GRAND RAPIDS — Mary Jane Pories got into theater through the back door.
A self-proclaimed and proud-of-it “Army brat,” Pories, president of Fishladder Inc., was encouraged by her surgeon father and lawyer mother to go into something “useful,” like business or medicine. Pories, however, didn’t feel those fields suited her and made the transformation from Jewish girl in Cleveland to Christian girl in Grand Rapids, attending Calvin College to study topics of a creative nature.
“My whole life I fought change and dug my heels in every time I was told we had to move again,” said Pories. “Then I made this enormous change in my life and realized that I was beginning to learn how to deal with it and not resist it.”
Pories began using improvisation to deal with the changes in her life. In college, studying art and English simply because it was what she enjoyed doing, she was kind of pushed into doing theater and comedy.
Pories tried out for the occasional school production and community theater, and sometimes dabbled in stand-up comedy.
After graduation she worked for the college for a couple of years and then held the position of art director for a small magazine in the area. But she found herself gravitating toward teaching, a field she worked in as an art and English instructor for 14 years.
After so many years of experiencing so many changes, however, Pories began to wonder if there wasn’t something else out there that she needed to get her hands into.
“I had done a little work with River City Improv and continued my improv work throughout my teaching and after that,” said Pories. “After making so many huge life changes I figured another one couldn’t hurt. The worst thing that can happen to you in improv and life is that you can look foolish, and that really isn’t a big deal. So I quit teaching with no idea of what was next for me.”
What was next was something that many comedians and improv artists only dream of — an audition for the Second City improv group in Detroit. Pories was selected from several hundred people to join the troupe and worked with the company for two years.
In the end, however, she realized it was the teaching aspect of the job that gave her the most satisfaction.
“Performing was always second. I enjoyed it very much but I felt so rewarded when I could teach someone something and see that it worked for them,” said Pories. “Most of the other people in my troupe were looking toward the bright lights of L.A. and I wasn’t. I decided I really wanted to go back to teaching and it was time for another change.”
Having attended college in Grand Rapids, Pories knew the groundwork of the city and felt it was a good place for business with high standards and values. She also felt it was a place in which people liked to take risks.
“I knew Grand Rapids was a conservative place but I didn’t think that was a bad thing. It meant that people were cautious, but along the way they never stopped talking to me,” she said.
What Pories proposed to do was take employees in the corporate and educational settings, play games with them, and turn them into better employees with better communication and team-building skills.
Or at least that’s the concept some people hear when Pories describes Fishladder Inc. What the company focuses on is training employees to have fun, interact productively, find outlets for their creative energies and bring a broader range of skills to the tasks at hand.
“The basics of improv are the same as the basics of problem solving. At an improv show when the performers ask for a situation, that is the problem. The performers then have a set of tools they use to solve that problem and act out a situation,” said Pories. “There are two solutions and responses in communication: either to shut each other down or encourage. What we practice is how to get what response.”
To help encourage these skills Fishladder Inc. offers customized workshops, scripted improvised shows and speaking engagements. Each one is then custom-designed to meet the organization’s particular needs while tackling issues of leadership training, communication, creativity and team building.
Pories is still mulling the idea of holding a hodgepodge class where people from all different companies attend a session to better themselves and their work. Currently Fishladder does offer one-on-one consultation and work in improv skills.
“I find it so rewarding when someone comes back to me after a class and I can see that they were successful with these tools,” said Pories.
“I worked with a chef and after working very hard he was able to secure a television show. I also worked with someone in higher education, and a little while later she was awarded a promotion. Obviously, it is not all me, but I am able to lay the groundwork and then they work with it, and it is great when I can see a difference.”
Even though Pories enjoys the teaching aspect of her work so much, she said there needed to be a balance. So she created Fishschtick, an improv troupe of four performers spearheaded by Pories. The troupe performs both at Fishladder and around town. In addition, Pories also enjoys sailing and riding her motorcycle.
“I never wanted to go into business because I always saw it as cold and non-personal,” said Pories. “Now I see it is really all about relationships and communication and having the ability to act intelligently and with integrity in unpredictable situations. These are skills we can all learn through improvisation tools, and something we can also have fun doing.”