain has time to process all, they're like, 'oh, I could do this'. 'Oh, I can apply that'. So yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: Absolutely. Well Kat, thank you so much for coming today because I want the world to know more about this organization and check it out, because I think there's so many different ways that businesses could take advantage of your wisdom and expertise in the things that you do. So thank you so much for joining us. But in wrapping up today, we love to ask our guests what is in their roadside assistance kit. In keeping with the HR and the car theme. So when I ask you that, what immediately comes to mind as your go-to roadside assistance kit tool that you must have?

    Kat Koppett: Well, there's always the literal cell phone answer. But I think that since we're talking about improv, I want to give you a metaphoric answer, which is something that you experienced with us I think, which is called the Circus Bow. The circus bow is the fundamental improv activity that we do to celebrate failure, which is something that I mentioned before, which is not that yay, in real life we want to fail. Everybody wants to succeed. But when something goes wrong, like you have a fender bender, for example. You haven't gotten to your destination, rather than getting freaked out or making it worse because you're going to panic and then run out into the road and get hit by the next car. Or-

    Miriam Dushane: It's very drastic, right?

    Tom Schin: Cause another accident.

    Kat Koppett: Cause another accident because now you're driving panicked. You have to be able to sort of let that go. And so we do what a circus performer would do if they slip off the trapeze and fall into the net, which is just put our hands over our head and we say, "Woohoo". And we let it go. We know that the audience will applaud for us. Like "look at that. I made it through the accident and I didn't die, yay!" and we give ourselves a little internal cheer, at our office we do it actually, literally, we'll go, woo-hoo!

    Miriam Dushane: Yes.

    Kat Koppett: ... Everybody will cheer and applaud for us, and it allows us to move forward. Maybe we learn from the mistake, maybe we don't, but we're able to know that the next time we can get into the car, recognizing that we can take the risk to drive down the road, and if something goes wrong, we'll be okay.

    Tom Schin: The circus bow.

    Miriam Dushane: I love that. I have to tell you a very quick story about that. I do that all the time when I trip.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Miriam Dushane: So I wear heels.

    Tom Schin: She's klutz.

    Miriam Dushane: Everyone knows I wear heels. I'm a little bit of a klutz. I actually am afraid to go downstairs in heels because I'm like terrified I'm going to fall because it's very possible. And one of these days I'm getting on an age, I'm going to break a hip or something. But what I do when I trip or I stumble, or do whatever, I always do that 'ta-da'.

    Kat Koppett: Yes.

    Miriam Dushane: Like I'm meant to do it. And then I keep going on with my day. Even if no one's looking, I do that. So I was already doing the Woohoo-

    Kat Koppett: I love it.

    Miriam Dushane: ... Circus bow.

    Tom Schin: Yeah, she did that. We went to an event down at the Altamont Fairgrounds in the fall, over-

    Miriam Dushane: Totally did.

    Tom Schin: ... Halloween. She hits a pothole. It's basically all these pumpkin setups, and they're all just-

    Miriam Dushane: Oh my God. I took a digger on that one.

    Tom Schin: She hit a pothole and she just tumbled through and she was laughing, hysterical. Her sister's with us, and she's like, "oh my God, are you okay?"-

    Miriam Dushane: Freaking out.

    Tom Schin: And she's just in tears laughing.

    Miriam Dushane: I'm talking, it was a Tumblr. It wasn't just a fall, it was a tumble-

    Tom Schin: A roll.

    Miriam Dushane: ... Roll.

    Kat Koppett: Oh no.

    Miriam Dushane: It was like it like stop, drop and roll. And I stopped, dropped and rolled, and then just laid there laughing. And my sister was panicked because she thought I broke something.

    Kat Koppett: Yeah, yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: I'm like, I'm fine. I just need a minute. And then these other ladies, and this is in the dark.

    Kat Koppett: Oh, no.

    Miriam Dushane: Okay. That's part of the reason why I didn't see what was happening. But these other ladies go, "well, that just made my night".

    Kat Koppett: Right.

    Miriam Dushane: It did, it really did.

    Kat Koppett: And so much better than if you'd been like, oh no. Now I have to be humiliated and embarrassed-

    Miriam Dushane: Exactly.

    Kat Koppett: ... And spend the whole night apologizing-

    Tom Schin: I saw thing, it was great.

    Kat Koppett: ... And ruin it.

    Miriam Dushane: Yep. Absolutely.

    Tom Schin: Yep.

    Miriam Dushane: Thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure. And I can't wait to do a class with you. We are definitely going to do something in the near future.

    Kat Koppett: Anytime. Drop in classes every Monday night, just come on by. No commitment necessary.

    Tom Schin: Or your wife can buy you tickets to go to this for your birthday. And you found out about it beforehand.

    Miriam Dushane: Hint, hint.

    Kat Koppett: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure.

    Tom Schin: Thanks Kat.

    Miriam Dushane: Thanks.

    Tom Schin: My favorite line out of that whole conversation was that improv is the gym.

    Miriam Dushane: Yes. The way to exercise the muscle of all of, essentially those soft skills.

    Tom Schin: Right. We never give ourselves much less employees, for you employers out there, that chance to practice the things. We always say, 'go do this. If you make a mistake, that's okay'. Da, da, da, da, da. But we don't really give them chances to practice that old role play methodology.

    Miriam Dushane: Which actually a lot of people are afraid of doing because it puts them out of their comfort zone, and they just have to take a different mindset about it-

    Tom Schin: Yeah.

    Miriam Dushane: ... I think.

    Tom Schin: I think she brought some great insights. I love the circus bow.

    Miriam Dushane: I was just about to say, I mean, I'm already an eternal circus bower, so I was super happy about that. And I think more people should embrace the circus bow.

    Tom Schin: You should do that for your license plate.

    Miriam Dushane: Circus bow? I don't want to copy anybody.

    Tom Schin: Especially if you had a banged up beater.

    Miriam Dushane: Yeah, right. Oh, then that definitely would be a circus bow.

    Tom Schin: Well, for more information about our conversation with Kat Koppett, come to Look at the show notes because there's a lot of information she shared. But we look forward to seeing you on our next episode. Thanks for joining.