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Build a stronger staff -- literally Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002

Actor and singer Michael Pizzuto will run on stage, but don't ask him to include such a fast pace in an exercise program. In fact, don't even ask him about exercise.

"I might be the most out-of-shape man who works here at Shadowbox," says the marketing assistant at this local, for-profit theater company.

Even so, earlier this year, he completed a mandatory 36-hour, 80-mile physical team challenge that helped him and his co-workers identify their individual mental strengths and weaknesses under pressure.

This grueling "Shadow Challenge" is Shadowbox Cabaret's way of uniting employees of the nearly $1.6 million business in mind and spirit -- and determining the natural leaders for management positions, says president and chief executive Steven Guyer.

"At first, my initial thought was that this was just nuts," Pizzuto says of the challenge, which this year included:

  • 35 miles of road and mountain cycling;

  • 10 miles of canoeing;

  • Three miles of swimming;

  • 20 miles of hiking;

  • A five-mile biathlon with target shooting;

  • Orienteering with a map and compass;

  • Technical rock climbing.

"But once you experience what it's all about, you understand so much about why it occurs," he continues. "More than anything, it's a mental challenge. Sure, you really have to bust your butt really hard to make sure you are in some physical shape and can run. But more than anything else, it's a mental challenge.

"By hour 32 of the race, personalities come out, there's team work involved, and it really builds and meshes the company together."

That's the point, says Guyer, who was a businessman and amateur athlete before he turned to the theater.

"You always start out with a really competitive attitude," he says. "Everybody's thinking, 'We're going to win this thing.' That lasts until the normal will and energy run out. That's the point when team ethics takes over, not just within a team but team to team.

"We see amazing acts of teams helping one another through difficult sections of the race. It teaches them that there is something far more important than competition."

A tradition begins

The first Shadow Challenge took place in 1998 in downtown Columbus. It took only 17 hours to complete and the events were much tamer, including a three-legged race, an egg drop off a parking garage roof and a scavenger hunt, says Katy Psenicka, who is director of public relations and advertising for the business, as well as a choreographer, comedian, dancer, actress and singer.

All employees work both the entertainment and business side of Shadowbox.

Once employees saw the difference this team-building event made in co-workers, they agreed to an annual event, Guyer says.

"It's not just good for our people as business folks," he says. "Turns out it's great for them as actors. They discover a whole new depth of who they are. That's what acting is about -- uncovering those depths and revealing them as actors."

Most of this year's event took place at Crocket's Run, a resort on the Buckeye trail near the Hocking River. The course also took them through part of nearby Wayne National Forest.

Twenty-eight of Shadowbox's 46 paid staff members participated in the challenge events. The eight-member Creative Team, which designs and runs the course ahead of time, observes during the challenge for safety reasons. Other employees -- some injured during training -- are assigned to support staff at base camp.

Event participants were divided into seven teams. Each team received $200 to spend on supplies. In addition, the company invested $23,000 for necessities such as food, accommodations, climbing instructors and gear, radio communications, canoes and bicycle rentals.

Each team member had to participate in every event and complete the challenge or the entire team would be eliminated.

"I shocked a few people and made the entire challenge all the way through," says Pizzuto.

"I always believed it was important as an artist to become a rounded person," says Guyer, who also is a producer, director, actor and singer. "Every day, they are artists and in the business office. But it didn't assure their business attitude was where it should be. As time went by, we realized it takes more than giving them a title to make them a businessperson."

The practical effects of the Shadow Challenge include:

1. Identifying leaders, not only to themselves, but to co-workers.

"You can't go through this game and not see the cream rise to the top," Guyer says. "That's a phenomenal thing. There's instantaneous respect that goes with it. We have yet to see one of our truly [physically] strongest people come out as a strong leader. It's more mental strength. Everybody gains from it; no title will do it automatically."

2. Impacting the staff's demeanor.

"You can't go through the Shadow Challenge without feeling good about yourself. People are doing things they never imagined they could do," Guyer says. "They come out of it with a pride and willingness to try things that they normally wouldn't have. If they are challenged during the day now, we ask them to remember that 100-foot cliff they rappelled in the dark; the challenge today is nothing."

3. Inspiring camaraderie.

"There's nothing like a sense of accomplishment that comes with this game," says Guyer. "You are wide awake for 36 hours with these people. There's something really special that happens and there's no other way to get it. Day after day, we see it when people reach out and help one another when otherwise they might have said, 'That's your job.'"

Not for everyone

To succeed with such a challenge, Guyer cautions, "You must have a firm understanding of who your employees are. At Shadowbox, we tend to find an awful lot out about one another quickly. It's the nature of theater. In that process of revelation, we have to be honest with one another.

"If you are in the sort of business where that is not necessarily true, you may express things in the game that don't have a proper outlet. It might not be the kind of thing you want to know. Be careful who you select to put into a game like that. At Shadowbox, everybody does it. If I were back in the insurance business, I think I would be highly selective [of who participated].

"There are a lot of people who aren't ready for the kinds of truths that this game might reveal." How to reach: Shadowbox Cabaret, www.shadowboxcabaret.com; 416-7625

Andria Segedy (aesegedy@sprintmail.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.