Staff photo by
MouthWorks in rehearsal:
From left, Kristen Branchizio, Ozcan Davgic, Twyla Malone,
Adam Politis, Rob Leidka
and Jennifer Wesolowsky, with Katarina Licjestrom on the
Members of MCCC troupe
earn credits for speaking up
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
"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
"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
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
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.