Are you a human being? Or a human doing?

I don’t remember who said it. I don’t even remember where I was when I heard it. But I know this. I was in a bad place. I was looking for solace, or maybe a way to understand why I felt so sad, so stressed out.

Some of my clients playing . . .

Some of my clients playing . . .

“Ben,” my angel said, “it sounds like you’re a human doing, not a human being.”

And thus began a slow unpacking and examination of how I exist in the world, and why. It’s taken a few therapists and years in the recovery movement but if I could distill it, my ”human-doingness” comes from this: I never felt I was good enough and so had to work extra hard to get the emotional support others seemed to receive effortlessly. And like all of the scars we bear from our origin stories, this one is a paradox, with both positive and negative attributes. On the upside, I became an over-achiever, a leader and maker of events, art, and classes. On the downside, I felt like if I didn’t, I would be a neglected shade plant in the corner, ignored and starving for sustenance.

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

A “human doing” is a person who lives under the sword of Damocles, constantly responding to the “or else”: I have to do this, or else that will occur. It’s a life lived under continual threat. And since it’s a condition developed in childhood, usually in response to what the child perceives as a survival strategy, as we age we lose awareness of it and it simply becomes our experience of living, as unconscious as the air we breath and every bit as consequential. It leads to codependent relationship problems (“I have to do ______ or else she won’t _______”), tyrannical leadership styles (“Do _______ or else I will make sure _______ happens”), and a generally transactional behavior pattern (“Let’s do this, so that that will happen.”)

Besides the pernicious and exhausting stress of living with the constant “or else”, something more subtle but more problematic happens. When I am a human doing, I am never where I am. I exist in a perpetually self-created anxious future. The thing I am doing I do not for its own value or experience, but in order to manage an event that doesn’t exist because it hasn’t happened yet. And because it doesn’t exist, it is a future event I create in my own anxious imagination. A human doing finds it difficult to enjoy an experience for its own sake, without attempting to know what the consequence will be in the future - a knowledge which is fundamentally unknowable.

I would love to report that I have been entirely cured of my human doingness, and that I now live in a swami-like state of pure presence. Ha. What I can report is that I am deeply aware of my own tendencies in this direction, and I know some warning signs. I can fall in to an anxiety spiral about the future and I know what that feels like. When I feel that way I do some breathing exercises, I go to a recovery meeting or talk to a friend about how I’m feeling. I take some medicine that helps too. And I look for opportunities . . . to play.

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Yes, play. What do I mean by play? For me, play is an activity done with others that has no explicit purpose other than the activity itself, and which engenders a shared joyful emotional state. There is a ton of research on play and since I am not a data person or a researcher I will let you go and find it. But I have read a few books and listened to a few podcasts and my takeaway is this: playing is an essential activity in the development of healthy humans, it begins in the year after we are born and continues throughout our childhood. And then for many of us . . . it stops. There are many reasons our playing stops, and it varies from person to person. But one of the most common is that we become “professionals” and enter workplaces driven by projections and outcomes. In other words, workplaces that succeed with a workforce of human doings, who exist to make sure that if they do this, that will happen.

In this light, being a playful person might be seen as an act of rebellion against the demands of professional expectations. But here’s what I know from years of applying improvisation to workplace dilemmas through a program I created called Creative Corporate Training - cultivating a playful mindset in the workplace:

  • leads to innovative thinking

  • deeper problem-solving

  • more productive co-working

  • more efficient teams

  • happier and healthier workers

  • retention of those happier an healthier workers

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

Introducing the playful mindset is a gateway to any number of explorations: mindfulness, self-care, conflict management, emotional intelligence, better customer service, and the list goes on. Improvisation is the ideal delivery system for the playful mindset, because in improv all you have is the present moment and the other person. Improv teaches us that we are enough - we have all the wisdom, creativity and courage needed to build joyful connections to others as we work towards common goals.

So take a moment today to just be. Sit quietly somewhere nice and take a few deep breaths. Notice what rises up in your experience - no judgment! If you find yourself obsessively speculating about the next thing, and the next, and the next . . . maybe it’s time to play.

May 2019 Letter from Ben: "How do you do that . . . ?"

Benjamin Lloyd and Shea Sonsky in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Benjamin Lloyd and Shea Sonsky in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

One of the most frequent comments we get after our shows is . . . “how do you do that?” Our audiences are interested in which parts of the show we know about in advance and which parts we don’t. So we thought we’d take you behind the curtain for bit, and share a show with you on video.

Most actors rehearse and perform scripts. Improv actors rehearse and perform forms (or formats). A form is a sequence of performed events, and that’s what we practice and memorize - a sequence of events. A script is also a sequence of events, but with a script what happens in those events is predetermined. Not so with improv.

Suzanne Anderson and Kaitlin Chin in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Suzanne Anderson and Kaitlin Chin in an improv scene at Bright Invention rehearsal

Our form is a called The Sun and its Planets. It is unique to Bright Invention, and it was developed over a year or so, led by Artistic Director Benjamin Lloyd. It follows one central relationship through three “acts”, as the pair in that relationship evolve and meet some interesting and occasionally hilarious people along the way. That central scene is “the Sun scene”. The other actors who appear around it are “the Planets.”

Here is the Sun and its Planets sequence every member of Bright Invention knows by heart:

  1. Sun scene act 1 (actors A & B)

  2. Dueling monologues (actors C & D)

  3. Sun scene act 2 (actors A & B)

  4. Dueling monologues (actors E & F)

  5. Sun scene act 3 (actors A & B)

  6. Final monologues ( actors ? & ?)

Ideally we have six actors for this form (we can do it with four): two as the Sun scene, and four as the Planets. The content of the form is inspired by a conversation we have with our audience before we begin. We perform this form again and again . . . and we’ve never done the same show twice!

Now here's what we don’t know before we perform The Sun and its Planets:

  • which of us will be the Sun scene and which of us will be the Planets.

  • who the characters will be in the Sun scene, how they are connected, where they are, and what they are working out together.

  • who the Planet characters are, when/if they will appear in the Sun scenes, and what they do or talk about.

  • who will do the first dueling monologues and who will do the second dueling monologues and who they will be and what they will talk about.

Want to learn more? Consider joining us this summer for our Summer Improv Jam on Thursday nights!

Meanwhile - here’s a video of The Sun and its Planets as performed on April 6th, 2019. It features Benjamin Lloyd, Kiersten Adams, Aimee Goldstein, Eric Walker Jr., Shea Sonsky, Bob Stineman and Suzanne Anderson.


New ensemble photos by Sarah Bloom Photography!

We invited professional photographer Sarah Bloom into our rehearsal recently and she took some pix! Check out the gallery below. Next show is STAR WARS DAY! May the Fourth be with you - the force is strong in this Improvasushi!

2019 April letter from Ben: Improv = personal transformation.

Recently I got a letter from an improv student of mine:

“I can't tell you the impact that this class is having on me even in such a short amount of time.  I was moved to tears after class last night as I let the beauty of the experience sink in.  

Your focus on helping us build deeper connection and trust with each other has been so meaningful and powerful for me.  For so much of my life I have felt drained by the surface-level connections that most others in my world have maintained.  I've also experienced much difficulty with connections, as I've lived through a great deal of transitions, challenges, loss, and growth . . .

I greatly appreciate your sensitive and reflective teaching and coaching approaches.  Your passion for this beautiful art form is so evident, and I'm deeply grateful to be a part of this class . . .

It has taken me decades of releasing tons of physical tension to feel comfortable in my body, and similarly releasing my previously self-loathing inner critic to feel worthy and comfortable in my soul.  For years I would stand on a stage to sing, stiff as a board, feeling trapped in my body's tension, feeling so alone, and unable to see an audience as anything but cruel judges waiting to pounce.  

But in just these two weeks, being able to be up on a stage again with such a focus of presence and connection to another person, no longer feeling alone, and also sharing in such supportive community has moved me so deeply.  I didn't experience this depth of connection in my last improv class and haven't in my choir, even though I enjoy those groups.  We just don't really know each other and haven't spent time connecting even energetically in such ways.  So this class has really been powerful for me.  

I wanted to share this with you because I know how much it can matter when we humans know we're making a difference in someone's life.  We may never know the full extent of our legacies, but, just as in improv, it sure is affirming when others reciprocate, accept, and add to our life's offerings.

Thank you for sharing yourself and your work.  What you're doing and how you're doing it really matters.  I look forward to continuing.”

Members of a Bright Invention improv class doing an exercise called First Crossing.

Members of a Bright Invention improv class doing an exercise called First Crossing.

So . . . blushing, of course. And I share this at the risk of having readers think I am just tooting my own horn through someone else’s heartfelt letter (which the writer gave me permission to share.) But my desire is rather to explore just how meaningful and important the work of the creativity teacher is - everywhere and of all disciplines - in our hard and sometimes unforgiving world.

One of my many gripes about teaching acting in colleges and universities is their incessant and ignorant demand for “quantifiable outcomes”, “data points” and “metrics of achievement” for classes in creativity - like acting. There are none. These concepts work nicely next to test scores, grades and objectively measurable achievements. You either completed the lab assignment or you didn’t. You either know how to write literary analysis in French, or you don’t. You can either execute the quantum equations or you can’t. So at the ends of classes like these, the teacher can rack up scores and percentages and give the university the data it desires. But not in an acting class. Nope. Never.

Improv class group scene.

Improv class group scene.

How do you “score” the achievement of the shy young man who could barely be heard when speaking on the first day of class, and who got through a scene from Death of a Salesman from beginning to end with clarity and confidence at the end of class? What data point measures the lightbulb that goes off when the woman realizes, through games and exercises, that she might just be enough exactly as she is, and that all her effort to “be better” is just wasted energy getting in her own way? How am I supposed to record the measurable outcome of my student’s letter above in numbers and data which will objectively prove the transformational value of that experience?

Beyond the calcified and stale rooms of the academy, there are larger cultural issues at work here.

  1. We are living in the age of the “binary plague.” We have fetishized either/or outcomes: win/lose, straight/gay, male/female, liberal/conservative, with me/against me, yes/no. What a horrible cancer this is upon the vulnerable nuance, mystery and mutability of our human experience. The binary plagues forces false choices upon us, forces us into oppositional camps, leads us into conflict with each other. Nowhere is it more awful than in our current political discourse. But in the personal realm, we are seeing new movements growing which reject old and harmful binary patterns: the world of sexuality and sexual identity is undergoing a glorious revolution with the awarenesses that our experience of gender, attraction and eros are all on continuums. New initiatives in interpersonal coaching and workshops are highlighting emotional intelligence, sensitive listening and flexible strategies which honor the pliable and beautifully inconsistent species we are.

  2. We favor “logos” over “eros” in popular culture generally. From Wikipedia: “Logos became a technical term in Western philosophy beginning with Heraclitus (c.  535 – c.  475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge. Logos is the logic behind an argument. Logos tries to persuade an audience using logical arguments and supportive evidence.” I use "eros” in a Jungian sense: “Jung considers logos to be a masculine principle, while eros is a feminine principle. According to Jung, ‘woman's psychology is founded on the principle of Eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to man is Logos. The concept of Eros could be expressed in modern terms as psychic relatedness, and that of Logos as objective interest’” (Wikipedia). So my critique is in some sense a critique of patriarchy, which relies on logos - legalistic, argumentative reasoning - to at best bring enlightenment, and at worst dominate and oppress. Eros is not concerned with winning and losing. Instead it meditates on and explores relatedness, connections, patterns, feelings and sensations. Logos loves data. Eros loves intuition. And it’s not either/or - see binary plague above. Our task is to apply these two powerful approaches to experience in appropriate ways. But all too often, eros is marginalized and logos celebrated in the data-driven, consumer frenzied, capitalist culture we live in. Logos is good for selling things, eros is good for connecting people.

Me and Joshua Boden performing our show The Deep End in Staunton, Virginia.

Me and Joshua Boden performing our show The Deep End in Staunton, Virginia.

Improv is an antidote for many cultural irritants, including these ones. Endless conflict is the kiss of death for improv, which relentlessly drives towards agreement, cooperation and collaboration. So it rejects the binary plague right at the outset. It’s never you or me - it’s always us, building the story together. Which places us at the center of eros - it’s all about relationships, listening, connecting, sharing. When we sink into a learning experience based on those attributes, personal transformation is possible - like the one my student describes in the letter.

Bright Invention uses improvisation to empower individuals and organizations to unlock their potential (that’s actually our official mission statement.) My student’s letter is a heartfelt example of one way we are walking the walk. In my eleven years of improvising and twenty-plus years of teaching acting, I have witnessed such transformation over and over. It’s why I keep doing this - in spite of the uncertainty and cultural resistance. And it’s not because I’m some altruistic guru. I keep doing it because I need it. I am replenished, buoyed, transformed every time I enter the classroom, rehearsal space, performance.

And occasionally, I get inspiring letters like this one.

2019 March letter from Ben - The Commedia Connection.

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With this post I launch “Letters from Ben”, the replacement for the monthly newsletter we used to generate. At the beginning of each month I will post a rumination of sorts about the work Bright Invention is doing some area. My goal is to create a personal connection to you through writing. I hope you like it. Feel free to comment and ask questions!

***
As some of you know, Bright Invention is an extension of a strange collision of concerns of mine. On the one hand, a concern for the extraordinary genius of the actor; how we are descended from a lineage of celebrities, vagabonds, eccentrics and seers beginning with tribal shamen, who were healers as well as performers. On the other hand, an interest in the economic pressures on the modern American performing artist; how commercial forces dehumanize this most human of all artists, turning us into things which are bought and sold, and capitalizing on our ambition and vulnerability for profit.

Antonio Fava

Antonio Fava

Recently, in preparing our show we are calling Improvasushi!, I began to understand that what I am interested in doing is a 21st century version of the Renaissance Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte. And the more I explored this connection, the more excited I became. I studied commedia for two extraordinary weeks in 2006 with the acknowledged master of the form, Antonio Fava. I was entranced, not only by Fava’s energetic and elaborate teaching style, but by the boldness and creativity of commedia itself. You can read about this experience more fully in my personal blog here. For Fava, commedia the performance style cannot be understood without understanding commedia the economic entity. “Commedia dell arte means ‘professional theatre!’” Fava would bellow. And he explained that these companies (and they called themselves companies) were the first western example of professional actors.

A commedia company arrives

A commedia company arrives

I left that experience regarding the commedia actor as heroic: perfecting the performance of stock characters within unscripted plots - the shows were enormous structured improvisations - and at the same time, being occasionally persecuted by prelates and nobility, suspicious of these actors with bawdy senses of humor, and smarting from the satire they put on display. The shows, Fava explained, were not only un-scripted, they were calibrated and adapted to the specific audiences they were being performed for. They were breathtakingly immediate and personal to the people watching on that day (always in the day of course - no electricity.) I found myself moved and inspired.

Our ensemble Bright Invention practices and performs long form improvisation. What’s that, you ask? Well, good luck finding a succinct definition, and if you do please let me know. Here’s a short Medium article about long form improv which also has some useful links. And here’s my little snapshot:

  • Short form improv is what most people think of when you say “improv”: short, absurd and silly scenes and sketches based on audience suggestions.

  • If short form uses clever ideas to generate laughs, long form explores deep relationships to reveal shared humanity. Long form is based in realism, short form is not.

  • Long form is often funny, but it doesn’t have to be. Once improvisation is freed from the requirement to be funny, entire galaxies of experience open up.

  • Long form is “long” because the relationships between characters developed in shows continue through the entire show. This is seldom the case in short form.

  • Short form is often a means to an end, the end being scripted sketch comedy based on improv. Long form is the end itself.

But our ensemble is also dedicated to “expanding the genre” and it is in this vein that we will begin to merge our work with some of the traditions and approaches of the commedia companies. We will begin to include rehearsed performance in our improvised long form shows. As with the commedia companies our shows will begin and end with rehearsed music and song. And we will soon begin to develop lazzi - rehearsed, solo set pieces sometimes comic, sometimes not, performed by individual members of the ensemble, and inserted into our shows. What these little solos are, and how they appear in our shows remains to be seen. But what I am sure of is that they will showcase the remarkable range of talent in our ensemble, from music and singing, to spoken word poetry, to dance and circus performance, to clown and physical comedy.

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

Some of us, exhausted, after the IMPROVATHON!

What we won’t borrow from commedia are the masks and precisely organized performances of stock characters. But we do strive to have the same sense of immediate and personal audience connection that commedia companies thrived on. And, as with these extraordinary Renaissance ensembles, we are determined to explore new paradigms to support the economic needs of the modern American actor through our corporate training work.

Stay tuned!

Announcing . . . IMPROVASUSHI!

It's a match made in heaven:

Improvasushi!

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What? Longform improv and sushi!
When? First Saturdays at 8 pm beginning Saturday March 2nd!
Where? 

Madame Saito's Tokio Headhouse Sushi
122 Lombard St
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Madame Saito’s on Lombard Street in Society Hill, off of Headhouse Square . . .

Madame Saito’s on Lombard Street in Society Hill, off of Headhouse Square . . .

Sushi and improv . . . they go together like . . . well, they just go together! Especially now as Bright Invention launches our downtown shows upstairs in the Tokio Ballroom at Mademe Saito's!

Come at 7 for drinks and sushi downstairs, then come up to the ballroom for our special brand of intimate, immersive improvisation!

Easy to remember dates: first Saturdays! Easy to locate venue: just off of Headhouse Square in Society Hill, Philadelphia!

Some of the Bright Invention ensemble

Some of the Bright Invention ensemble

Sushi + improv = joy!

  • World class Japanese cusine

  • Full bar

  • Our hour-long show begins at 8 pm

  • Dinner and a show - what's not to love?

Click the button below to reserve show tickets. Restaurant reservations please call: (215) 815-8266

Show tickets click here!


IMPROVATHON! It's a wrap!

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9 improvisers. 6 hours of #improv. 6 special guests. Many cookies/donuts/pringles. And . . . we shattered our goal! $1,025 raised for The William Way LGBT Community Center! Thank you to Arch Street Meetinghouse for being such generous hosts, lots of audience dropping in throughout the day, and our amazing Inventors! Improvathon 2019 has come to an end with great success!

Here’s a slide show! Click on the image to go to the next one!




IMPROVATHON Update!

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The William Way LGBT Center located on Spruce Street, Philadelphia.

The William Way LGBT Center located on Spruce Street, Philadelphia.

For Philly Theater Week 2019 we are presenting THE IMPROVATHON! to raise money for the William Way LGBT Community Center. On Saturday February 9th at Arch Street Quaker Meeting House, we will begin improvising at 10 am and won’t stop until we have raised $500 for William Way! 

Saturday, February 9th, 10 am - ???

Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA. 19106

FREE - reserve a seat by clicking here

Here is our schedule of Special Guests!

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10 am - 11 am. Tara Demmy! Tara Demmy is a comedian, theatre artist, and teacher straddling both Philly and DC. She trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade NYC, Philly Improv Theater, and completed her Lecoq training at Helikos: International School of Theater Creation in Italy. She is a proud company member of Tribe of Fools where she performed in Fishtown – A Hipster Noir, Antihero, Zombies with Guns, and Shut Your Wormhole. She is a writer and performer with ManiPedi Sketch Comedy. Tara received her masters from
Villanova University and is currently pursing her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at University of Maryland. tarademmy.com

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11 am - 12 noon. Michelle Pauls! Michelle Pauls is a theatre artist, artist educator and mom. She has worked for many years in the Philadelphia area doing theatre, film work, cabaret singing and improv! In fact, she was one of the founding members of Bright Invention. She also teaches theatre and the like in the college setting. www.michellepauls.com 






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12 noon - 1 pm. Ed Miller! Ed Miller is an actor, director, and writer from the Philadelphia area. He has worked with the Arden Theatre, Theatre Exile, Swim Pony, The IRC, and Secret Room Theatre. Ed spent 3 years living and teaching in South Korea where he also made time to act, direct, and serve on the board of Seoul Players. He was a founding member of SCI: Seoul City Improv and graced the TV screens for young "English-hungry" Koreans on such programs as "Story Time", "T-Girl!", and "Cooking with Red Hood”. Ed is a current proud member of Tongue and Groove Spontaneous Theatre.

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1 pm - 2 pm. Brian Anthony Wilson! Brian has been on numerous Philly stages, feature films like The Postman, Creed and Limitless; and TV shows The Wire, Hack and Law and Order.








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2 pm - 3 pm. Sharon Geller! Sharon Geller is a comedic actress who has appeared on Saturday Night Live 4 times. In addition to performing in the national touring company of the off-Broadway show “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” Sharon does radio and TV commercials and teaches improv at the Walnut Street Theatre. She trained with Chicago City Limits. www.sharongeller.com. 


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3 pm - 4 pm. Joy Wier! Joy Suzanne Weir has been an improviser for the last seven years. She is a company member of Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theatre. Some of her favorite scripted roles include Leonardo's Wife in Philadelphia Artists Collective's performance of Blood Wedding and Blackberry in Simpatico Theatre Project's Watership Down. She has also been a teaching artist for various companies including Bright Invention's sister company, White Pines Productions. She is very excited, and a little scared, to be part of the Improvathon. Let's get weird.

 

Each hour will feature:

  • fun with our special guest!

  • a spoof of a popular film or TV genre!

  • Bright Invention’s long form The Sun and its Planets!

The Arch Street Meetinghouse, 320 Arch Street Philadelphia. Site of THE IMPROVATHON!

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Free parking - enter on 4th street between Arch and Market!

Complimentary light refreshments served.

Wheelchair accessible.

Stop by any time; see some, leave, and return; BRING FRIENDS!

Donations for William Way accepted in person with cash, check or online through Facebook Donate button located here: donate online.

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The Improvathon is a part of Philly Theater Week! Please check out all the other amazing shows being presented - click here!

Bright Invention will be part of another great event the very next day! Rehearsing Improv: It’s not an Oxymoron! Co- presented with Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theatre, this is a fun and free “peek behind the scene” to see how improvisers create shows! Click here for tickets!

CCT free Drinks & Demo event Monday October 22nd!

Program director Benjamin Lloyd at GlaxoSmithKline workshop in North Carolina.

Program director Benjamin Lloyd at GlaxoSmithKline workshop in North Carolina.

Ensemble members Bob Stineman and Eric Walker in a workshop for The West Philly Skills Initiative.

Ensemble members Bob Stineman and Eric Walker in a workshop for The West Philly Skills Initiative.

Bright Invention's Creative Corporate Training program uses innovative "scenario-based" training, employing structured improvisations, games and exercises to support extraordinary communication, customer service and teamwork!

Come to this free event and see us do our thing in person! Bring a friend whose awesome organization thrives on outstanding person-to-person interaction.

Program Director Benjamin Lloyd leads a workshop for GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia.

Program Director Benjamin Lloyd leads a workshop for GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia.

Monday October 22nd.  

Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia -
Mars Drinks Conference Center, Engagement Room, 
200 S. Broad St, Suite 700, Philadelphia, PA 19102

  • Social time 2:30 - 3 pm

  • Demo 3 - 3:45 pm

  • Bring friends!