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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

The Perils of Pauline's Family Business

by Shel Horowitz

December 10, 1996 marked a departure for the Family Business Center--a play about a business family.

"The Perils of Pauline's Family Business" made its Massachusetts debut at Chez Josef. The light-hearted but serious play watched the evolving dynamics of an entrepreneurial family, through snapshots at three Thanksgiving dinners: 1956, 1986, and 1996.

After each act--but before the audience knew how things would be resolved--the action was stopped and the audience gathered table by table to address the situation and suggest possible courses of action. And at least in a couple of places along the way, the audience controlled the outcome--and the actors had to improvise according to their wishes. In the first act, we meet Pauline Whitacre, daughter of a successful businessman. Pauline has made her famous pralines for the dinner. She dreams of taking over his small chain of hardware stores--and has a much stronger grasp on overall strategy and marketing. But her father is a staunch traditionalist, who repeatedly bellows, "Hardware is no place for a lady."

Though his wife tries to dissuade him, he ruins Pauline's Thanksgiving by announcing that he's retiring and turning over the company to one of his sons--and Pauline gets a gift of his stock in another firm. Pauline is crushed, and her brothers are unprepared.

In the 30 years between Acts 1 and 2, we learn that Pauline has used her stock gift to set up a business venture of her own--Pauline's Pralines--and built it to a $20 million concern. She's also raised three children, all of whom work in the business. Janice, at 28, is controller--and Pauline's groomed successor. she has an MBA and lots of business savvy--but she really would rather be a teacher. Howard, a year younger, is an unctuous supersalesman stereotype--all style and no substance. He lands fabulous sales deals--but forgets to check with production about whether the company can meet his commitments. And Brian, 26, is still finding himself. He has a low-level position with the company, and fantasizes about singing with famous rock bands.

The straight man is Janice's husband George, who manages a plant for another company. When Janice moans, "I talked to every banker this side of the Mississippi. I can control the business--but can anyone control Howard? How do I deal with my out-of-control brother?" George responds, "Have a drink." Still, Janice's real issue is not Howard. "Isn't there more to life than business?" she asks.

Meanwhile--to Howard's horror--Pauline is trying to woo George into a management position--but George is not sure he wants to get caught in the personality wars.

As the action freezes, the audience is keenly aware of the stresses on this business. They see Janice's frustration with her role as her mother's unwilling water-carrier. Sample comments: "She's forced in because the mother was forced out--Pauline is living through Janice." "She thinks she's giving her daughter the opportunity she didn't have--but Janice doesn't want that." "They just assume family members want to come in--'this is what you want to do, Janice'--but she's never thought for herself about what she really wants."

But the final act, ten years later, reveals surprising developments. Janice and Pauline have stayed with the company, Brian's cleaned up his act and been promoted to marketing director--and George did accept a position as plant manager for Pauline's Pralines. This outcome seems a bit unlikely, based on the second act--and there are more changes in store. Janice and Pauline both announce their exit from the company: Pauline is finally retiring and Janice has accepted a professorship at Yale.

Will Pauline's successor be Brian? Howard, George? An outsider? Once again, the action freezes. And once again, there was strong consensus from the group that took the action in ways the writers hadn't considered. Many people suggested hiring consultants--something a $20 million business could certainly afford. And from many tables, as well, came the suggestion to offer Janice a directorship. This would be a way to continue tapping her expertise, while freeing her to go and teach with an easy conscience. Said one attender, "It's a compromise. She won't cripple the company by abandoning it, but can pursue her dream." However, another observer predicted that Pauline would try to keep Janice "hooked" by vesting her financially with a major gift of stock.

Howard was pretty much universally dismissed from consideration--he had more-or-less taken himself out of the running by saying he only wanted to concentrate on sales. George was a serious candidate in some circles, but others felt he lacked the leadership potential to make it work. And there was little support for bringing on an outsider.

The sleeper was Brian, who had made a comment about dealing with the transition, absorbing the changes, and growing from them. Brian was the choice by a large plurality, with George a distant second. Yet, the troupe had not predicted this, and had not done previous improv about that outcome.

The production was a team effort, collaboratively written by Family Business Center Director Ira Bryck, along with Michael Camerota, former head of the University of New Haven Center for family Business, family business consultant Kacie LaChapelle of East Longmeadow, and the members of Valley Playback Theatre, the troupe that performed it (troupe director Tim Van Ness, Toni Bergins, Jill Turner, Erik Muten, and Don Cox [who led the writing and scripting process]). The drama??? used a technique called Playback Theatre--theatre improvisation based on personal stories and experiences. It was performed a week earlier for the New Haven group.

The play was extremely well-received. During each small-group breakout, virtually the entire audience--at over 170, one of the largest to date--was huddled intensely in conversation, actively taking on the family's problems and striving for the best possible results. Discussions were animated, even passionate--and by and large, a rough consensus would emerge from the different small groups, even though they were working independently. Chez Josef, too, gets kudos for the over-the-top attempt to make us feel welcome. During registration, the room was closed off while the actors set up. Rather than having us just mill around, the hall thoughtfully put out carts of cheese and crackers, fruit, and other goodies--under the shadow of an elegantly carved ice sculpture of a sleigh. Dinner not only included a large buffet with many vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, but also a full salad bar, custom roast slicing station, and an opulent display of summer fruit (maybe they'll share their source for decent December raspberries!).

All in all, the quality of the program and the facility were excellent, and the event received fabulous reviews from participants.

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