The creative life of our social media pilot Bryan, like that of many other Ranch staffers, goes well beyond the Catalyst confines. He shared with the Creative Juice Blog an inspiring team-building activity he created for his teaching artist colleagues in Chicago.

With the holidays in full swing, I’m reminded of an uplifting team-building activity I once devised for my peers in an arts nonprofit organization for our company retreat. It’s rich in reflection and connection, and while its themes are naturally holiday-related, it’s relevant any time of year.

What I cooked up can be easily recreated by any team meeting at Catalyst Ranch. Here’s how it came about for me.


In my career as an actor and artist, I’ve been a longtime company member with the educational theater nonprofit PlayMakers Laboratory. One year, my fellow company member Victoria and I were invited to prepare a group activity for our summer retreat, when about thirty of us teaching artists stay a day-and-a-half at a sleepaway camp to review, plan and reinvigorate ourselves for our work teaching creative writing skills in Chicago elementary schools.

PlayMakers Laboratory (PML) is populated with multi-talented teaching artists from a broad range of backgrounds and artistic disciplines. With this diverse set of individuals, I wanted to use the activity to celebrate each other’s uniqueness.

After some brainstorming, we decided to run with the idea of a potluck dinner. It’s a straightforward metaphor that’s easy to explore with imagination.

How it unfolded

At the retreat, we gathered in the afternoon in the camp dining hall, where the tables and chairs had been cleared to the sides. We started by sitting in a circle on the linoleum floor, criss-cross applesauce.

First, I took a pile of cardstock I’d prepared and sent it around the circle for each person to take a piece. Each 11×17 sheet was a solid bold color and printed and trimmed to the shape of an empty serving dish, the kind you’d bring to a family potluck or Friendsgiving. There were several different kinds: ceramic casserole dishes with handles, oblong bowls with scalloped edges, glass Pyrex rectangles, ornately scrolled metal platters.

Armed with a thick Crayola marker, each person wrote their name in big letters in the center of their dish. We set our dishes in front of us and I asked the circle to use some imagination.

“In front of you, you have a casserole dish. It belongs to you, and you fill it with the parts of yourself you choose to share with the world —
with us here in this room,
with the students we encounter,
with the teachers who welcome us into their classrooms,
with the audiences who see our performances.

“The work we do is a potluck party. Any day we show up, we’re bringing our unique selves to the table. (In Minnesota, they call you a ‘hotdish’!)

“What you contribute is one-of-a-kind and makes us better.”

Then we passed our paper dishes clockwise, and we asked everyone to look at the person whose dish you’re holding. (Sitting in a circle was important to let everyone easily see every other person’s face.) “Take a moment to consider them, recall how you’ve interacted. Now tell them —by writing inside their dish— something you value about them.”

In my own hands, I held Victoria’s dish. I looked at her and remembered how she befriended me at my very first retreat. I wrote, “I admire your ability to make genuine connections with people, every day.”

We passed dishes clockwise again, and did the same thing. One by one, we filled each other’s dishes, yearbook style.

(Retreat vibes)

Once all the dishes made a full circle and we got our own dish back, we had in front of us a sampling of what we’ve brought to the organization, whether we knew it or not.

“In case any of us need reminding, you are seen. You are appreciated.”

Then we asked everyone to get up and bring their dish to the other side of the room. There they found a large table covered in a faux tablecloth fashioned out of butcher paper, as well as sheets of paper lining the table’s four sides with a formal dinner place setting printed on each.

Then with some ceremony, and not unlike a Thanksgiving table, we each laid our dish on the table.

“Like a family potluck, we wouldn’t have such a generous feast without each of us bringing something special. The work we do is rich because of each of us in the room.”

A Catalyst Ranch staff holiday potluck

The takeaway

For PML and for any team, large and small, a retreat is an occasion to be savored. You can devote more time and space to an exercise like this, and spotlight something that might be taken for granted from day to day.

I find that it’s a simple but invaluable act to name what we value in those around us. So I took the opportunity to revel in individuality and gratitude.

There in the campground dining hall, we were left with the memorable image of our community as a potluck dinner table, and we could walk away with a tangible reminder (the paper casserole dish in our hands) of the positive impact we have on our teammates.

**For a cohort having an offsite at Catalyst Ranch, you could certainly facilitate this activity with specificity to your organization. You could even, for further reflection, pose the question: “Am I surprised by what others wrote about me? Does this snapshot of what others value about me align with what I want to contribute?”

With my teaching artist peers, we wrapped up by acknowledging the radical kindness that underlies our organization’s work:

“And if at any point it looks crowded, this table has leaves. It gets bigger. There’s always space for each of us to have a seat at the table.”

What do you think? Would your team benefit from this exercise? How would you tailor it for your peers? Share in the comments.

Bryan with his parents after a PlayMakers Laboratory 'That's Weird, Grandma!' performance


PlayMakers Laboratory does work that I think is really meaningful for Chicago youth. (Click here to read how our programs affect students.) This December, you can support PML in two ways:

Thanks for helping us champion creative writing!