How to influence audiences

Theatre Encounter turns classic text into live art

Even if they’ve never read it most people are aware of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People . Although the book is dated you may detect traces of its legacy in modern-day business practices.

Michael Fenton co-artistic director of Theatre Encounter is directing a show based on the famous text describing the book as “worthy of an investigation.” It’s hard to argue against the book’s considerable influence.

“We might view it as very old-fashioned and misogynistic and everything else but it definitely played a role in the time period” says Fenton.

This is not a straight-up adaptation however. The production puts a spin on the text that its author never would have expected. A hint lies in the show’s full title — How to Win Friends and Influence People: A Multidisciplinary Live Art Performance .

Fenton describes the setting at artBOX — a paint-store-turned-art-space on International Avenue (17th Avenue S.E.) — as appropriate to the work explaining that “it’s much more of a gallery setting” compared to a black-box theatre and that his art tends to be “somewhere between performance art and theatre.”

Fenton has also taken advantage of the surrounding neighbourhood. To supplement the ideas addressed in the performance Fenton has invited nearby businesses on International Avenue to set up displays in the buildings foyer similar to a trade show.

Performed by Val Duncan Elan Pratt and Emily McCourt the show is episodic rather than narrative and draws on a number of sources for its execution such as operatic metal and the use of the Japanese movement style of butoh. Fenton describes butoh as a “highly stylized and controlled form of movement” which permits considerable variation.

“Not all the movement is steeped in butoh either” he says. “We choose to jump around stylistically to whatever we feel is the strongest.”

There won’t be a traditional story arc but Fenton describes some of the through-lines in the piece as “how we deal with people how we go about trying to use what people need to reward ourselves.” (Rewards will be shown symbolically onstage with a county-fair-type money machine.) The use of butoh among other artistic decisions help bring emotions to the fore.

“I have a deep affinity for expressionism in terms of bringing emotion to the table” he says. “There’s a lot of emotional appeal in the book in terms of success for yourself and the wants and needs of others.”

There are a number of layers put under the theatrical microscope here. Wrapped up in Theatre Encounter’s production are notions of the corporate challenge human resources and the self-help industry. (Fun fact: Carnegie’s original book contained tips for a happier marital life alongside all the business advice.)

Fenton doesn’t presume to tell audiences what they should or shouldn’t take away from the productions. He does say though “The self-help book phenomenon is fascinating… as is the corporate challenge as is human resources and all these things that just become so much a part of our daily lives.”

And perhaps through the lens of Carnegie’s original ground-breaking book and through a 21st-century interpretation of the material it’s worth looking more closely at that social machinery that hums along beneath the surface of our days.

“Keep your head open to why things happen around you and don’t be afraid to question why they’re occurring and already deeply embedded” says Fenton.