Improvisationally Speaking Podcast interview with Frank Abagnale, inspiration for the movie & musical, Catch Me If You Can

Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale

In this week’s Improvisationally Speaking podcast, we are joined by Frank Abagnale. His fascinating life was one of constant improvisation, and the inspiration for the movie Catch Me If You Can. To hear the podcast, visit our podcast page here. Or you can read the transcript below.

INTRO

 

Julian: So last month I attended a technical conference in Florida where the keynote speaker was Frank Abagnale. And it was kind of a trip because this is the man who was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo Dicaprio playing him, and Tom Hanks, and subsequently turned into a musical that was a Tony Award winning one. It ran on Broadway and then it ran around the country. His keynote was fascinating. It was basically him just talking about his life—from his early life as depicted in the movie and the musical—where he was known as the world’s most famous con man, up to when he joined the FBI catching people like the person he was when he was young. And I thought to myself, “What a perfect, perfect person to interview for Improvisationally Speaking! Who better knows improvisation than someone who, in real life, impersonated a doctor, a pilot, a professor? Nowadays Frank Abagnale is a lecturer for the FBI Academy and for the field offices of the FBI. He’s a faculty member at the National Advocacy Center. Through his company, Abagnale and Associates, he works with more than 14,000 financial institutions, and corporations, and law enforcement agencies around the world helping them to get the upper hand on fraud and fraudulent activities.

I’m really pleased to have Frank Abagnale on the program today!

From the Improv Alive! Studios in Seattle, Washington, I’m Julian Schrenzel and you are listening to Improvisationally Speaking.

 

INTERVIEW

 

Julian: Frank Agagnale, thank you and welcome to Improvisationally Speaking.

 

Frank: Good to be here. Thank you.

 

Julian: I remember hearing you talk about your experiences as a child and as a young person and you described what you did—the things that you did, that were not legal and the things that you did to…con, essentially…and you described them as unremarkable. And to illustrate, you point to a series of uncomplicated steps that you took in order to accomplish these things. But when I thought about it, what I think is that the public at large looks not at the difficulty or the complicatedness of the steps that you took, but more at your ability to execute those actions being the amazing thing that kind of stood out. And I wanted to ask you, Frank: why do you think you were able to execute the actions that you did more easily, it seems, than most anybody else?

 

Frank: Well, I truly believe, and I know I get these comments all the time, you know, that you’re a genius, you’re brilliant. I was just a child and I think that’s why I was so successful. I ran away from home, I found myself on the streets of New York, so it was “How am I going to survive?” And the only thing I had going for me is I looked a lot older than sixteen, but I think that most of it came from being an adolescent who had no fear of being caught, no thinking about consequences of what will happen when I get caught. I always believed that, had I been a little older, had I been twenty-one or twenty-five when I started to do these things, I wouldn’t have done half of them because I would have sat out there and thought to myself, “That’ll never work, they’ll never believe this…” I would have rationalized everything and never did it. For example, you know, when I stood out in front of a bank with a $500 check and I was going to go in and cash that check, I didn’t sit there and think to myself, “Okay now, here’s the plan…I’m gonna go in…if they say this, I’ll do this…if they do this, then I’ll do this…” I just went in and did it. It was just adlibbed and I think that was truly the adolescent in me. It kind of reminds me of when I’m on the interstate and a kid drives by me doing a hundred miles an hour and I think to myself: look at this crazy kid and then you realize when you were a kid, you did those things. You just didn’t have that fear and thought about all the consequences that go along with it. And I think that was the real key to my success. Yes, I was creative and yes, I was very much an opportunist and saw things other people didn’t see and took advantage of them, but I truly believe the key to it all was the fact that I was so young.

 

Julian: You know, even people like, for instance, myself—my brother and I have a relationship where we like to go out and—it’s part of my improvisational background—we go out and we do things that are kind of outlandish. They’re not detrimental to anybody. They’re certainly not illegal, but they’re things that regularly you probably wouldn’t do because they’re kind of silly. Like walk into a store and sing a song to the cashier, serenade the cashier, or do something crazy. But even with no stakes attached like that—nothing to gain, nothing to lose—that is something that almost nobody is really able to do because it’s just so hard, so I get what you’re saying, Frank, about that there was no big stakes attached to it and you were doing it to survive. But can you tell me, can you at all describe what is it, how were you able to remain focused and calm in these kind of situations where, you know, the time where you took the role, the job in the hospital as a leader, a team leader, at the hospital? How were you able to remain so calm and in a place where you could function in your head when you knew you were just so pulling the wool over people’s eyes?

 

Frank: I mean, it was interesting, I watched an interview with Leonardo Dicaprio where he was asked about me and he said, “You know, Frank Abagnale has to be one of the greatest actors that ever lived because this person was playing the part of several people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He always knew who he really was, but he got up in the morning and he started acting and he acted till he went to sleep, and then he got up and started acting again and I think a lot of that is true. And now, I was very much, you know, I saw things that, everything…people always say, you know, “I watched the movie, I thought, ‘Wow, how’d this guy do all these things?’ But then I read the book…” And they said, “You know when you read the book, you see how a lot of this stuff, you just kind of fell into, you didn’t premeditate it.” And I agree. If I’d premeditated it, none of it would have worked, so you know, I started cashing checks and it was very hard because I’d go in a bank and they’d say to me, “Well, you don’t have an account here…we don’t normally cash checks for people who don’t have an account…you can go over and speak to that man or woman behind the desk and see if they’ll okay it…” I’d have to go over and give them some kind of sad story and once in a while they said okay. Sometimes they said no. And then, all of a sudden I’m walking up the street in New York, I’m sixteen, I see this airline crew come out of the hotel and I thought to myself, “Wow! If I could get that pilot’s uniform, then I’d walk in the bank and I want to cash a check, I’m this pilot from out of town, I ran a little low on cash…” –of course, this is back before ATMs and debit cards—never dreaming of anything beyond that other than, “If I can get this uniform…” Then I happen to go by the PanAm building and I thought that would be a great airline to use, so, you know, I placed the phone call to PanAm. Right away, the first thing that came to my mind, I asked for somebody in purchasing, I gave them a story that I was a pilot with PanAm, been with the company seven years, I was on a trip to New York leaving later in the day, I had sent my uniform out the day before to be dry-cleaned, now the cleaner can’t find it, the hotel can’t find it. They asked me if I had a spare uniform. I said yes, back in San Francisco where I’m based and the next thing led to the guy saying, “Well, you’re going to have to get another uniform, you have to pay for it, you have to go down to this company.” Which was nothing more than social engineering at the time, but I didn’t think of social engineering, but that is what they would call it today. But I got all this information over the phone, so I went down, I got the uniform. I thought I would have to pay for it. I had the money to pay for it. But then the guy said, “Well, we don’t take cash. You have to bill it back to your uniform allowance, so just give me your employee number.” I saw how many boxes were on the IBM card, I filled in the boxes and I got the uniform. And it was like night and day. I mean, I walked in the bank, I walked up to the teller: Could I cash a check? I don’t have any cash. Absolutely. You don’t have your company ID? No problem at all. Didn’t have to speak to anybody. Didn’t have to worry about how much money. And I realized right then at sixteen years old the power of that uniform, that people were just seeing the uniform and they weren’t even paying attention to the check I was writing. And then, here I go out to the airport and I’m going to buy a flight on TWA, a ticket, and the ticket agent says to me, “Are you flying or riding?” I beg your pardon? “Are you paying for the ticket? Or are you riding the jump seat?” I said, “The jump seat?” “Yes.” I said, “Well, uh, no, I’ll do the jump seat.” And I didn’t even realize you could do that. Then the next thing you know I’m flying all over the world for free, riding in the jump seat of all these planes, I’m staying at these hotels where the crews stay, I’m billing it back to the airline…all those things.

When it came to the doctor, I had moved to Atlanta and I had moved in an apartment complex and it was a singles’ complex, and on the application it asked occupation and I didn’t want to write down airline pilot because it had all these questions about employer’s name, supervisor’s name, contacts, phone contacts, so I thought to myself: I need to come up with something different, so I just said I was a doctor. I didn’t even go into any detail and the woman said, “Oh wow, what kind of doctor?” You know, I’m young, I’m seventeen, eighteen, and I said, “Um, I’m a medical doctor.” “Oh, really? Well, what kind of doctor are you?” Then I thought: well, this is a singles’ complex, so obviously there’s no children here. So I said I’m a pediatrician. And then the next thing you know I move in as this pediatrician and I meet a real pediatrician and I started having conversations with him. We become little friends and he takes me up to this hospital and he introduces me to other doctors and people at the hospital, and then one day, he simply says to me, “One of the doctors had an emergency, he had to go back to the west coast, he had a death in his family…we were wondering if you could supervise a shift? It’s just supervision, no medical treatment, but if you could just take over this shift…” And I at first said, “There’s no way I could do that, I’m not licensed to practice medicine in Georgia, just California where I hold my residency…” “Oh, no, that’s no necessary, this is just an administrative position temporarily.” So then it was more of well, could I get away with this? You know, I went and did it and I just basically, again, was just basically following people’s leads. I mean, again, if I had said I’m going to Georgia, I’m going to become a doctor and…it would have never happened.

And the same thing occurred basically, you know, with the lawyer. I met a—in the movie, it’s a little different—but in real life I met an Eastern Airlines flight attendant, I was dating her, her father was the Attorney General in Louisiana, she asked me to come home and meet her folks. Again, back in those days, a lot of pilots had other jobs—they were lawyers, they were accountants because they were only allowed to fly eighty hours a month, so I happened to say to her I was a lawyer, oh my dad’s a lawyer and he’s in Louisiana and then that led me to Louisiana. I think everything I kind of just fell into, but had I ever set out and planned all of that, none of that would have ever happened.

 

Julian: When you describe these things, it’s almost like you’re reporting, like you’re a reporter and you’re objectively looking at it and describing it. In your work now, does this—this has got to carry over—I think, I would say this must be part of your personality, is to almost be objective in how you look at a situation, like taking yourself out of it. Does this play…I mean, this is a trait of yours and I think it has served you well—obviously, it served you back in the day—but does it serve you in your current work? You currently work for the FBI now. Does it serve you now?

 

Frank: Yes. I’ve been at the FBI for forty-one years working with the Bureau. I started out doing undercover work more than forty years ago and I think that the whole purpose of what I was able to do back then was that they would simply say to me, “I need you to go and apply for this job, at this place, basically: here is the paperwork, you are a social worker, you have a Master’s degree in social work, you graduated from Columbia, this is your name, this is your background. We don’t have an inside person there, so you need to go apply for this job along with other people who are applying for it and try to get the job because we need to get you in there to try and find something out. Well, I would go do those kinds of assignments, but I would literally go in and apply with other real people who were actually social workers, or had a degree, and go do the job and get the job.

And even today, I always put myself, you know, if I try to figure out how somebody’s doing something, then I just ask myself: if I was doing this, how would I do it? And the things that have changed—of course, you know, forty years ago, there were no computers and no internets or things like that, so a lot of it is cyber-related—so I’ve had to learn all that. I’ve had to learn as I’ve gone along just like anybody else about how these crimes work and how people think. But social engineering has not really changed much. It’s the same thing that I did fifty years ago when I was a teenage boy. It’s the same thing they do today only they have the ability of using the internet, the computer, the phone, text mail, and things like that, but it’s basically the same thing—getting information from people and people giving you information by social engineering. And the truth is there is no technology to defeat that, just education. You have to educate people how to recognize social engineering.

 

Julian: Yes, exactly. But now in your work, when you started working with the FBI, now all of a sudden you’re having to do those things, you’re having to play a part, but unlike when you were a child, now there’s a lot of stakes in it, isn’t there? So is there anything you might add to how you were able to keep yourself cool, calm and collected now that there are stakes involved? You were still able to do it.

 

Frank: I just think that, you know, it’s like when people say, “How do you get up in front of 20,000 people at a commencement and speak? Aren’t you nervous?” I don’t have a nervous bone in my body and I think, you know, I don’t get nervous. I just do whatever I’m supposed to do and I go out and do it and I don’t overthink it or anything like that. I just take whatever I need to do and I go do it. I don’t get nervous about it. I have a lot of confidence in myself which I did when I was sixteen. I always believed that I can do this, I can pull this off, whether it was going to the hospital and saying I can pretend to be a doctor. The only thing I was smart enough to know was the thing about you can fool some of the people some of the time. I was smart enough to know you can’t fool people all of the time. So this is why when people go, “Why did you stay there being the lawyer? You passed the bar. Why didn’t you stay there practicing law?” Because I was smart enough to know that, sooner or later, someone would catch on or someone would start looking into my background. I was smart enough that it could only work for a short period of time. And it’s the same way when I deal with criminals today—they might be smart 99% of the time, but 1% of the time they’re going to make a mistake and I’m just looking for that mistake and I know what that mistake is usually going to be, so I wait for them to make that mistake, or I seek out what that mistake is.

 

Julian: What is the most exciting part of your job to you now?

 

Frank: I think it’s just the same thing, you know, it used to be that the cat was chasing the mouse and now the mouse is chasing the cat and now I’m kind of that cat. I used to be the mouse and now I’m the cat and I chase people. It’s always challenging because there’s always something new to try to figure out and how people’s minds work. People are extremely creative and so you just try to figure out what they’re doing and again, I put myself in their place and say: if I was going to do this, how would I do this? If it’s a financial crime, I think to myself: if I had to move this money, how would I move this money? If I had to hide this money, how would I hide this money? And that’s always worked for me. It’s just putting myself in the place of that mind. So, give you a perfect example: I have been involved in some great technologies as an advisor. I’m working on one right now called Trusona which will do away with the need for passwords. The CEO of that company who’s brilliant, he was asked by a reporter, that one time… that said, “You work with Frank Abagnale a lot, he’s your advisor on a lot of great technologies you’ve created for banks and fraud detection that are used all over the world, but my question to you is: Frank doesn’t write code.” And the CEO whose name was Ory Ison said, “No, Frank doesn’t write code, but I’m not a criminal. I can’t think like Frank. So I can develop all the code in the world, I can develop all the software in the world, but I can’t think like Frank thinks so Frank and I, over the last fifteen years, just played chess together. I sit down and say, “Here’s what I’ve developed,” and Frank says, “Well, here’s how I defeat that.” And then I go back and I fix it and then I come back and he says, “Well, you still have a loophole right here because someone could do this…” And then I go back and fix that, and until the day that Frank says to me, “Well, I think you’ve closed all the doors and locked all the doors for now…so you can put this in the marketplace, but you need to make sure you stay on top of it year to year to make sure that it’s as good and secure as it is today.” And he said, “I can’t do that, I don’t have the mind he has, I don’t think like he has and you know, that’s just what he brings to the table.”

 

Julian: How has your appetite for excitement or adventure changed from when you were younger to now?

 

Frank: I don’t have all that excitement. It’s more about the curiosity and solving something. I don’t get real…like when I was younger and solving the case, or working on some project and got very excited about it. Now it’s kind of become a bit more routine in my life. It’s just more about doing whatever I’m supposed to do and getting it done. I do like…I teach at the FBI Academy and, you know, I enjoy teaching young agents.

What I find today, which is amazing to me, is that a lot of young people today are not resourceful at all. I mean, they are not at all resourceful, so if you say to a seventeen year-old today in New York City, “I’m going to take your phone away and I need you to find your way back to Richmond, Virginia,” they would be in a total loss. They wouldn’t know where to begin, what to do, how am I going to get back, I have no money. They’re not resourceful, so I try to teach them 1) to be very resourceful and 2) to think out of the box—that not everything is black and white, so what you see is not always that way. You need to look beyond that and figure it out. So sometimes they say to me, “Well look, you already know who did it, so why don’t you just tell us?” No, I’m not gonna do that. I think I know who did it, but you need to figure out who did it.

 

Julian: If you were to give one piece of advice to people who are a community of less resourceful people who have not developed that resourceful muscle, what is that change that needs to take place? I mean, it’s not just hey, get used to carrying a map. It’s more of a mindset, isn’t it? And what is that?

 

Frank: Well, yeah, I think you have to understand people. You have to be observant. You have to be a little bit creative. And you have to stop and think for a minute and think things through. I think everything today with young people today is: I gotta have it immediately, I’ve gotta do it immediately, there’s only one way to do it and that’s the fastest way. That’s not always the best way. So I think if you stop really and think out and think to yourself: how do I accomplishment this and how do I go about doing it correctly? You can do that instead of just rushing into it and not thinking it out. That’s what happens today with a lot of technology that is brought to the marketplace, a lot of solutions that are brought to the marketplace, is that the marketeers are pushing it out on the street before anyone has ever said, “Well, wait, this isn’t foolproof. Someone could beat this. Aren’t you going to stop and figure out all the loopholes before you put it in the marketplace? Otherwise there’s going to be victims who use this technology.” And I think that’s what you have to do: you have to stop and think through it before rushing out to get it out.

Now I always remind people about creativity. You know, if someone goes and robs a bank tomorrow and sticks a gun in somebody’s face, nobody cares about that guy, he gets locked up and sent to jail. If the guy that goes in the bank behind him is very creative and he finds some way to swindle the bank through some very amazing ideas and things that he does, he’s kind of become a hero in the public’s eye and they think, “Wow, that guy’s pretty cool. He did something cool.” They both broke the law. They both were illegal. Both were immoral. So just because someone is creative in what they do doesn’t mean what they do is ethical or right. So I try to remind people that are amazed by what I did that yes, it was creative, but it wasn’t right. It was the wrong thing to do. I try to remind myself that I was in a situation where I did that because it started out as survival and people started chasing me and I was this kid thinking: how do I stay ahead of all these people chasing me? But in the end, it was wrong what I did and I had to pay my debt to society for it.

 

Julian: I understand. You deal a lot now…your job with the FBI is to be able to track and try to essentially bring con artists to justice. You know, con artists always has this bad connotation, but it also has this sexy connotation. And I was wondering: from your perspective, do you always associate con artists with something negative and is there a personality characteristic that is consistent, that every person who is really good at conning people employs and has?

 

Frank: Okay, first of all, any good politician, any good car salesman, any good salesman, are con men. They have the same traits that a con man has. The only difference is that the con man is looking to get there very quickly and he’s willing to work outside the guidelines of the law. Whereas the salesman and politician, in many cases (not always), are trying to stay within, inside the line of the law and not do anything illegal. But the traits are the same. The only thing that you see now, in the last ten or fifteen years, is today the con man has kind of gone away because the day of the well-dressed, well-spoken, sophisticated guy or girl that was a con man, or con woman, because most of the people who are victimized today are victimized by someone thousands of miles away by somebody sitting in their pajamas on a laptop in their kitchen in Moscow, or India, or China, or somewhere in the United States. So the people really never see who’s stealing their money, who’s victimizing them or who’s conning them. They only know the voice or the words typed on the screen. So there isn’t so much…we don’t see any more of that con man because there is no more of that personal one on one. But I’ve always said if you show me a good politician, you show me a good car salesman, they’re the same personality traits as a con man. The only thing is they’re doing it within the means of the law and staying within the lines of making, doing something legal.

 

Julian. Yes. You have spoken in the past about when you talk about your past in con artistry, you are very remorseful for what you did and you bring up a lot of times the fact that you broke the law and what you did was not moral, and you’re very remorseful. But also what you did, you also say that you did what you did to survive, to be able to make it, and I wanted to ask you: you seem very…very remorseful at times in your interviews and in your speeches, but at the same time there’s a really good reason for you to have done what you did and you never hurt anybody. Why do you feel so remorseful?

 

Frank: Well, you know, I think…first of all, let me explain to you that people, no matter what you do in your life, and it’s unfortunate, but really don’t let you forget. So you know, people say…all your life you hear that life is short. But the truth is life is really long. I mean, someone…I’m sixty-nine years old. If I’m lucky, I might make it to ninety or so. Someone in a younger generation, like my children, they may live to be over a hundred years old. So when you make a mistake in your life and you do something wrong, you have to live with that for a long, long time, and even if you try not to live with it, people remind you about it. So I notice almost everything ever written about me—and probably why I don’t do a lot of interviews—no matter what I’ve done in my life, all people write about, and the headline will be, “World’s Greatest Con Man Says This…” or retired con man, or former con man, and mainly talk a lot about my past, but never talk about the things I’ve done over the past forty years. So people remind you of that all the time, so that’s why I tell young people you have to be…you don’t want to put a lot of burdens in your life. So you know, if you mistreat somebody in a relationship, or you lie to somebody, you deceive somebody, or you do something wrong, you know, it means nothing at the time you’re doing it, but later on in life, it comes back to kind of haunt you, and comes back to bother you, and you end up having these burdens in your life. So even if I was willing to forget all the things that I did, there will always be people there to remind me that I did and I understand that I did and that’s why I’m fine with living with that, but I always don’t lose sight of the fact that it was wrong.

I just, I tell people all the time when they look at my life or they watched the movie or they read the book, they’re amazed by or fascinated by what I did fifty years ago as a teenager. But the truth is at sixty-nine—and I just turned sixty-nine last week—when I turned sixty-nine and I look back on my life, I think to myself: the most amazing thing is that I did all these things…I went to prison for five years, the government took me out of prison, I’ve worked for my government for four decades, I’ve developed some incredible print technology, paper technology, as well as technology used for cyber defense, and I’ve done some amazing things in my life. I’ve been married to my one and only wife for forty-plus years, I’ve brought three wonderful sons into the world—one who is an FBI agent celebrating twelve years in the Bureau—I mean, I look back and say: this really happened? I mean, is this really where my life went and what happened in my life? And I think that says a lot about the country we live in. You can make mistakes. You can have problems. You can be an alcoholic. You can be a drug addict. But if you want to change your life, if you really want to do something with your life, at any stage in your life, you can change your life! Because we live in a great country that lets you do that. Yeah, people will remind you of your mistakes, but you can go do something positive with your life if you want to do it and in the end, you only do it for yourself, to prove to yourself that you can do something and not worry about what other people think about you. So I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to do something great with my life because sometimes I do believe that old saying about things happen in life for a reason. And I would obviously not be where I am today if all those things didn’t happen. So you know, I think that’s just part of life.

 

Julian: That’s a really good, positive statement about the country where you hear a lot of negativity these days. Frank, you don’t grant interviews very often, I know that from seeing your website and you said it before. May I ask you: why did you grant me this one?

 

Frank: I just, I have a very good sense of people, so when you…normally, to be very honest, this is a question that my assistant was asking me: why did you grant this interview? She kept reminding me every time I went about it today and…I have a sense of people. I met you, I got a feeling that you were the type of person that had a loving family, that you were somebody who cared about your family, cared about your country…I just got a very positive feeling about you and when you said, “Would you do this?” you know, I said yes right off the bat. Normally I just refer people to my office knowing that they’ll say no. And it’s…and the real reason, like I told you, the real reason I don’t do interviews…I mean, if you go back and see the interviews I’ve done, people just really…90% of the interview is really about things I did and my past. They really don’t care so much about what I’ve done with my life and go with my past and then they use these terms of…I always have to smile when somebody says, “The World’s Greatest Con Man.” When you think about it, you know, there’s people I have on my desk every day that embezzle from Medicare and Medicaid, and doctors, and people of that nature, who steal 30 million, 40 million, 50 million. You know, I stole pennies compared to these people and I’m sure they were probably better con men than I am. And we look at some of these politicians every day and realize some of them are a lot bigger con men than I would ever pretend to be, or be. So I get, I’m amused by that, but I felt very comfortable in giving you the interview and so I did it.

 

Julian: Thank you, Frank. The last question for you: what legacy would you like to leave on this earth when it’s all said and done? What do you want to be remembered by?

 

Frank: I only care about one thing to remembered by…not the world’s greatest con man. Not the world’s greatest government official. Not the greatest cyber guy or anything else. I only want to be remembered that he was a good husband, he was a good father, and he was a great Daddy to his children, and that’s really all I care about.

 

Julian: Frank Abagnale, thank you so much for giving me this interview.

 

Frank: Thank you, Julian.

 

Julian: Thank you for joining us on Improvisationally Speaking this week. Thank you especially Frank Abagnale for granting us the interview. I’m Julian Schrenzel. You’re listening to Improvisationally Speaking from Improv Alive! We’ll see you in a couple Fridays.

Improvisationally Speaking Episode 9 with Frank Abagnale, whose life inspired the movie and musical ‘Catch Me If You Can’

Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale, Inspiration for the movie & musical, Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo Dicaprio & Tom Hanks & Norbert Leo Butz.

Frank Abagnale is the man whose life inspired the movie ‘Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks, and also the subsequent Broadway musical hit of the same name starring Norbert Leo Butz. As a young man, he was considered the world’s greatest con man, and after serving 5 years in prison, was offered a chance to turn his life around and pay it back by working for the FBI as an undercover agent, a teacher and lecturer, which he has been doing now for over 40 years. In this episode of Improvisationally Speaking, Frank talks about what it took to pull off the things he did as a young man, and how improvisational thinking, self-resourcefulness, and creativity have helped him to become one of the best crime fighters out there.

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 8 with Travis Thomas, Creator of ‘Live Yes And’

Travis Thomas, creator of Live Yes And, on Improvisationally Speaking

Travis Thomas, creator of ‘Live Yes And’ on Improvisationally Speaking

Travis Thomas is a published author, national speaker, performance coach & trainer, and a nationally performing improv-comedian. He took his first improv class at age 25. As Creator of the company, Live Yes and, Travis works with teams, from non-profit to Fortune 500 corporations, inspiring them to see how a ‘YES AND’ mindset can be transformative. He also is a founding member of the Jove Improvisation, a professional improv troupe based in Palm Beach FL. On this episode of Improvisationally Speaking, Travis shares his life story, and the power of Improvisationally thinking in life and business.  

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 7 with special guest Mark Chenovick, Executive Director of the SecondStory Repertory Theater in Redmond, WA

Mark Chenovick opens up about the rewards of a positive, passionate (and improvisational) approach to leading the SecondStory Rep Theater from the doorstep of bankruptcy to an artistic renaissance.

Mark Chenovick opens up about the rewards of a positive, passionate (and improvisational) approach to leading the SecondStory Rep Theater from the doorstep of bankruptcy to an artistic renaissance.

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 7 with special guest Mark Chenovick, Executive Director of the SecondStory Repertory Theater in Redmond, WA

Mark Chenovick, executive director of the Second Story Repertory Theater in Redmond, WA took a folding theater company with $107,000 of debt, and turned it into a prolific and profitable theater. The journey was the both most difficult and the most rewarding professional undertaking for him. Learn how sticking with the improvisation principles of Yes And, and positive thinking/action gave him the energy, inspiration and business savvy to accomplish the unimaginable.


iTUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/improvisationally-speaking-the-podcast/id1208587746?mt=2

STITCHER: http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/improvisationally-speaking-the-podcast

PODBEAN: https://improvisationallyspeaking.podbean.com/e/improvisationally-speaking-episode-7-mark-chenovickmp3/

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 6 with special guest Ben Kurland, Co-Founder of BillFixers LLC

Ben Kurland shares his experience in building his business from an idea, and negotiating as it relates to improvisation

Ben Kurland shares his experience in building his business from an idea, and negotiating as it relates to improvisation

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 6 with special guest Co-founder of BillFixers LLC, Ben Kurland

Ben Kurland, co-founder of BillFixers LLC, a company that negotiates on behalf of consumers to lower their bills without all the hassle of having to call customer service. This is a group of expert negotiators who contact their customer’s service providers and negotiate better deals at lower prices. Taking advantage of promotional rates, customer loyalty discounts, special packages, and additional credits, they improvise, negotiate and often work a bill down to a fraction of the original amount.


iTUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-improvisationallyspeakings-podcast/id1208587746

STITCHER: http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/improvisationally-speaking-the-podcast

PODBEAN: https://improvisationallyspeaking.podbean.com/e/improvisationally-speaking-episode-6-ben-kurlandmp3/

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 5 with special guest Roses In Concrete founder, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade

Founder of Roses In Concrete, Jeff Duncan-Andrade shares his work with Improvisationally Speaking

Founder of Roses In Concrete, Jeff Duncan-Andrade shares his work with Improvisationally Speaking

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 5 with special guest Roses In Concrete founder, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, founder of Roses In Concrete, a community school that serves black and Hispanic, inner-city youth in Oakland CA, giving them an educational opportunity that rivals it’s wealthy suburban private school counterparts. With classes in dance, music performance and arrangement, and athletics, in addition to the core curriculum. Jeff is a national keynote speaker and his council is requested by education departments across the country who are trying to build a more just, equitable education system for all.

iTUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-improvisationallyspeakings-podcast/id1208587746

STITCHER: http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=131811&refid=stpr

PODBEAN: https://improvisationallyspeaking.podbean.com/e/improvisationally-speaking-the-podcast-episode-4-with-guest-seattle-city-councilmember-mike-obrien/?token=d416d0553c95f1e4d271cd67cd265de6

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 4 with special guest, Seattle City Councilmember, Mike O’Brien

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien on Improvisationally Speaking

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien on Improvisationally Speaking

Improvisationally Speaking: Episode 4 with special guest, Seattle City Councilmember, Mike O’Brien

Seattle City Councilmember, Mike O’Brien has a tough but rewarding job. As a council member, it is his job to serve his constituency and to do what he knows in right. But sometimes doing both of these at the same time is impossible. How does he communicate effectively and effect the kind of change he is charged to bring to the city of Seattle while being under the microscope of the public eye? This discussion reveals some of Mike O’Brien’s methods, and they are surprisingly based on the principles of improvisation.

iTUNES: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-improvisationallyspeakings-podcast/id1208587746
STITCHER: http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=131811&refid=stpr
PODBEAN: https://improvisationallyspeaking.podbean.com/e/improvisationally-speaking-the-podcast-episode-4-with-guest-seattle-city-councilmember-mike-obrien/?token=d416d0553c95f1e4d271cd67cd265de6

Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast: Episode 3 with special guest, TESSA FROST

DC Lobbyist, Singer/Song Writter, Tessa Frost

DC Lobbyist, Singer/Song Writter, Tessa Frost




Improv Alive proudly presents: Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast: Episode 3 with special guest, DC Lobbyist & Singer/Song writter, Tessa Frost. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-ecn7m-68875a

Improvisationally Speaking Episode 2 with world-traveler, guerrilla marketer and improvisor, Nicoletta Crisponi

Improvisationally Speaking Episode 2 - Nicky Crisponi

Improvisationally Speaking Episode 2 – Nicky Crisponi

Improvisationally Speaking – Podcast 2 Transcription:

 



Have you ever fantasized about quitting the career you know—leaving the security and the comfort of a predictable life that you may lead and following your bliss…doing what you’re passionate about, knowing that your basic needs like food and shelter and clothing will be met…somehow?

Well, on today’s episode of Improvisationally Speaking podcast, we meet Nicoletta Crisponi, a woman with more careers than most of us have light switches in our houses. She’s a guerilla marketer, waitress, brand manager, au paire, translator, bartender, reality tv actor, entrepreneur, travel blogger and occasional babysitter. She’s made a career out of her life…and a life out of her career. She’s currently on a one-year trip around the world, relying on the kindness of her connections through social media out to four degrees which is her friends all the way through her friends of her friends of her friends of her friends for places to stay and local guidance through dozens of countries, eventually linking herself all the way around the entire world—from Milan, Italy to Milan, Italy.

From Improv Alive Studios in Seattle, I’m Julian Schrenzel, and this is Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast.

Julian: Nicky, first and foremost, you are on a one-year adventure around the world and I wanted to know: where are you currently? And where are you in your overall adventure?

Nicky: Currently I’m in Nepal. I just started two months ago, so I’m really at the beginning and ten more months to go to get to the end of my world tour.

Julian: Wow, so you’ve been on the road for two months and you have ten months to go.

Nicky: Yeah, exactly. Still a while. If I think about these two months, it looks like six months because in two months, I changed four countries and every two days, I change places, I change people and it’s just keep on going, keep on going.

Julian: Do you get tired?

Nicky: I am. A lot. Yes, because when you have to organize the logistics, get in touch with people and then organize, so it’s about taking picture, editing the picture, writing the blog, making the social media—it’s a lot of work. So of course I’m tired but I’m so happy that it doesn’t matter, you know?

Julian: Yes, I totally understand. This is a really interesting, um, I would not dare ask you what you do for your work or your living because I know you don’t like that, and I don’t blame you. You’ve done so many things, it’s dizzying how many things you’ve done from being a bartender to being a marketing specialist to being a business development manager to doing guerilla marketing to being a waitress and a translator and a babysitter…so I know that for you, it’s not like you have a career that defines who you are, it’s more like who you are defines…it’s the other way around, in my opinion of this. And I wanted to ask you something: I’ve done some research, I’ve kind of traced what you’ve been doing and what you’re passionate about, what’s your—how you build your life—and I wanted to know: everything that you do seems to have a structure of a campaign, and not surprisingly, that’s kind of what you studied and what you do. You have a real talent for developing a campaign around things and building that. And I wanted to know from you—everything that you’re doing being kind of around a campaign—it’s all about, the centerpiece seems to be about communication and it always seems to be about opening up your personal life to the public. And I’m wondering how do you decide what you’re going to do next?

Nicky: When people say, “I don’t want to be on Facebook because then everybody knows about my private life,” this is not true. People know what you want them to know. So I just put online what I think might be interesting and what is not so personal to touch my really personal life, so it’s half and half. And it’s true that it’s a lot about campaign because what I would like to do is create a very strong brand around myself, around the person I am. So to be the value of what I do. It’s not like…I really think that normally when people create something, they do for a good reason. And this is normally what I do and when I work with my clients, is this, is find what is the real meaning that took them to that point, and work on it and tell their story. And then try to do the same over myself now, to be that specialist that can make the difference. That’s why I work on campaigns with what I do.

Julian: Yeah, I see.

Nicky: Because for me, important point is explain people that I have a value. It’s not just the skill that I have, but it’s also the way I use them and the way I communicate with people and the way I do the things I do.

Julian: You mentioned a book called ‘Love Marks’ by Kevin Roberts that was one of the inspirations of the way you think about campaigns and branding, or not branding. ‘Love Marks’ really, the basis from what I was understanding is to create mystery, and to create—it centers around mystery, sensuality and intimacy built into experiences that are kind of the next thing. If a company wants to create brand, it’s not about creating brand, it’s about creating experiences that involve mystery, sensuality and intimacy. And I’m wondering, do you follow that when you do what you do and create campaigns for your life? Are you following the ‘Love Marks’ principle?

Nicky: Uh…not yet. I mean, I got into this, I discovered…everything started this way: I was starting services design and furniture design and I have this way of communicating things and they couldn’t give a name to it. And they couldn’t find a way to explain what I wanted to do. Then I just ran into this book that was explaining exactly that—that communication is about creating relationship with people and get this kind of empathy and empathy that can create connection. And this is exactly what I want to do. So it started from there. But now it’s more going with the feeling. It’s not just following a structure that’s made by someone because I’m not working under such and such, I still not meshing to that kind of structure, I’m still free, that of course, it comes from there.

Julian: When I looked at the…your blogging around what you’re doing right now which is traveling around the world using social media to find friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends and friends of friends of friends of friends—I think that’s four levels of connections—to find people that will allow you—to put you up, people that will show you around and people that will assist you in your way around the world. I know that you’re using social media. I know that you’re heavily using communication technology for social media, you’re talking to me today, and I’m wondering with all of the technology that you’re focusing on as such a central part of your travel experience, I’m wondering if you…does it take away from your focus on the experience and on a connection to the people that you’re meeting and the new experiences you’re having as you’re going along? Is there a sacrifice in focusing so much on the technical side of it?

Nicky: It’s half and half. That’s what I was telling you before, like it’s very tiring because of course, I have to create this first connection through social media and then I have to skip to the personal part and then I have to skip again to social media to tell the story that happened. Hopefully when you meet somebody, you meet somebody—I mean, you have a Coke, you have a beer, you have a chat and the mobile phone is no longer with you, until okay, now we have to take our selfie to put on the blog and tell the story. So hopefully no, hopefully I can still like half and half. But it’s very difficult because this is one of the main problems that can happen, that you’re with somebody having a coffee and it’s kind of talking with him, you’re looking at your mobile—mostly this is what’s happening today, but here, no because also when you’re traveling, all that input you have all around you are so many that it doesn’t make sense to look at your mobile phone.

Julian: I can imagine. I totally can understand that. I’m wondering: what role—I mean, you know improvisation because I know that you actually spent time doing some, building an event for Improv Anywhere in New York City which is a organization that enlists the use of many, many people to go out and just do something altogether that’s interesting or unusual. And I’m wondering what was the project that you coordinated with them and what is your personal experience in relation to improvisation?

Nicky: With them, I work on three projects. One was the mp3 Experiments. That’s one of the most famous things they do and then I went to the Black Tie Beach and Say Something Nice that was a project with the…I don’t really remember anymore…it was with a museum. So improvisation was half and half, like I think improvisation works very well when there’s a good preparation on the base. You cannot improvise if you are not ready to know what can happen and you don’t know very well the subject you’re doing.

Julian: Yes.

Nicky: So with them, of course, it’s a lot of improvisation because when you have so many people coming out without really knowing what is going to happen, you cannot control them. What you can do before is to make a very nice plan and be ready to go with the flow and just find the best way to make accomplish. Because most of the time it’s exactly what you didn’t plan is what is going to make it special because it’s so natural and so unexpected that it’s also unexpected for you so people will feel it. And it’s how I think things should work. And it’s something that really is connected with my job also nowadays. I was talking the other day with a guy that, he said to me something like, I thought he was much more structured, but then I see that he is just improvising every time and it was yeah, he can improvise just because I got structure on the base because if I don’t know what I want to do and where I want to go and no plan a, b, c, d, e, I cannot improvise—especially when you’re a girl alone in the world—lost. So you cannot just, “Okay, let’s go.” You have a plan.

Julian: How are you, today as you’re traveling around, how does improvisation play a role in your day to day this year?

Nicky: If you want to know, it’s like eighty percent because one of the most interesting thing that I discovered, especially traveling is that if you have a plan, you’re stuck. If you just go with the flow, the things happens. Like for example, today I went out just to go and see a temple because there’s a very big celebration in Nepal for Shiva, it’s Shiva day so I wanted to go and see the temple, the big celebration. In the end, I didn’t see the big celebration and I end up in an engagement party. But this is part of the flow, like okay, you know what you want to do, so I passed through on the festival and I saw what it was about, but of course when I met a friend of a friend that was just around and he told me, “Ah, you know what, I’m going to this engagement party, do you want to come?” Of course, yes. It doesn’t matter if you gonna lose this party, I saw enough, but I’m ready to do something different. And when you travel this way, I just get to my host place, of course I know more or less what are the most interesting things to do in that place, but it’s just talking with people that you discover the most interesting things. And you just be ready to catch what is comes to you.

Julian: Totally. Do you ever have an experience, have you had an experience in your travels where you have had a situation that was negative to where you were able to work through it off script, as it were, in an improvisational way that turned out well, but perhaps would not have turned out well if you weren’t able to go with the flow and roll with it.

Nicky: I think, more or less, everything, but I’m thinking about something very bad, because you know, I’m a very positive person so it’s very hard to finding something very bad that’s gonna happen to me. I always find like something nice that’s going on. Something bad that turns…okay, maybe can be this…two days ago my phone got stolen, so I was completely cut off. I’m here to make my life on social media and telling my trip and I was without the phone. The good part has been that because I was so desperate—not really desperate but I was so sorry and I really wanted to find my phone back, I started talking with everybody because I understood that talking with people is the best way to let things happen. I started talking with everybody so now I have a nice story with a bad ending because I didn’t find my phone. But I got a guy that just dropped me on the motorbike and took me to the local newspaper and wrote for me a very heart touching message asking to my…please give phone back to this girl, she really needs her phone to work. And from there, this man just took me to the police office and also there I become like the girl that really needs to have her phone back so I have a nice story to tell, like okay, there are bad people everywhere, but if you just talk with people, they can be very helpful so I found this amazing man that just left everything that he was doing, he just said, “Okay, jump on,” he took me around and now I have my very nice piece of paper that I will keep for all my life to remember the day that I went to the newspaper asking please give me back my phone and of course, it didn’t work, but…

Julian: But it became something of an experience you’ll never forget, right?

Nicky: Yeah, this for sure. This for sure. And at least I know how they handle here. Like…and also I saw the difference between people because this guy that took me to the newspaper because he really believe that it’s possible to touch human soul with words and so convince them to give me back the phone. And there was other people that were just looking at me like, “You’re really desperate and like you will never find your phone again.” So it’s half and half, but it has been an interesting experience.

Julian: I want to ask you, do you ever have to worry about having what you need? In your work, which is so different in so many different directions, you don’t have a 9 to 5 job, you know, with a paycheck that’s steady, but you’re finding your passion and executing your passion and being able to get what you need, to get what you live on, I think based off of that…and I’m wondering do you ever have to worry about having what you need—money, food, healthcare—those kind of things in your work?

Nicky: No, because as you said before, I did everything. It’s not like I started from the waiter and then I got to manager. They are really mixed. Like I can be like a business manager during the day, and the day after being there giving leaflets to people. I don’t really mind. I think that, on the contrary, I think it’s very important because the day that I go out at six in the morning to give leaflets to people, I really remember how hard it is so when I have to organize this kind of job, I know how to handle with the people that are going to do it and I really remember that we should smile and take every day that our world give to us because it’s very hard to do. No, because I’m ready to do really whatever kind of job, I don’t mind because it’s not because I studied, it’s not because I got to some point that I’m not ready to start through the beginning again. Maybe what is going to happen after this year going around and blogging is that I’m ready to go and apply for a McDonald’s.

Julian: I’ll bet you are. To those people who might look at your life and work and coming from a steady paycheck, and kind of dreaming of doing the kind of thing you’re doing, but are scared to do that, scared to leave the security and the routine of that, what would you say to someone who was thinking about and wanting to do that?

Nicky: That this is exactly the difference between me and them. And between them and somebody else. If you’re not ready to risk, nothing will ever change. And of course you need to do it, but with cautions. So it’s not like okay, you want to leave and you leave. For me, it took two years to organize the trip, to find a good story to tell, to make all my presentation to find a sponsor. It’s…it takes time, but it’s a very good investment. So anybody can do it. If I did it, anybody can do it. The real difference is have a plan, really believe in it, work for it, and when you’re ready, just go. And just push to go because if you don’t do it, you will never do it. You just need to put a date, buy a ticket and then it’s too late to come back. I still had a problem with my ticket, I bought it last week and I start telling everybody I was leaving for a world tour so everybody was expecting this from me and it was too late to say, “Ah, no I’m sorry, I just changed my mind.”

Julian: You burned the ships, as it were. What are you afraid of?

Nicky: What I am afraid of? I am afraid of become too independent because I think that trusting people is one of the most important thing. But when you get used to count on you, all on you, every day, the risk is not be able to just live your life in the hands of somebody else at some point. This is something I’m afraid of. And I’m afraid that going very far away will keeping me very far away from my family. This is very Italian, I know. But it’s true, for us family is very important. So those are the only two things, that something can happen to my parents and that I can be so independent that I will be alone forever. Sounds good?

Julian: It’s hard to separate your traveling from your life, your work from your life. You kind of, your life is your travel and your life is your work, so my question to you is there, is a love and passion that drives you to be you and do what you do, and I’m wondering what is that?

Nicky: I think it’s the person I want to be. Maybe. Because if you really do what makes you happy, you have this kind of good energy that you give to the other people and you can feel it because, like right now, I have so many people that I just crossed through my way and I growing a lot with them, but I also feel they are taking something from me. Like what you saying, a good example, if I did it and I’m not special, I’m exactly like whoever else, so if I did it, somebody else can do. And this give you a lot of energy and makes you feeling very well about what you do. And also when you feel that you’re doing the right thing, you’re giving to your life what you are supposed to, you just feel very well. Three years ago, I had a car accident, just a car ran over me, and I ever been the person that I need to do today what I want to do, but after that, it becomes even more and during this three years that I was working on the project, I was really loving my job in the agency, but for me working is something that cures me. I need to have new things every day to let my mind keep growing, keep growing. And if I feel that I stop, it doesn’t, it doesn’t go anymore. So if it is traveling, if it is working, if it is whatever it is, I just need to have new information and new things that’s happening every day. So traveling and working are my passion because I keep on growing and becoming a better person, becoming the person I wish one day I will be because I’m still a lot to run. But sometimes I really feel that I’m going the right direction and it is happening where I have nice exchange with people.

Julian: Nicky, thank you.

Thank you for listening to Improvisationally Speaking where you can also find us now on itunes, Google Play and Stitcher. Next week, we are going to be interviewing Tessa Frost as our special guest. Tessa uses improvisation in her dual professional careers, one in politics on the Hill, as in Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and the other as a singer, songwriter and performer. It promises to be an excellent episode 3.
This podcast is a production of Improv Alive LLC, Seattle, Washington. See you next week.

Improvisationally Speaking the Podcast Episode 1 with guest Chris Schembra – TRANSCRIPTION

Chris Schembra - Founder & Chief Question Asker at the 747 Club in NYC

Chris Schembra – Founder & Chief Question Asker at the 747 Club in NYC

Julian Shrenzel:               From the Improv-Alive studio in Seattle, you’re listening to Improvisationally Speaking: The Podcast.

  Welcome. This is Episode 1, and I want to give some back story as a beginning. My name is Julian Shrenzel. I started a company called Improv-Alive, and I did so based on a question. The question is what would happen if someone brought the tools and principles of theatrical improvisation into the world of business in a way that non-artsy-type people, ordinary people, could rediscover their ability to communicate, and to make decisions, and to lead.

  Improv-Alive essentially is dedicated to helping teams reach their goals. I lead workshops, friendly but challenging business improvisation workshops, where team members engage with each other in a new and different set of tools, tools that will help them increase their creative, their collaborative abilities. I lead workshops on team building, leadership, service, support, change management, public speaking, presentation, and a lot more.

  This podcast is called Improvisationally Speaking, and it seeks out and highlights the stories of real-life business improvisers: people who are doing unusual or extraordinary work that is affecting the life of people. When I say business improvisers, what I mean are people who are choosing to do the risky thing, or the irrational thing, or to pursue their life’s work instead of taking that proven path to success. In the unusual or extraordinary portion is work that is helping others in a new, interesting way, or work that is brand new, that is invented, careers that are invented and have not been done in the past, or people who are working and in their work are using improvisation to a fantastic degree within their work.

  Without further ado, I want to introduce my first guest of this entire podcast series. My guest is Chris Schembra. Let me read you Chris’s bio. Chris is a leading expert on empathy and the art of human connection. He is the founder and chief question-asker of the 747 Club, a marketing, consulting, and advisory company which awakens empathy within people in an organization. Since its inception, the 747 Club has awakened over 2,000 leaders, sparking over 60,000 relationships.

  Aside from 747 Club, Chris is a partner at OHenry Productions, which invests in and produces commercial theater. The projects he has been associated with have been awarded 10 Tony Awards, 7 Emmys, and a Grammy.

  As a marketer, he’s led campaigns with over 900,000 participants, and the programs, through his family’s Hilton Head Island Performance Group, have trained and empowered close to one million executives, sales people, athletes, and students on how to achieve excellence and gain the competitive edge. He mentors startups at Techstars, serves as a social influencer for Dell and American Express, and is a contributing writer to Arianna Huffington’s new corporate and consumer wellness platform, Thrive Global.

  As a philanthropist, he holds appointment on the board of trustees of the Easter Seals Foundation. Easter Seals is a nonprofit providing disability services to close to 2 million people annually.

  Now, I first heard of or read of Chris on the American Express OPEN Forum, which is a forum dedicated to entrepreneurs and helping them to grow their businesses. Chris had a very interesting article on his organization called the 747 Club. Rather than tell you about it, let me let Chris tell you himself.

  Chris Schembra, thank you for coming to Improvisationally Speaking, and welcome to the podcast.

  Chris Schembra:              Thanks for having me.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Absolutely.

  Chris Schembra:              I’m happy to be here.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Good. I’m really excited about this episode and talking with you. I’ve done a lot of research, and I was really inspired by your story in OPEN Forum. Really, I’ve been inspired by your life’s work and where it’s taking you. I want to dive right in.

  As you know for this podcast, Improvisationally Speaking, the focus of this podcast is about looking at ordinary people doing extraordinary things and how improv plays into that, how improvisational thinking, improvisational acting, how that idea of improv plays into what you’ve done and how it’s made – if it has assisted in making you who you are and what you do, what that role is.

  Chris Schembra:              I think it plays one heck of a good role. I’m glad you’re giving voice to this topic. I’ll start with a quick story just for flavor on what you just said.

  This story starts July of 2015. I’d just come back from Italy producing a Broadway play. I found myself lonely, disconnected, fiddling with food in my kitchen, and I accidently invented a pasta sauce recipe. I figured I should probably feed it to people to see if it’s even good or not. On July 15, 2015, I invited 15 of my friends over for dinner and fed them my sauce: 6:30 p.m. cocktails began, 8 p.m. dinner is served. At 7:47 p.m., we delegated 11 specific tasks, empowering the attendees to be part of the set up process. A few people cried. They like my sauce, so I did my dinner the next week and haven’t stopped since.

  I’ve since gone on to serve over 2,000 people. The tipping point for me was at 2 a.m. on a Monday this past March when I woke up in my bed balling my eyes out, realizing for the first time in my life I’d found complete joy and rid myself of insecurity. My greatest insecurity is I know so many diverse groups of people, I’m always the last one called to the party. When I realized that I didn’t have to worry about that any longer, I could stay in one place and focus on creating the safe spaces for people to gather, then I realized I had found myself. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection.

  Julian Shrenzel:               That’s something you said. I saw that somewhere. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection. Can you give me a little bit more on what that means to you?

  Chris Schembra:              I have a history of suicide, jail, depression, and rehab. I analyzed that I went down those paths because I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I wasn’t comfortable with myself because I was disconnected from the group of people around me. I wasn’t in a leadership position. I was an afterthought. Not talking negatively about all my friends, but everybody used to forget about me. They still do to this day forget about me just because they assume I’m being taken care of by some other group. They just assume I’m doing something else. I’m never the first one thought of for anything.

  Once I learned how to take that energy and compartmentalize it, turn it around, and use it as fuel, I finally realized that I’m okay with being that kind of guy. I’m cool.

  Julian Shrenzel:               That actually answers one of my questions that I had, which was when did you realize that your highest life missions would be your life work. To me, that’s what it feels like. I think it sounds like that idle 2 o’clock in the morning when you came to realize that there was a need that you had deep inside that was satisfied by this kind of work.

  Chris Schembra:              It was my need, and then I realized that that work satisfied others’ needs. I sat at the same seat at the same dinner table listening to pain points of 2,000 people. What I realized was what this world was missing most was maternal energy and empathy.

  A friend of mine came into my office one day and said, “Chris, if your 747 Club was a gender, what would it be?” I said, “It would be a woman.” He said, “If that woman walked through that door right there, how would we feel?” I said, “We’d be overcome and consumed by the greatest maternal energy and empathy the world has ever seen.” That’s what we created.

  In our 16-person dinner model, we leave room for communal discussion of a particular topic. One of my favorite topics to talk about is to have my attendees give voice to a relationship they’ve never given or that they don’t give voice to enough. The majority of people talk about their mothers, an overwhelming majority. There’s something about the room that awakens that appreciation for them and has them give voice to it.

  Julian Shrenzel:               How do you handle a situation where – it would be inevitable. It almost seems like a therapy in way. I know you’re not espousing that you’re a therapist, but you create a situation in which anything – there can be explosive phenomenon. You’re tapping into people’s deeper sides. I’m wondering how do you deal with that when that can get out of your control? In other words, how do you function in an environment that you may not have all that control over?

  Chris Schembra:              I don’t put myself in those situations. I only involve myself in situations where I have complete control. We do that by – the statistic is if less than three people cry at my dinner table, I consider it a failed night. That’s just data. About 1% of my attendees go and quit their jobs after attending a dinner party. Two thousand people [00:11:15] quitters. I love them, although I’m not advocating necessarily for that to happen. I’d rather people find their passion and bring it into their job.

  To answer your question about that safe space, that’s everything to me. In the shape-shifting and a-la-carte-menu world that we live in, what people crave most is system and structure. We’ve kept the dinner the same on week 80 as we did on week 1: same food, same delegated tasks, same joke, same everything. The invite says, “6:30 p.m.,” and then all caps lock, “sharp,” and bold. If you’re late, you owe me. That’s it. There’s two ways of walking, and it’s a line from one of my plays. Don’t worry about people knowing you; make yourself worth knowing.

  You could see my body when I did that. That’s my life now. I dictate what’s going on. I create the systems and structure, and then we empower them to create the content. None of my dinners are – there’s nothing accidental. Everything’s the exact same week to week. When you take the thinking out of it, you get to lead with the heart.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Have you ever been a performer yourself? I know you produce. You’re around theater a lot. Have you been a performer?

  Chris Schembra:              They gave me a TV show on Bravo, but that wasn’t acting. That was reality. I did some acting in my high school days. I guess I won best actor in the state of South Carolina one year, but well, yes. My dinners are the confluence of a couple different touch points in my life. It’s a history of theater. It’s a history of my southern hospitality, Italian roots, the this, the this, and the this. Yeah, there is that element.

  Julian Shrenzel:               I wanted to ask, your title of chief question-asker – I was wondering what is so important about the question?

  Chris Schembra:              You read it in the American Express article. I think the bolded quote in the article was, “At my dinner parties, I hardly say anything. I’m there to listen.” We like feeding people who have something to say. We like giving voice to the voiceless, people who aren’t empowered in their daily lives, to share what they truly want to share whether it’s with a spouse, business associate, themselves, whatever. By me asking the question, I get to create the safe space for them to provide the answer.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Interesting. The aspect of improvisation as it fits into your work is really – you’re aiming for the experience, the power of improvisation to be experienced by the people that you’re serving, whereas you have a very rigid, almost a system, like Ford’s assembly line, way of approaching your work. You’re creating this profound, and unusual, and new experience for the people that you’re serving.

  Chris Schembra:              Every experience is different because it’s on them, not me. I’m the one constant.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Have you had an experience like the people that you’re serving?

  Chris Schembra:              That’s what I crave most in the world. I get a bunch of Reiki teachers’ email in all the time saying I see how much you give. I’d like to give you energy. That’s it. That’s it.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Do you accept that?

  Chris Schembra:              Oh yeah, I accept it like water. I’m addicted to it because I need it. I need it.

  Julian Shrenzel:               Chris, this is great. I really appreciate this. For anybody who would be interested in learning more about you and about your organization, I’m wondering if you might just put out the most pertinent information that someone might be able to come back to your stuff.

  Chris Schembra:              I’d say go sign up at 747Club.org. If I can help you get more joy in your life, or feel less anxiety, or teach you how to be the leader of your own community, that’s what I’m here for. I’m not building a community. I’m here to serve other people’s communities with the systems and models that we’ve built.

  Julian Shrenzel:   That wraps up Episode 1 of the maiden voyage of Improvisationally Speaking: The Podcast. What if you had a lucrative career as a marketing manager, and you decided one day you would give it all up to travel the world and blog about it. Low and behold, you found that you can make plenty of money doing it. Next week, I’m going to be interviewing Nicoletta Crisponi, Italian blogger, unconventional marketing specialist, currently traveling through Nepal. I promise it’s going to be a great episode. See you next week.