reprinted from Business West Magazine (12/02) Inspiring Acts: Family Business Center Leader Uses Theater to Educate
UMass Amherst Family Business Center Director Ira Bryck has turned theater into a valuable tool for educating members about the myriad issues involved with succession and when multiple generations try to run a business together. Meanwhile, his productions have also turned into a successful small business.
By George O'Brien
…at the same time as I think this is beneath me - I just don't feel proud of working in my family's store - it's also beyond me. I can't imagine ever being able to do it as well as you. I know I'd be so pleased with myself if I ever thought I could run this place in the style of Will Rosenbloom.
With that line, uttered in Scene 10 of A Tough Nut to Crack, Bud Rosenbloom hits upon many of the conflicting emotions that come with the territory when a member of the second, third, or fourth generation assumes a lead role in a family business. Like many in that situation, Bud comes to the realization that he's not in love with the business and wonders out loud why he's still a part of it.
His experiences and dialogue with his father, Will, which span more than 15 years in the life and times of Rosenbloom's Department Store, create an autobiographical account of the career path taken by Ira Bryck, director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, and now an accomplished playwright.
Indeed, A Tough Nut to Crack is the third play that Bryck has written and produced in the past several years. He told BusinessWest that the plays have become an effective mix of education and entertainment, or "edutainment," as he calls it. They also comprise a fairly successful small business - he has taken his plays on the road, performing them for a fee for family business groups nationally and internationally.
The performances have become an effective way to present real-life family business issues, he explained, and they generate dialogue that often helps center members as much, if not more, than articles, panel discussions, or speeches from a podium. "These plays help create a good learning environment where people can be frank and honest and think outside the box," he said. "Our mission is to help business owners think better, and these plays certainly contribute to that."
BusinessWest looks this month at how the center's theater-as-teaching-tool program evolved, and what might be next for the director with the "write" stuff.
Exit, Stage Right Bryck said that before he started penning his family business plays his only real foray into writing was on off-color reproduction of Gilligan's Island he authored in junior high school.
"I always enjoyed writing, but had no formal training," he said. "I went at it, and it just happened."
The plays have become an important ingredient in the mix of teaching tools used by the center, which was created in 1994, with Bryck as its founding director. The center, with 62 members, is considered one of the most successful in the country, and its Web site is listed second behind Family Business magazine when one conducts a search using those key words on Google. Bryck came to the job after migrating to Amherst for a "lifestyle change" after his family's childrenswear retail business on Long Island finally succumbed to category killers and Bryck's desire to do something else with his life. After selling real estate for a few months, he thought about opening a children's clothing store in Northampton, but ultimately decided that the time and place were not right. "I did a business plan for the venture, and it spoke to me," he said. "It said, 'don't do it.'"
After considering and then rejecting thoughts of returning to Long Island and running a Burlington Coat Factory store, he heard about the Family Business Center position and eventually supplanted someone who was about to be hired for the job. He said the plays were inspired by a desire to take education about family business matters to a higher plane. "We've always worked to teach individuals things they can take home with them and plug in, and the plays are a very effective way to accomplish that," he said. "People see things on stage and they relate to them."
Bryck's first play, written in 1996, was The Perils of Pauline's Family Business, a story, set over three Thanksgiving dinners, that examines primogeniture and the tradition of handing a business down to the eldest son, whether he wants it or not, and whether he's the best qualified for the role.
Perils was followed by Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, a play about a business owner who hinders the professional development of his children by solving their disputes and making decisions for them. The consequences of such actions are discovered later, when members of next generation are left without real leadership skills or the ability to work together. Both plays were first presented to UMass Amherst Family Business Center members and then taken on the road. Together, they've been performed more than 30 times around the country and even in Spain and the Canary Islands. They've also been shown on local community TV stations. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home won an award for "best dramatic production" in a competition run by the Alliance for Community Media, an association of community television stations.
The productions have also created some revenue for Bryck, about $3,000 for each performance. That makes this far more than a hobby. "It's professionally satisfying for me to put these on, and some earn some money doing it, and the actors earn some money. It's been a good business."
He said Tough Nut came about when the director of the family business center at Northeastern University, familiar with Bryck's first two works, made him a business proposition.
"He said, 'I'll hire you, script unseen, name your date, name your price, to write a silly, not stupid, Saturday-Night-Live-like spoof, about 40 minutes long, about family business,'" Bryck recalls. "I told him I would see his 40 minutes and raise it to an hour and 15 minutes and see his Saturday Night Live and raise it to Neil Simon, a la Ira Bryck."
Instead of silly, but not stupid, the play would instead be meaningful, but not heavy-handed, said Bryck, who told BusinessWest that while the story is autobiographical in nature, some fictitious events and dialogue have been added to enhance the learning experience.
"Not everything that comes out of my mouth during the play did I actually say," he explained. "But if I didn't say it, I thought of saying it. It's real enough."
Setting the Stage A Tough Nut to Crack draws its title from a line Bryck said his father would use often to describe the challenge of meeting sales projections or matching the numbers from a previous year or month. In the play, Bryck relays his own conflicting thoughts and emotions as he is groomed to take over the family business.
Like many in his situation, Bryck said he found himself wondering if there was something other than the family business - something better and more fulfilling - for him to do with his life. The dialogue in the play captures many of the feelings and frustrations visited upon members of succeeding generations - everything from doubts about whether to follow in a parent's footsteps to the headaches that occur when that parent simply won't let go of the business to the anxiety that comes with making a financial investment in the venture.
"I just don't see myself owning a business," Bud tells his mother in Scene 10, which relates events from 1990. "Well, I guess that the heir apparent is not that apparent. It doesn't mean I don't love you and dad - it means I don't love retail." Later, Bud and Will struggle over their roles, and the son expresses some frustration with the fact that his father won't let go. "… you're still here and it's keeping me down," he says. "You'll never retire, and I'll never get ahead. It just feels like, with your around, I can't be who I need to be."
In the end, Bryck said he created a play that moved him and his parents - and also generated the kind of questions and dialogue he had hoped.
One audience member said the play served to remind business owners that their company can either be a gift or an anchor for the next generation, and they shouldn't make their children feel obligated to take it over. Another spoke of the dangers of hanging on too long and what can happen when the older generation doesn't let the younger develop properly. Many in the audience related to Bud's struggles to find himself and move out from under the shadow of his father.
Bryck said he chose an autobiography for this latest play because he thought the story would resonate with members struggling with some of the same issues. "Besides, writers should write what they know, and what did I know better than my own experiences?
"When I would think back about being in business with my parents, I would have grander and grander ideas about how I could have done it better," he continued. "I wanted people to point to my story and the universal parts of it and examine how they can do it better now."
When asked if there would be fourth play, Bryck said he might take a break from family business theater and perhaps focus on a short story. He enjoys writing and wants to explore other opportunities in that realm. Meanwhile, he will continue to look for new and different ways to help family business owners "think better," as he put it.
"There are lots of ways to learn," he said. "We have to find methods that prompt people to think about their situations and to think outside the box … we have to go way beyond talking heads." Curtain Call Near the end of Tough Nut, Bud Rosenbloom explains to his father that he believes the business has seen "all its better days," and that he would like a big change and a new life.
"Life is short," he tells his father, "I don't want to look back and regret that I was such a good son I never did what was good for me."
That's one of the lines Ira Bryck never actually spoke but, as he said, he thought about saying. It offers food for thought for anyone who grows up with the family business and then faces the prospect of living with it for the rest of his or her life. In this case art imitates life, and vice versa, and offers some very real learning experiences.