An Unexpected Surprise

 2016 Sundance Institute | Photos by Ryan Kobane

I didn’t believe an experiential workshop could work for seventy people.
I didn’t realize a keynote address could take this shape.
I underestimated the appetite of an audience for engagement.


I always ask my audiences what surprised them. Surprise can put you into a creative space, although it is often unexplored and rarely investigated. It encourages reflection and can become a by-product of experiential work; of doing something you never knew you could do. Imagine the pleasure of investigating my own surprise as I delivered a workshop for the Sundance Institute.

How did this happen? I said “yes” to delivering the keynote address to kick off theWomen at Sundance Initiative‘s Financing and Strategy Intensive. I was asked to talk about ideas that could benefit female filmmakers when they make pitches, though my work and the work of my company- The TAI Group- is always experiential. Could I create value and put the audience into the benefit of immediate practice in such a short period of time?

On the morning of the event, introductory speeches went long and my time was truncated.  That surprise concerned me at first, but I stood close to the audience and felt their energy: it filled the space and worked its magic on me.

I knew things were going well when I had barely finished delivering the first assignment (which was to be completed in pairs) and the participants, finding their partners, burst into conversation. This level of engagement never lagged, and the curiosity continued to grow.  Hands were raised, questions asked, comments offered.  I noticed how intrigued they were when I physically demonstrated a theatre concept of being “present” in your body. They were generously giving me great credibility for this demonstration, perhaps because I had been a ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. They were eager to practice being present themselves and couldn’t get over how much extraneous movement they were using without even realizing it.

I asked for a volunteer to coach since watching change occur is so dramatic and validating. A producer bounded from her seat and followed my directions beautifully. After coaching her to slow down and keep her head still so as not to interfere with her commanding presence, she tried again and received a round of applause for her courage and accomplishment.

Time was now short, but I was able to answer a few questions, some of which surprised me about the unique challenges these women in film face every day. Perhaps in these surprises I have the makings of a new workshop; and certainly my view of what can be accomplished with a large group in a short period of time is the surprise that keeps on giving. The potential to create impact is always there. I will never again underestimate the desire of the audience-or the coach- to be surprised.

About the Author: Ellen Rievman is a director and senior coach at The TAI Group, helping clients to develop their leadership skills, express their unique point of view and see their personal impact. Visit The TAI Group, like us onFacebook, and follow along on Twitter @TheTAIGroup and Instagram @the_tai_group