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PLU Theatre alumnus Adam Utley ’04 returns to campus to host TEDxTacoma

PLU Theatre alumnus Adam Utley ’04 returns to campus to host TEDxTacoma

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Adam Utley '04 at TEDxTacoma 2015. (Photo by John Froschauer/PLU)

Image: Adam Utley ’04 at TEDxTacoma 2015. (Photo by John Froschauer/PLU)

April 4, 2016
By Zach Powers '10
PLU Marketing & Communications

TACOMA, WASH. (April 4, 2016)- For the first time in the event's five-year history, TEDxTacoma will be hosted at Pacific Lutheran University on April 22. For the event's host, Adam Utley, the new location signifies a homecoming of sorts, as the the improv performer and consultant graduated from PLU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre in 2004.

What’s new about TEDxTacoma this year?
Primarily, our partnership with PLU. The university has been amazing on many levels.  The committee and I knew that as we were expanding our event, we wanted to partner with an organization that was in line with TED’s values.  We are honored to be collaborating with PLU and have every intention of keeping the partnership healthy.  Aside from our location change, our speaker lineup is incredibly solid. Perspectives will be shared and brains will be challenged in the best possible way.

How did you first get involved with TEDxTacoma?
I first got involved with TEDxTacoma in 2013 when my improv cohort, Muh Grog Zoo, was asked to be a part of TEDxTacoma 2014. The kind of art that we were bringing to Tacoma was something that the committee wanted to share with the TED audience.  The theme that year was “connectivity” and it couldn’t have been more in our wheelhouse.

What’s the challenge of presenting a full and complete idea in a six to eight minute TEDx talk?
One of the biggest challenges is whittling away all the other “mini ideas” within your idea that don’t quite “make the cut.”  When you are sharing an idea in this kind of presentation level, it really puts your brain in a corner at first.  Along with the excitement of knowing that you get to share your idea, there is this sense of dread knowing that you only get to say so much. How do you know what’s really going to resonate with the myriad brains in the audience? Factor in the sleepless nights and you got yourself quite the challenge.

Your improv group, Muh Grog Zoo, looks to be having a very busy year. Can you share a bit about what makes the group unique?
Without sounding like too much of a hack — because talking about improv is snooze worthy — Muh Grog Zoo is without a doubt some of the purest improv you can find out in the world.  We have no loose scaffolding to follow, theme of show we must incorporate, or games to adhere to.  We go into every show knowing absolutely nothing before hand.  We not only establish essential story elements moment by moment, but the characters and relationships that we create are an integral part of our improvised one-act plays. We do two 45-minute improvised one-act plays every Friday in our theater and couldn’t be more smitten with the opportunity to do so. When you get to effect audiences on a comedic level, as well as make them cry in the same show (out of genuine caring for the characters), you know you are doing something special. All that said, anyone who does improv, who gets out there in front of an audience in this medium, deserves a sincere pat on the back regardless of the format.

Three out of the four members are PLU alumni. Is PLU part of the Muh Grog Zoo origin story?
PLU is somewhat linked to the inception of Muh Grog Zoo.  After I graduated from PLU, I felt a need to give back to the school that gave me so much. I made the conscious decision to start the Improv Theatre program at PLU (in 2007) and while doing so I ended up connecting with two of my three cohorts during their improv classes with me.  So, while PLU wasn’t the direct inspiration, it had a hand in fusing the relationships for our thriving group.

How did improv lead you to consulting and your work with The Yes Works?
What drives my passion for improv is what it does for the human brain.  There’s exciting new research about what’s called the Default Mode Network (DMN): it’s the home of creativity, and flow, innovation and breakthrough insight. Improv strengthens the DMN. It activates empathy, self-value, and the synthesis of ideas. Improvisational relationships — where each relationship participant is equal and unique — are healthy, productive, synergistic relationships. And so, businesses thrive when the minds that make them up are improv minds. There’s no business in the world, The Yes Works included, that doesn’t improve, that isn’t strengthened in direct correlation with the improvisational strength of its people.