Breaking Out of the Box

By Ylan Q. Mui
Sunday, October 26, 2008

It is Monday at 7 p.m., and most of the corporate world is either stuck in traffic or toasting at happy hour. But for roughly three dozen working Joes, this is not a normal night.

For the next two hours, they step out of the rat race and into a well-worn rehearsal studio at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's offices on Capitol Hill. Black metal chairs are lined up in neat rows at one end of the room. Laptop bags, backpacks and enormous purses with flip-flops peeking out rest on the floor. The students are dressed in khakis wrinkled from eight hours in a cubicle, button-downs and sensible heels. This is the Acting for Business Professionals class, and tonight's exercise is show and tell.

Each student recounts a story about a beloved possession: a piece of handmade Japanese pottery, an old soccer jersey, a Hungarian dictionary. Buried in the middle of the rotation-- as usual, not first, not last -- is Naruki Hirai.

At 22, he is the youngest student in the class, both by age and by experience. He works as an accountant at a financial services firm. Though others stand up to give their presentations, he drags a chair to the center of the stage and sits down.

Naruki has brought his favorite CD to share with his classmates. He wants to let them know that there is more to him than mere arithmetic. There is another Naruki that lives inside his head, the Naruki that his college friends nicknamed "The King of One-liners," the Naruki that has watched "The Godfather" a zillion times. This Naruki remains hidden from his co-workers and bosses. He is an anonymous cog in a 5,000-person machine.

About 30 people have signed up for this 10-week, $375 course that promises to help them convert the techniques of the theater for use in the corporate boardroom. They are middle managers and division directors, a foreign service officer and a clinical psychologist. The classes will cover everything from the practical, such as voice control and deep breathing, to the psychological, such as "kinesthetic awareness" and ensemble-building. Promotional materials promise the course will help the students become "relaxed, present and persuasive" in public. It will help them listen and communicate more effectively, whether with bosses or clients, in person or on a conference call.

Naruki's goals are loftier. He wants to turn himself inside out. From his seat on the stage, Naruki holds up the iconic Bob Dylan album "Blonde on Blonde."

"I always feel like a number guy, and this is lyrics," he musters awkwardly. "I don't know. It's so Dylan."

He casts out a few more lackluster lines, then leaves, quickly returning to the crowd. That was painful, but the first cut always hurts the most. Naruki thinks about a line from the alt-country band Wilco's song "War on War":

You have to learn how to die/If you want to be alive.

Since he graduated from the University of Maryland, Naruki has been playing the role of the quiet accountant. He puts in eight hours of work a day and exercises three times a week (or at least thinks about exercising three times a week). His cubicle contains a computer, phone and filing cabinet. There are no photos, only a few news clippings related to work. His desk is always kind of a mess, and he recently set a goal of becoming more organized. He eats lunch alone at his desk.

Then one day he was walking by the Shakespeare Theatre offices when an idea struck him. He Googled "acting class" and came up with Acting for Business Professionals. Maybe he's just nostalgic for college, but he likes taking courses. He took guitar lessons in high school and wishes he had done the same in college. He's not worried about doing well or getting an A; there are no grades in this workshop. He wants to enjoy it, open up his field of experience.

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