In a country where corporate competition and stress allow little room for individualism and humour, Joyce Barrie has no shortage of clients who feel a need to lighten up. Formerly a Wall Street stockbroker, she has an exhibitionist streak and a well-developed talent for spotting a money-spinner. Her executive weekend 'playshops' are a hit at dollars 195 ( pounds 130) a time.
This particular group consists of a banker, an accountant, an advertising executive, a teacher and a literary agent, all seeking to break down the barriers of inhibition. Brought together on Friday night in a Manhattan loft, decorated much like a nursery school, the participants put aside their business suits and briefcases and lie on the floor absorbed in crayoning. Sesame Street can be heard as the group is encouraged to drift back into childhood and be as silly as possible.
As the weekend gets under way, exercises, role-playing and improvisations take over, all designed to build confidence, release inhibitions and encourage spontaneity. By Saturday afternoon the group has progressed. 'Be bacon frying on the floor,' screeches Ms Barrie. 'Now be a four-year-old having a temper tantrum; now a ballerina.'
As the participants take turns at contorting themselves into ridiculous postures, the level of hysteria rises. Barriers are breaking down and people draw closer together. 'My aim is to get them out of their heads doing things they would normally be too embarrassed to do,' says Ms Barrie. 'When people learn to laugh at themselves, it frees them up to take life less seriously. It gives them the confidence to be more adventurous, to take risks.'
By Sunday they are ready to display their skills to the outside world. The playshop's climax is graduation night, when families and friends are invited to see what Ms Barrie refers to as the 'trans- fun-mation' of her clients, displaying their newly acquired courage, humour and gregariousness.
Wearing costumes of their own design, the playshop participants put on a show. First the banker does a belly dance, wearing nothing but a nappy. Then the literary agent, somewhat shy and reticent on Friday night, offers a sensuous Marlene Dietrich impersonation, singing at the top of her voice in a slinky catsuit. The accountant and advertising executive collaborate with an improvised skit of the Clintons, high on marijuana, having their first marital dispute in the White House.
'We learn to be ourselves, rather than the someone else everyone outside expects us to be,' says the banker in the nappy, who has shed his strained, serious expression. 'I'm a conservative person, but I know there is someone very playful inside who rarely comes out.'
'The playshop helped me to stop worrying about being judged,' adds the sometime Marlene Dietrich. 'I've never ever sung in public before - I didn't even know I could sing.'
'There are people out there who have zero idea of how to enjoy themselves,' says Ms Barrie. 'Others recognise that their inhibitions are a barrier to success, be it a job or a relationship. They know that something is holding them back and I help them to discover what it is.
'I am not a therapist,' she emphasises, 'I'm a motivational speaker. I teach people how to face their worst fears and work through them. I teach them to be outrageous and not to care what other people think.'
Her credentials and experience for the job are impressive. Before starting the playshops she had made her fortune as a stockbroker, wooing clients with humour and outrageousness. She realised she had something different to offer the day she entered a Michael Jackson lookalike contest. With her blond hair and full figure clothed in red velvet, it is hard to imagine how she could sway the judges. 'I was so uninhibited and fun to watch that I won the dollars 1,000 prize,' she says.
Her two latest ambitions are to hold a humour playshop at the White House, and to find a husband. In search of the latter she has sent press releases to 8,000 newspapers and radio stations seeking suitable candidates. 'Maybe I'll find him in England,' she laughs. 'The Brits could certainly do with lightening up.'