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The Gift of a Great Workshop - Kathleen Tarr's "You Betta Werk! A Persona Workshop"

model on a runway

From the editors: Before leaving us to join Dartmouth College, Clara Lewis wrote this powerful essay about her experience with one of Kathleen Tarr's workshops as her final contribution to the PWR Newsletter.  Clara was co-teaching Public Policy 306, "Communicating for Policy Change" at the time of the workshop.

By Clara Lewis

A well-designed workshop can encourage growth in a mere hour. This spring, I had an opportunity to partake in such a lesson with the eight open-minded, whip-smart graduate students enrolled in “Communicating for Policy Change” and with co-teacher extraordinaire and public policy heavy weight Dr. Greg Rosston. Led by PWR’s Kathleen Tarr, the workshop was ominously titled, “You Betta Werk! A Persona Workshop.”

When I scheduled the workshop for the seminar, I didn’t anticipate participating myself. I imagined Kathleen coming to our classroom where I would slip into a corner and hide. But, day of, we marched over to her gymnasium-sized classroom in the basement of Lathrop to comingle with her section of fifteen PWR2 students.

The idea of runway walking in front of any audience, never mind the next generation of global policy leaders, was beyond intimidating. Being a pedagogy geek, however, I knew that if I skipped the enactment I would miss the takeaways.

Plus, I knew I needed the werk. It took me five years of teaching full time just to get almost comfortable speaking in front of a small seminar. I still hide behind a cup of coffee and a detailed, typed out lesson plan. I wilt under sustained eye contact, if it isn’t warmly affirmative. To prepare for any high-stakes speaking opportunity, I need a full month of daily rehearsal. My ad hoc remarks need to be carefully scripted, repeatedly revised. The goal of feeling comfortable in front of an audience is somehow always beyond reach.

Kathleen’s teaching persona is one part drill sergeant, one part psychotherapist, with a side order of Dadaist absurdity. Somehow even costumed in a rainbow wig and bell bottom leggings, she still held the space with firm, nurturing composure. Her bright, unhurried vocal tone the essense of confidence. Kathleen and I have shared an office in Sweet Hall for six years. I know how her hugs lower blood pressure. Yet seeing her teach, I was star struck.

Kathleen opened the workshop with two short YouTube videos that underscored that the workshop was designed for people, like myself, who feel singed under a spotlight. We watched genderfluid fashion model Rain Dove explain how modeling menswear empowers her to resist labels and advocate for acceptance. Then we watched a quick, captivating clip of queer, plus-size model Dexter Mayfield own the runway in a Maro Marco’s tight zipped scuba suit. Kathleen’s choice of video clips made clear that the workshop wasn’t going to be about conforming to a consumerist ideal of feminine beauty. Instead, we would walk in the campy, queer tradition that calls joy into being through the spectacle of shared radical self-acceptance.

Despite being in recovery from knee surgery, Kathleen flipped her wig, turned up Beyoncé, and demonstrated that, in addition to being a Harvard J.D. and rowing champion, she can also own a runway.  

Kathleen then lined us up facing each other across the expanse of the classroom. In pairs, she instructed us to walk. At first, we just walked to the person across from us, held a moment of eye contact to pose, then turned and walked back. I was thrilled to have a partner. And was able to make it across the room keeping myself together. But when I arrived at the moment to pose and hold the gaze of the student across the room from me, I fell apart. My eyes betrayed me. I could feel myself screaming Help! with each glance. After my deer-in-the-headlights first pose, I broke into self-conscious giggles and slumped my way, sneakers dragging, back across the carpet. I sat on the floor cross-legged, until Kathleen made clear that we were only just warming up.

As if she had intuited my initial failure, Kathleen’s lesson plan capitalized on the value of repetition to inculcate tolerance. We walked in pairs. Then as a whole class. Then with twirls. Each walk required using eye contact to navigate the space.

As the other students walked, it was immediately obvious that some people have a surplus of presence. A vibrant, charismatic embodiment of self. These students, who might not have occasion to shine in a traditional writing classroom, owned the day. It was exciting to witness this kind of physical communication in action.

For the climax, Kathleen had us break into small groups and choregraph a performance. “Compete!” she suggested.

I was lost at the verb “choreograph.” 

Thankfully the other members of my group plotted our prance. It was suggested that we might “pop.” More blank stares from me. The pop was scratched from the plan. This small edit, in and of itself, made me feel taken care of. Yes, I was holding my group back, limiting our potential excellence, dinging our shine, but my group generously prioritized my comfort and stuck to a simple plan of action.

When it was our turn to perform, I knew my trajectory and poses but was shaky with shyness. In these kinds of moments, I usually avoid eye contact. But with the music pumping and a crowd flanking us, my team’s smiling eyes became a needed resource. This is fun, their glances insisted. You have this!

When Kathleen had us repeat our walk a second and final time, I felt a kind of subtle learning take place. My perception of and readiness for eye contact had been rewired. I knew that my teams’ eye contact would bolster my spirit and carry me through the rest of the exercise. This is where the joy is. Take it.

The next afternoon, I found myself reflecting on the workshop. I was descending the back canyon behind my apartment in Half Moon Bay at thirty five miles an hour on my road bike. How, I wondered, could someone like myself, who takes so much pleasure in movement still find Kathleen’s workshop a travail? Where might this inhibition come from?

For anyone with serious speech anxiety, like myself, working on public speaking tends to prompt therapeutic incite—welcome or not. Fully alive with the wind in my face, I saw myself as a fourteen-year-old in my first waitressing uniform, short khaki skirt and a tight white polo shirt. I saw myself with a giant bottle of Windex cleaning the dessert case while the teenage boys I worked with ate their lunch first and divided our tips. I saw the restaurant owner, looming behind me, brushing against me, helping himself. I can still smell the snap of the bleach. I remember laughing it all off later with friends. Typical day at the bistro.

The workshop helped me look back with tenderness on my own vulnerability. If I have tried to hold my professional identity as far away from my psychical being as possible, that is but a layer of conditioning.

If the workshop had been filmed and we played it back now, I don’t imagine any visible improvement in my performance would be apparent. I grew nonetheless. My experience of walking changed over the course of the hour from excusing myself with laughter to finding a half-second of fun. And even more joy in getting to play a small supporting role on a team of students who easily outshined and generously supported me. Maybe, on the very last walk with my group, the film would catch my smile.