NET/TEN Shareback: Sharna Fabiano - Utilizing Empowerment-based Coaching Techniques

Spring 2016 Travel Grant Recipient 

Sharna Fabiano (Los Angeles, CA) visited with the Artistic Director, Chey Chankethya, and company members of Amrita Performing Arts (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Fabiano explored rehearsal process for culturally specific themes and lead workshops in tango, contact improvisation, and choreographic methods.


How Can Artistic Work Inspire and Enable Social Change?

By Sharna Fabiano

In residency with Amrita Performing Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I explored a new process for generating devised material utilizing empowerment-based coaching techniques. This idea grew from my preliminary conversations with Artistic Director, Chankethya Chey, in which I asked, “How can our artistic work inspire and enable social change?”

Perhaps an unlikely source for artistic methodology, coaching identifies the client as the author of his or her own evolutionary journey much as devising identifies the performer as the generator of original performance material. The coach, like a director, guides the client with questions chosen to expand the realm of known possibilities. As the client learns to shift perspective in this way, he or she begins to make new choices that align more clearly with personal values and goals. In re-purposing this technique for devising, I wondered how approaching the director’s role as if I were a coach might influence the rehearsal process.


In a coach-client relationship, an “intake” conversation helps to identify personal goals and narrow down the scope of the work to come.

1. Intake Conversation: What are you struggling with right now? Where do you feel stuck? What area of your life is most stressful?

Example Response: “I am frustrated living here in Cambodia because of how things don’t work. The school where I work won’t take responsibility for fixing real problems. They say they want to change but don’t take any of my suggestions. For example, some days there are not even enough teachers. I don’t know what to do and just want to run away.”

2. Probe For More Detail: Tell me more about your impulse to run away.

Example Response: “I just get tired of it all, but I also don’t want to leave because I know how much the people here need help, and I know that I can help, it’s just so hard.”

3. Summarize and Confirm: Ok, what I’m hearing is that there is a deep frustration with how things are being run at the school and that you get tired of it and want to run away. That makes sense to me and I can understand how you must feel that way. I also hear that you feel a connection to the population here and a strong sense that you want to be part of the solution that moves the society forward. Is that accurate?

Example Response: Yes. I don’t know what to do.

4. Shift to Physical Exploration: Ok, I’d like you to start upstage right, in the corner, and move with the idea “I want to run away” on a diagonal line until you reach the stage left wall. From there, switch your internal focus to “I’m committed to helping the Cambodian people” and move with that idea on a diagonal back to the other side. Continue switching between these two directions until you reach the downstage line.

Normally, here the coach would facilitate with additional questions to help the client broaden perspective, decide how she is going to interpret the situation she is in, and begin to imagine alternative options. Instead, I gave a set of instructions to respond to in movement improvisation.

Example Response: (In observing this improvisation, I noticed that each idea produced a particular type of movement including certain recurring families of vocabulary. The “I want to run away” movement included more abrupt, outward moving gestures, lunges, fast turns and aggressive muscular actions of the legs and arms. The “I’m committed to helping the Cambodian people” movement was more contained, with arm movements circling the torso and head, slower progress along the established pathway, and smoother transitions between gestures.

5a. Develop Material:

(In coaching, often two sides of an issue will emerge as an either/or scenario. Because the client is invested in both, this results in a feeling of being stuck, or not able to make a decision. Voice dialogue is a technique used to personify and invite communication between these two sides for the purpose of moving toward both/and thinking where each side’s needs are recognized and integrated. 

Okay, great, I see there are two distinct movement styles that accompany these two ideas (describe them). If you were to give each of these a character, what would they look like? (young rebellious man and old disapproving woman).  Ok, got it, I’d like you to try again, starting from the same upstage right corner, and this time, move only responding to the first idea, “I want to run away,” represented by the young man. You can go anywhere in the space, but keep in mind that there is an old disapproving woman occupying the lower stage right quadrant of the stage. As you move, listen to what she has to say and allow your movement to be influenced by it.

5b. Develop Material: Repeat this exercise but embodying the old woman and giving the young man a home on the stage.

6. Prompt for Insights: What did you learn about these characters based on these improvisations? 

Example Response: “When I started listening to the old woman, I noticed that what I originally felt as disapproving started to transform into something more like a warning. She is worried about me, perhaps because of her past experience of violence and corruption. And when I listened to the young man, I saw that the rebelliousness is really coming from a desire to create his own work, contemporary work not just classical work, and from the frustration of not having the time or space right now to pursue that.”

7. Develop Material: This step can be repeated as often as desired, inviting the performer to physicalize more precise details of each character’s point of view, or inventing other structures that ask the performer to physicalize different types of exchanges between them.

Performance Questions:

As physical material emerged from the coaching-inspired process, I began to consider the possibility of a building a short (15-20 minute) performance in this way to be shared with small audiences (15-20 people) in spaces such as community centers, libraries, church halls, or private homes. Might the intimacy of such venues, in contrast with conventional theaters, allow for a more personal encounter between artist and spectator, something analogous with empowerment coaching? If so, what might be the context and subject of that conversation and how might it be structured?

Workshop Format:

To test this idea, we offered a split program at the end of my residency in Cambodia: a 15-minute showing of rehearsal material followed by a 15-minute seated session of questions and optional sharing. Sixteen people participated. Based on our experience, we recommend the minimum size for this type of group work at 8-10, and the maximum at 18-20.

1. Circle:

After the performance, we asked everyone to sit with us in a circle on the studio floor. Culturally, it is normal to sit on the floor in Cambodia. If repeated in the United States or other countries, chairs or other furniture/props may be needed. A circle, however, is essential as it has an immediate impact on the body. Seeing everyone at eye level as members of the continuous shape of a circle establishes equality and inclusion as core values of the gathering.

2. Breath:

we asked everyone to take three breaths, using the exhale to release any distracting thoughts and the inhale to set an intention of focus for the next 15 minutes.

3. First Share:

we asked everyone to share his or her name and one word to describe his or her current internal state. This simple exercise introduces the value of trust into the group. In order to share what is unseen, we need to trust that others will accept it. The deeper and more personal the sharing, the more trust is required. The perceived risk of rejection or harm causes us to feel vulnerable. Paradoxically, acts of vulnerability can strengthen trust bonds in a group.

4. Second Share:

We asked everyone to share a personal story of courage from his or her life. For this question, we introduced a talking piece. This is any object, preferably a symbolic one, that is passed from hand to hand and used to ensure emotional safety and shared power within the group. When someone is holding the talking piece, the group listens for as long as needed. Anyone can pass the talking piece and opt out of sharing. By calling attention to courage, we wanted participants to remember that they are strong and have agency. Nearly everyone shared.

5. Third Share:

We passed out slips of paper and pens and asked everyone to write a personal wish or goal that they felt committed to but perhaps unsure of attaining. As the most personal share, the act of writing offered a way for participants to dig a little deeper to come up with an authentic answer, and and also protected them even further from the pressure to share. We then asked them to drop their wishes into a bowl in the center of the circle, with the option to share their wish with the group at that time. About three-quarters of the group chose to share.

6. Breath:

We closed the circle with another three breaths taken together, this time using the exhale to let go of anything that might prevent participants from moving forward toward their goal, and using the inhale to draw toward them whatever resources they might need to succeed.

Future Exploration:

Feedback from this initial experiment led us to conclude that the participatory component needed to be much longer, perhaps 1-2 hours, depending on the group. Returning to our original question, “How can our artistic work inspire and enable social change?” we now see the performance portion of this program acting as a powerful catalyst to invite audiences into this question with us. The answer, we speculate, may have more to do with the art-making process than its product. The interactive portion of our program, then, is a strategy to share techniques that can be used either for creating performance or for transforming lives and social communities, perhaps even to expand the idea of what being an “artist” can mean.






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Friday, July 7, 2017

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