- photo by Lord Blakely, via
The idea behind Andrew Dickson's latest TBA offering—following his performances about how to be an eBay PowerSeller and how to sell out—is, on the surface, pretty gimmicky: Dickson acts as a life coach for someone. Participation is free for both the audience and the pre-selected coachees; in a setup that more or less mirrors that of any shrink's office—quiet, two chairs facing each other, low lighting—Dickson and the coachee sit for the better part of an hour, talking through any life challenge(s) the coachee has asked for help with. The biggest difference from a normal life coaching session, I guess, is the fact that there are like 40 people watching, and occasionally weighing in. Well, that and the fact that Dickson totally isn't a trained or licensed or even particularly experienced life coach.
The performance/session I attended yesterday afternoon started off somewhat worrisomely: Dickson asked everyone in attendance to take a few moments to reflect on why we had chosen to attend and what we wanted to get out of the experience, and then he had us turn to whoever was sitting closest to us and, making eye contact, discuss these reasons. This was about 98 percent awkward and terrible, for me at least, in no small part because I felt more than a little guilty and voyeuristic about my reasons for attending. (In short: "I am a terrible and curious and nosy person, and I figure this is the closest I'll ever get to eavesdropping on a stranger's therapy session.")
So that part was clunky and weird, and ultimately, didn't add a whole lot to the experience. What happened next, though, was pretty great: Dickson invited up the coachee, Wayne, a middle-aged or maybe slightly more-than-middle-aged man with a gray shirt, gray hair, glasses, and a soft voice. Wayne had applied to be Dickson's coachee because he had a problem. A math problem.
The experience was fairly intimate, so I'm not going to go into too much depth regarding Wayne's problem and its resultant complications—but considering it was a public event, I don't think there's much harm in sharing the basics. Wayne, who works with computer programs, was friends with a Dr. Antonia Jones, the developer of "The Gamma Test," which Wayne said was a remarkable statistical technique for interpreting data. Without getting too math-y: According to Wayne, Dr. Jones had devised a way to interpret big amounts of data, and to do so in a way that's radically different, more accurate, and easier than how scientists and researchers currently do so. Wayne explained that the Gamma Test had been called by at least one expert "the Holy Grail of non-linear modeling," and he also interjected that, in his opinion, Dr. Jones' work was the biggest mathematical breakthrough of the past 100 years.
Wayne noted that Dr. Jones died before seeing her work widely recognized; while her model had been repeatedly and reliably proven effective, Wayne said, academia in general had stubbornly refused to accept, or even investigate, her work. So Wayne's dilemma was twofold: First, and rather poignantly, Wayne wanted to effectively disseminate Dr. Jones' work, thus posthumously giving her the recognition she deserved, and, second and more pragmatically, he wanted to see if he could make some money in doing so. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that Wayne is not, as he noted, one of the guys in Glengarry Glen Ross: When it came to trying to get attention for the Gamma Test, he'd set up a website and made a lot of phone calls, but he had yet to find a way to demonstrate—at least to the most important statisticians and researchers, the people who could really make a difference—how revolutionary and valuable Dr. Jones' work could be.
So, the life coaching, in which the likeable, smart Dickson spoke—kindly but determinedly—with Wayne, poking here and prodding there, sussing out themes in what Wayne was saying and pointing out things Wayne had overlooked or written off. Dickson's technique, in fact, was remarkably similar to the frequently insightful, even-more-frequently maddening technique of a shrink I once had: Dickson would ask questions that he clearly already knew the answer to, and in doing so, he'd force Wayne to say the answer aloud, to think through it, to verbalize and examine the issue in a way that he might not have before. With good humor and a slight awkwardness, Dickson gently, effectively teased a good amount of info out of Wayne, finding opportunities Wayne had missed: Sure, Wayne had set up that website, but Dickson was able to get Wayne to note that he hadn't done very much to promote it, and while Wayne had thought of asking graduate students to use the Gamma Test, he had only approached professors about doing so, not graduate students themselves.
It seemed to me that the biggest developments, though—I was tempted to say "breakthroughs," there, but let's stick with "developments"—came when Dickson got Wayne talking about Dr. Jones herself, who, from the little Wayne shared, seemed to have led a fairly remarkable and intriguing life: A paraplegic and a driver of muscle cars, Wayne said she had died upset that her work hadn't achieved the recognition she felt it had deserved. While noting that she was "quite a character," Wayne was hesitant to share too much about Dr. Jones' personal life; the little info he did give, though, had everybody more or less fascinated. So Wayne's math problem became less about the math and more about how to tell the story of Dr. Jones—which, as an audience member pointed out, might bring more attention to her work the process.
Dickson, at a couple of key points, asked the mostly silent and respectful audience to chime in with ideas. While Dickson focused more on questioning and less on advice, the audience, perhaps not surprisingly, was full of advice for Wayne—hewing to the exact cliche that one would expect from someone attending a Portland performance-arts festival, one attendee told him that she was sure Radio Lab would be interested in Dr. Jones' story (a guess that is, I would say, about 100 percent correct), another suggested that speaking to the people who might benefit the most from Dr. Jones' research, like those in finance, might be a more effective tactic than trying to muddle through the conservative labyrinths of academia. The audience's advice was, for the most part, very good; even when Dickson jumped in with a few small pieces of advice—like pointing out how strongly resonant the human-interest elements of Wayne's story were, or finding little bits of vacuum in Wayne's thought process—just about all of the suggestions given to Wayne seemed pretty damn useful.
Which is what—moreso than Dickson's clunky attempts at the beginning to get everyone invested—ultimately made the whole thing so interesting, and so emotionally involving, and, yes, okay, what made me feel even shittier about my selfish reason for attending. While Life Coach certainly has an element of voyeurism to it, it was remarkable how quickly everyone in the room became invested in Wayne's problem, wanting him to succeed, listening to him carefully and offering generally well-thought out input when prompted to do so. "Your homework list keeps increasing," Dickson joked to Wayne toward the end, but for real: Thanks to Dickson, the audience, and Wayne's own guided thoughts, dude walked out of the room with about five or 10 new tactics than what he'd walked in with, and just about all of 'em seemed like they'd have to be more successful than what he'd tried before.
As anyone who's sat through a therapy session can attest—or hell, even just had a bullshit session with a friend—sometimes the solutions to whatever problems we're dealing with are already somewhere inside our halfwit ape brains. There's nothing mystical about it; it's just that in general, we're selfish, shallow, easily distracted creatures who get too wrapped up in the minutia, mechanics, and soul-draining drudgery of day-to-day life to look at our problems with perspective and openness. That's an important thing to remember, and, for me at least, it was the most valuable takeaway from Dickson's performance. Getting someone else (or, in this case, a room full of someone elses) to help you recontextualize and reexamine an issue can be remarkably clarifying. I don't know if Wayne's going to solve his problem, or if Dr. Jones' work will get the attention he feels it deserves; I do know that by the time the hour-long session ended, Wayne seemed reenergized, and everyone else in the room seemed to feel the same way. There had been a problem, and then Dickson had helped Wayne talk through it, and then a few of us had chimed in, and now the problem was, if not solved, a lot less opaque and daunting than it had been before. Maybe Wayne will succeed at his goal, or maybe he won't—or, I don't know, maybe the Gamma Test isn't nearly as remarkable as Wayne believes it to be. (There is, I suppose, the possibility that all this Gamma Test stuff is non-functional gibberish. We had to take everything Wayne said to Dickson—and the rest of us—at face value. He seemed trustworthy, though!) But regardless, I feel safe in saying that when we filtered out of the room at the end of Dickson's performance, just about all of us were hoping Wayne would succeed, and just about all of us felt like we might've helped him figure out how to do so.
I don't know who else Dickson has lined up to life coach for his future performances; I have to assume that, based on who the coachee is, the subject matter, tone, efficacy, and emotional and intellectual involvement of each performance will vary wildly. Based on Dickson's session with Wayne, though, I'd highly recommend checking this thing out. You won't know ahead of time what you're going to be getting into, but—at least based on today's session—I predict you won't be disappointed.
Andrew Dickson: Life Coach, Mark Spencer Hotel Ballroom, 409 SW 11th (downstairs), Sat-Sun 1:30 & 3:30 pm, through Sun Sept 16, FREE