PEP TALK, from experimental theater company Hand2Mouth, is one of those shows you should probably just see for yourself.
But in case you need persuading, here goes: Pep Talk is about teams and coaches and motivation; it is held, appropriately, in the gym at the Peninsula Park Community Center. Before the show starts, audience members are asked to fill out a quick survey answering questions like, "Who's your hero?" and "What makes a good coach?" (Because this felt like some sort of vetting process, and because I am an asshole, I made sure to note that one of my biggest fears is "audience participation," of which this show has plenty.) Then we slapped on nametags and took our seats on benches in the gym, in front of a sparse set featuring a few video monitors and a foosball table.
This show is led—"performed" seems an insufficient word—by Hand2Mouth ensemble members Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, and Maesie Speer. In customized warm-up jackets and sneakers, they introduce themselves as our coaches for the evening; together, they will consider the form and function of motivational speeches by living the form and function of motivational speeches. The audience, seated on backless benches and folding chairs, is part of the show too: We're the raggedy band of misfits just waiting for the right coach to transform us into a team.
Toward the beginning of the show, the coaches break down the elements of a successful pep talk. I'd have to see it again to track if the shape of the show fully corresponds to the pep-talk template they lay out, but I think it does: Over the course of about 90 minutes, audience members are called on to identify their strengths; team spirit is established (via rallying cries and purple jerseys); and inspirational anecdotes are deployed for maximum motivational value. It's a pep rally for people who hated pep rallies, a simultaneous goof on the trappings of team spirit and sincere acknowledgement that teams can be families, coaches can be life changing, and motivational speeches get people going for a reason.
If all of this sounds a bit rah-rah, well... that's the point. The show was conceived, the company explains in the program notes, as much as a pep talk for the company as for the audience: "The fact is, what we have right here is a company of theater artists who have worked their asses off for over a decade—investing time, energy, and vision into making the art, applying for funding, arranging tours, finding space, holding down day jobs, and building families. All that hard work can run you into the ground, so H2M made this show because H2M needed a goddamn pep talk!" And if you're familiar with Hand2Mouth's work over the years, the elements of the show that are personal to Hand2Mouth as an ensemble also serve as a sort of nostalgic highlights reel that'll leave you feeling surprisingly moved by how much ground this company has covered.
My only real quibble: For all that certain elements of the show feel highly structured, even schematic, I walked out with some uncertainty as to what exactly Team Audience was supposed to be getting so pumped up about. Life, I guess? But to the credit of the ensemble, the audience was perfectly willing to follow these performers wherever they wanted to lead us, even when the path wasn't entirely clear—inspirational coaching, indeed.