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Treading the Boardroom

Fratelli Bologna
My Bologna: The Fratelli Bologna troupers find themselves so busy with corporate work, they barely have time to perform regular shows.

They're not Macbeth, but corporate gigs provide actors with much-needed work

By Kerry Reid

When I first made the decision to attend theater school in Chicago, more years ago than I'll readily admit, I had to get a physical from the family doctor in order to stay in a downtown dorm. (Fear of bubonic plague? Smallpox? Who knows?) The doctor made blustery chitchat, then asked me what I planned as a major. "Theater," I said unflinchingly.

"Theater?" Doc responded unbelievingly. "What are you going to do with THAT?" (I thought about saying, but didn't, "Gee, Doc, I don't know. Hopefully NOT spend the rest of my life with my fingers up other people's orifices.")

Countless actors and would-be actors have suffered through some version of this conversation. But a few have found a a terrific answer to the naysayers and eternal pragmatists, as well as a decent way to make a living. What are they "doing" with their years of experience? They're teaching corporations and the people who run them how to be better at their jobs by using those same theater skills sneered upon as inherently "impractical" by generations of guidance counselors in sensible shoes.

For the well-loved Bay Area improvisation and commedia dell'arte troupe known as Fratelli Bologna, corporate trainings and performances at trade shows now make up a big percentage of the work they do--so much so that their recent run at the Bayfront Theater marked a welcome and long-overdue return to performing for general audiences. Famous for creating The Weber Family Christmas, as well as many other shows, starting in the 1980s, the Bolognas began by performing commedia (the traditional European theater form which uses stock characters and situations to create improvisational works) at the Renaissance Faire in Novato in 1979. Their big breakthrough--and their roundabout introduction to corporate acting--came when they were collectively cast as the overbearing press corps in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. Says Bologna member Richard Dupell, "When they opened The Right Stuff in 1983, they decided to hire us to act as the press corps at the San Francisco premiere of the film. And it became kind of the tony thing to do for parties for wealthy folk--to hire us to entertain as the press corps. We started doing party work, and party planners saw us, and that really led us into the world of corporate entertainment."

Now the Bolognas, who nowadays consist of Dupell, William Hall and John X. Heart, perform at six to 12 trade shows per year, individually and in teams, and conduct numerous--and humorous--corporate trainings for such clients as Disney, IBM, Hitachi, Apple and hundreds more. For a trade show alone, their individual income can average $1,000 per day. And like many other actors in the Bay Area, Dupell, Hall and Heart still go after work in television and film. Hall was the lone Bay Area actor (not counting Robin Williams, of course) to score a speaking role in the recent film Father's Day. Considering the dearth of paying theatrical and film work in the Bay Area, it's small wonder that actors such as the Bolognas, who are used to working improvisationally and with high energy, would turn that energy into forming their own business as creativity consultants. To put it into perspective, Dupell notes that "when we look at the amount of money we've lost doing theater, and we look at the amount of grant money that we've received from the city, they're about a wash."

The Bolognas are not alone in this field. Dick Butterfield, an A.C.T. alumnus and instructor, has also combined an active theater career (he recently completed a five-month stint as understudy in Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Theatre on the Square) with presentation coaching for executives and other business professionals. Through his own business, Butterfield Speaks, he has worked for such organizations as Kaiser Permanente and a number of venture capital firms. Says Butterfield: "I was approached by a group called Courtroom Drama (now defunct) about 10 years ago. And they wanted to do training with trial lawyers. That was my wake-up call, because my work with these people made me realize that the skills I had learned as an actor--from voice, to gesture and physical life, to storytelling and communication skills--were all directly applicable to all sorts of business. Over the course of the last decade, I have really tried to distill a curriculum of valuable information which people who need to stand up in front of groups and speak can use."

Do the corporate folks participating in these trainings and coaching sessions end up with a fresh appreciation of the benefits of theater training? Yes and no. Says Hall of the Bolognas, with an understandable degree of heat in his voice: "I can't tell you how many times we have been entertaining, and been extremely well paid to entertain, and someone says, 'What, are you students? What's your real job?' And you just want to go, 'Excuse me, this is my job. The people planning this party think it's valuable enough for you to have a good time that they hired professionals to come here.' "

Both Butterfield and the Bolognas mention the benefits they reap in continuing their education on unexpected paths--doing research, as any good actor should, when encountering unfamiliar material. However, there are limits to the kinds of commercial gigs actors want to take. "A friend of mine got a call from his agent and was offered the opportunity to be a pallbearer in Colma," Dupell recalls. "They were looking for actors to carry a coffin. That was insult to injury, to have your agent call you and say 'I want 10 percent of your pallbearer fee.' "

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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