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Alpamayo Coaching on tour 2 - David Labi and his performance of his one man show, Pieces of a Man

David and I first met early in March 2020.  We met virtually because of our geographical separation, David being in Berlin while I was just outside Salisbury.  While COVID 19 did not mandate our virtual connection it was already very much in the public consciousness with Italy being the centre of attention in those early days.  The purpose of our meeting was to explore the possibility of working together in a coaching partnership in which I, through Alpamayo Coaching, was acting as an affiliate for Clore Social Leadership on their Find-a-Coach programme.  Before you start wondering why I am sharing information about a confidential coaching conversation I should point out that David okayed my story telling!

At our first meeting we explored a little bit about each other and discussed what coaching might offer him.  David told me that he had a sense that he needed and wanted to ‘kick on’ in his life and hoped the coaching might help him ‘strategise how to move forward’ professionally with his agency Good Point as well as personally, from some difficult personal issues to a more positive future.

I remember smiling at his observation about how if he were to put himself in a box and label it, the label would read ‘man who needs a kick up the arse!’  My first impressions were of a charismatic, well-travelled, intelligent, and good-looking man.  Alongside were traits of personal open-ness, humour, frustration and a multidirectional energy that was enlivening and chaotic.  Fast forward to the present day.  I was fascinated to know which of these traits were still in place in his performance of Pieces of a Man.  Many of them were.  A notable difference was that while frustration and chaos each had a part in the story he was telling, they did not appear to be so much part of his ‘way of being’.

Back to 2020 and the outcome of our first meeting was that we did agree to work together.  David was very open at the time about how he was exploring a number of different avenues to understand how to administer a ‘kick up the arse’, so I was aware of being one of a cast of coaches, therapists and mentors that he was talking with.  That was just fine with me, and I remember the cross pollination between the different conversations he was having often turned up something of interest.

Our first coaching conversation was later in March 2020.  By now both of our countries being locked down provided a curious backdrop for life in general for everyone, and more specifically to all the coaching conversations I was involved in at the time.  In advance of our meeting, I invited David to reflect on his influential relationships and to share those reflections in writing.  This is something that I invite all my clients to do based on the belief that, for all of us, significant past relationships and experiences will influence all of our present ‘ways of being’.  From a coaching perspective that is of interest for signposting towards a future direction and intention.

David trusted me in sharing his reflections with candour and clarity.  Through them I came to understand his Jewish heritage and something about his family and partners.  As part of that I learned something about his father, Marcello, a holocaust Survivor from the Sephardic Jewish diaspora who come from Southern Europe/ North Africa.  The complexity of David’s relationship with his father was inferred in his observation that ‘in my early 20s I was modelling myself as his opposite, only now on turning 40 am I realising just how much we had in common’.  I was aware of a sense of gravity and uncertainty about how to navigate a coaching conversation with such a recent history of horrific events at such close proximity.

Looking back, I think I did have a question in my mind of my ability to hold a safe space for David to talk about this, particularly given that I had no personal or cultural reference point.  What I quickly realised was that it was for David to define the boundaries for the conversation and for the two of us together to test those boundaries from time to time to see if they needed to be re-mapped.  We did this very effectively through our four contracted conversations and covered a great deal of ground on that journey which is not for me to share here.  I remember enjoying our conversations which were challenging and thought provoking for me, and I hope for David too.  It was interesting that our conversation spanned the imposition of control of a COVID lockdown and then the release from it, with this certainly having an influence on our partnership, although I am not sure that I can describe exactly what it was.  Perhaps the fact that COVID lockdowns imposed a ‘common environment’ on everyone led to a sense of greater oneness of community?

We talked about a great deal in our time together, all along the lines of the theme captured in one of David’s stated objectives ‘to have the confidence to identify what I want and the ability to be honest about what I am’.  I remember part of our conversation where the memory of Marcello came very much to the fore.  David shared a picture he had created to describe where he was right now.  He had been asked to do this by an art therapist he was seeing, one of a number of people helping him with his exploration.  Collectively he called them ‘Team David’.  I remember resisting the urge to ask for confirmation that I was part of that team, a symptom of that charisma which made me want to be!  David’s picture was fascinating, rich with metaphor and meaning.  It was in David’s description of his picture that it became clear what a central role his relationship with his father was playing in his contemporary thinking and feeling.

Our partnership finished in June 2020 and like the end of all coaching partnerships I have a part of me that wants to know the story of what happens afterwards.  I like to think that this is not about my ego’s need to notice my influence, rather just another version of my curiosity.  I suspect it is a mixture of both.  My own reflection on my partnership with David was that we had covered a great deal of ground and that hearing his own thinking and feeling out loud was useful for him.  He noticed he was closer to finding ‘what is the me that is in me?’ He used the phrase ‘turning myself into the product’ as a touchstone for the direction and practice of his ethical storytelling agency Good Point.  Although not stated clearly there was already a sense that part of this might involve exploring unfinished business in the relationship between David and his Dad.

I don’t make a habit of stalking previous coaching clients!  Having said that when the opportunity arises to stay in touch I do enjoy doing so.  It’s great to watch other people’s stories unfold.  With David that was easy as his business is storytelling!  All I needed to do was connect on Linked In and follow his stories.  As well as being interested in what he had to say I was also interested in the social activist projects he talked about.  It caused me to reflect on my own relationship with activism.  I noticed the first news and reviews of Pieces of a Man a couple of years ago and got in touch with David to promise I would attend when he brought his show to the UK.  I am not entirely sure how motivational that was for David!!  For me I realised I meant to deliver on my promise as I wanted to hear more about his relationship with his Dad.  It felt like it would be an unravelling of more of the meaning wrapped up in his picture we had talked about two years earlier.  So it was that as soon as David announced his show at JW3 in London we booked our places!

Fast forward to the present day.  Without really planning it we ended up with a multicultural, multifaith itinerary on the day of seeing Pieces of a Man.  We went to St Paul’s Cathedral during the day, a place neither Derryn or I had visited before.  There was a United Nations of tourists there and from the perspective of architecture and history it was fascinating.  I was interested that I did not find it to be a place where I connected spiritually.  It might have been due to how busy it was but I am not sure that was the only reason.  Afterwards we hopped on a tube to Chalk Farm, walked over Primrose Hill and found our Airbnb there (shout out to Peter and Sharon, thank you!).  A short bus ride took us around St Johns Wood and Swiss Cottage to JW3, a Jewish Community Centre on Finchley Road.  A reminder of the state of alert that Jewish communities exist in was clear from the security around the Centre.  The impact of war in Gaza was captured by messages to each of the Israeli hostages, padlocked to the railings of the access bridge.  Just being in that space was a prompt for reflection, about events both contemporary and historical.

The picture of father and son who at the centre of David's performance of Pieces of a Man

David was on the second of two nights at JW3 for his one man show Pieces of a Man.  I was intrigued to find that I was nervous to see David in person.  I think I wondered about my motivation.  It was unique after all, at least for me, to see someone I have shared a coaching partnership performing on stage.  Actually, I can’t think that I have met any client who I have coached virtually, principally because most live so far away from me.

We took our seats in front of a stage set with a chaise longue and a small chest of drawers, in front of a line of five music stands.  Above all of this was a dormant screen which was to play a big part in the proceedings.  Into this environment came David with two stories, his own and his fathers.  What followed for the next 75 minutes was the skilful intertwining of these two narratives in a show of masterful story telling.

David told a very personal story against a political and cultural backdrop, infused with historical and contemporary context, but without referring to any of these directly.  There was his story and his Dad’s story presented in a ‘pure’ form, without any sense of being pro-this or anti-that.  He was funny.  He was informative, in that I learned a good deal about Jewish culture and language.  Most of all though he was thought provoking.  His interwoven stories, honestly shared, triggered thinking and feeling about my own family relationships with those who had passed on, and with those who are still around.  Derryn was the same, deeply affected by David’s narrative as her recently deceased Dad shared some of Marcello’s characteristics, both being larger-than-life characters.  As David’s narratives unfolded I am sure that everyone in the audience thought of words unspoken, or perhaps words that should have remained unspoken, in their own family circle.

Marcello himself had a presence in the room through video resources that were captured in his lifetime.  The one that packed such an emotional punch was hearing him talk about what it was like to experience and survive the holocaust as a child, and what influence that had on his later life.  It was a recording made by the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Organisation and the video of it had been in the family’s possession for more than 20 years.  David had not been able to view it for such a long time and yet now he was able to include Marcello’s voice in the very public sharing of his own story.  It was affecting to listen and watch extracts from this recording interspersed with David’s story telling.  It stirred all sorts of feelings in me, so goodness knows what it was like for David in each and every one of his performances.

Pieces of a Man was a great experience, and David a storyteller capable of both engaging with people and stirring their emotions.  When it came to an end, part of me wanted to hear more, while another part wanted to find space and time to reflect on what had been prompted in me.  It was great to be able to say a brief hello to David before we left, connecting face-to-face, rather than virtually or as part of an audience.

In a contemplative mood we left JW3 and had a bite to eat at a Persian restaurant on Finchley Road called Tandis.  A quick bus ride on the 113 dropped us outside Lords where we had our third cultural immersion, albeit a fairly quick one.  We arrived there a few minutes after prayers had finished in London Central Mosque on the edge of Regents Park.  We were engulfed in a wave of Muslim worshippers as they dispersed to their homes.  It was another moment of feeling at ease and yet being aware of how different we were from the majority around us.  That was the third time today and on each occasion we both reflected on what the experience was like.  To be different from the majority of those around us while feeling a sense of companionship with each of the different communities.  An awareness of difference; living and learning from the experience that this can feel difficult; overcoming that challenge and peacefully co-existing.  I know there are so many other factors at play with intercultural interactions, not least the sense of being a majority or a minority.  Even so, I am left with the question of what is it that everyone might contribute to ensure the three ingredients noted above are experienced ever more widely.

It was fascinating to see David perform his Pieces of a Man and to hear the connections with the conversations we had 4 years ago, and his evolution since then.  I make no claim that our coaching partnership influenced David’s decision to share his stories publicly, although I do have the feeling that it was one example of him ‘turning himself into the product’.  What I am clear about is that every experience we have changes us in some way.  So, in some way both of us will have changed as a result of our 2020 partnership and I am now changed by seeing David performing.  I am grateful to the thoughts and feelings his performance has prompted.

If you get a chance to see Pieces of a Man, do take it.  If you are interested in ethical storytelling and what it might do for your campaign, or your chosen area of activism then contact David at Good Point If you are interested in the thought provocation and perspective changing that might arise from being coached by me then get in touch with Alpamayo Coaching.  Wanting your arse kicked is optional! 

In the meantime, you might be interested in your own reflection on the following questions, which were among those prompted in me by David’s performance.

  • What is the action I might chose to take now that might reduce the risk of living with ‘unresolved business’ at some point in the future?  Who might I speak to?  What might I say?  What might I do?

  • What might I do to manage a sense of ‘unresolved business’ in a situation where bereavement means direct communication isn’t possible?


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