Mouthing off

By: Jessica Loughery , The Packet Group


Staff photo by Frank Wojciechowski

MouthWorks in rehearsal: From left, Kristen Branchizio, Ozcan Davgic, Twyla Malone, Adam Politis, Rob Leidka and Jennifer Wesolowsky, with Katarina Licjestrom on the floor.

Members of MCCC troupe earn credits for speaking up

   Acting isn't for everyone, to be sure. But over at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), they're breeding a new kind of performance style that's opening doors for a few students, and shaking some bellies in the process.
   Six years ago, the communications department at MCCC was looking to add some courses to its offering. That's when Kathryn Paluscio put forth an idea.
   "One thing we didn't have was a second-level class for people who wanted to take their communication skills further," Professor Paluscio says.
   Shortly thereafter, CMN212, or Oral Interpretation, was born. The class is offered one to two times per year and focuses on the ways anything written can be performed for impact upon a live audience. The material is usually highly unlikely, ranging from recipes to greeting card messages.
   "It was kind of a discovery for me," says Professor Paluscio. "I had never taught anything like that. I was trying new stuff and the students were coming up with these amazing performances of ridiculous things. One time, a student was going to come up with a list of all the girls he'd ever known and perform the list."
   To practice, students will go to the Lawrence Library or MCCC's late-night series on Fridays. Or, they simply "set up shop and just start performing," as Professor Paluscio puts it, whenever and wherever looks amenable to a live, spoken performance.
   "It's very infectious stuff," says Professor Paluscio. So infectious, in fact, that a speaking troupe called "MouthWorks" was formed soon after the class, with Professor Paluscio as faculty adviser.
   MouthWorks consists of a small number of students committed for a semester. The group performs two seasonal shows made up of original skits. In 2004, they performed the student handbook, right down to the ID policy, which can be enlightening when performed with a Shakespearean flair or by people standing on the moon. They've also worked with menus and bus schedules.
   "It's amazing what you can do with nothing," says Professor Paluscio of the always G-rated material. "The shows are a series of really joyful, bizarre, interpretational performances of things that were never meant to be performed."
   Script development begins a few months before the group is slated to take the stage. Once a week, everyone gets together to build from a selected theme, which is usually related to communications or college life. The upcoming May performance has been named "Back That Train Up" and will focus on repetition.
   Once they've settled on a theme, members simply start messing around with words. Professor Paluscio says they'll constantly make changes to the script until about a week or so before the show. And even then, the style leaves room for ample improvisation.
   Five years after the troupe's inception, MouthWorks performances are nothing short of events. The cast bakes treats. Couches and café tables help turn The Studio Black Box Theatre into a cafeteria. Overall, the performance is more of an interactive play between player and audience member in a laid-back atmosphere.
   Though she didn't know exactly where an oral interpretation group like this would go, Professor Paluscio says that members of the college community now recognize and appreciate the performance style. The biennial shows are getting bigger and now involve multiple performance nights. Troupe members are able to carry jokes from performance to performance so that the audience remembers both the actors and their skits.
   "We have running gags from year to year," Professor Paluscio says. "We have these speaking super heroes that interrupt the show completely with a big entrance. They're called the 'Rule Breakers,' and they do things like running with scissors and swimming after eating."
   As the shows grow in popularity, more students from a variety of majors become interested in getting involved. Eight or nine is usually a sufficient number for a group that savors its ability to give everyone ample time on stage. Last year, the troupe carried 12. This semester, 25 showed interest.
   "It's not really so much about talent," says Professor Paluscio. At auditions, she wants to see if a student is willing to put themselves out there, if they can work with other troupe members and if they're willing to commit the time.
   "We're basically studying speaking skills," she adds, noting how much the group has helped students' anxieties. "They're able to speak more clearly and generally be more animated. And the group is also about promoting student leadership and helping students learn how to function successfully in a group. We're learning how to be successful communicators."
   Danielle Cifelli, now a communications major at American University in Washington, D.C., was taking Professor Paluscio's class during her first semester at MCCC when the professor asked her to audition for MouthWorks. Though Ms. Cifelli had never heard of the troupe before, she had always wanted to try acting. She soon watched her speaking anxieties melt away.
   "Before college, I was really shy," she says. "Kathi and the group helped me mature faster. I'm very open and brave about performing now."
   Ms. Cifelli continued with MouthWorks until she left MCCC, helping with all aspects of production and eventually becoming a troupe leader.
   Adam Politis has had similar experiences with MouthWorks. During his first semester at MCCC in the fall of 2005, he took a public speaking class with Professor Paluscio. She brought up the MouthWorks troupe, encouraging people to audition. Like Ms. Cifelli, Mr. Politis was shy but had always wanted to test his stage legs.
   "I was so nervous during my first MouthWorks auditions because I didn't know what to expect," he says. "Kathi gives you a word and you have to say it in three different ways. To me, that was a hard thing to do in front of people I don't know."
   Mr. Politis' shyness continued through rehearsals, but when show time rolled around he opened right up. "I liked being in front of an audience," he explains.
   Ms. Cifelli puts the MouthWorks phenomenon simply: "Kathi and the group make it fun. Nobody puts anybody down, and everyone's comforting. If you mess up, you laugh it off."
   Now, pick a word and say it three different ways.