It was just another Friday afternoon in May 2016 when Patrick McDonnell arrived at the governor’s suite of offices on the second floor of the state Capitol.
McDonnell was the policy director in the Department of Environmental Protection, and he was in the Capitol to meet with the governor’s policy secretary to discuss departmental issues. Nothing to get excited about—just the type of meeting that takes place all the time around the Capitol complex.
And then the unexpected happened. The meeting location had changed, and McDonnell was ushered into the governor’s inner office. Gov. Tom Wolf gave him stunning news: The DEP secretary had just resigned. How would he like to be the new acting secretary?
It’s not often that a career public servant like McDonnell is thrust into oversight of a department with 2,400 employees and with responsibilities that range from Marcellus Shale drilling to black fly spraying. There had been no warning, and yet there he was, asked to make a life-altering decision. Someone else might have been too stunned to answer or might have stammered through an incoherent response.
Instead, McDonnell calmly answered that he had always been committed to public service and was prepared to help in any role. And, with that, Patrick McDonnell, with startling suddenness and no inkling of what was about to happen, became the acting secretary of DEP.
The truth of the matter, though, is that McDonnell is accustomed to having to think quickly and respond to others without any knowledge of what they are going to say. That’s because of his other life—performing on the stage at the Harrisburg Improv Theatre.
It’s a Friday night, and a crowd has settled into the pew-like benches in the small theater on N. 3rd Street in Midtown. They are there to watch a series of performances in what has to be one of the most unusual—and challenging—forms of public performing.
Improvisational theater (or “improv”) is the “playing of dramatic scenes without written dialogue or no pre-determined dramatic activity,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
But that definition doesn’t begin to do it justice.
At the Harrisburg Improv Theatre (aka the HIT), the actors—groups of five or six people—enthusiastically enter the stage and ask the audience for one word. That’s it: one word. From that single word, the performers are expected to invent a series of skits that last about half an hour.
And so it was that on this particular Friday night as a group calling themselves the “Hawkwards” entered the stage. Among them was one of the most powerful figures in Harrisburg, Patrick McDonnell. But he didn’t look much like a department secretary. Clad in jeans and a blue T-shirt, he could have been anyone from the neighborhood performing with this group of five men and one woman.
They asked for their word, and someone yelled out, “sanctuary.” And off they went, jumping from skit to skit and, of course, improvising often-hilarious dialogue. That night, a highlight was when McDonnell spontaneously assumed the role of an Irish nun, leaving the audience laughing at his quick wit.
The performances are fast-paced and unpredictable, and then, in what seems like a flash of time, the lights go on as the appreciative audience claps and cheers.
So, what does this have to do with being environmental secretary?
Well, a lot, according to McDonnell. Just like in his improv performances, every day he is confronted by a variety of unexpected developments and unplanned conversations. So improv has been great training for dealing with the unpredictable—like being asked by the governor out of the blue to be the next DEP secretary.
“Improv makes you a better listener,” said theater owner and performer Jake Compton. “It also helps with empathy because you’re taught how to think through another person’s point of view in a way that is honest. Improv also helps you approach life with a sense of fun.”
The son of a Philadelphia policeman, McDonnell and his wife Colleen moved to the Harrisburg area 17 years ago and are raising their four children here. They have come to love this area.
“You’re in an urban environment, and 10 minutes later you’re in a park,” he said.
This helps him keep a balance between work and home, urban and rural. He’s found that carving out time to have fun is a big part of that balance.
Besides his devotion to improv, he’s a dedicated movie buff and a fan of sketch comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “Second City.” In fact, when he first addressed the employees of the department, he broke the ice by doing impressions of Yoda, Jack Sparrow and other movie characters.
Of course, running a department like DEP can be serious business. But improv helps him here, too. The experience has, he said, made him a better listener, determined to hear and understand the viewpoints of the staff, legislators, business officials and environmentalists who fill his calendar from early in the morning until late into the evening. And that open approach often leads to getting results that might not have been on the table when discussions began.
McDonnell seems to relish juggling the demands of his family life and running a critical state agency. From his perch on the 16th floor of the Rachel Carson Building, with its spectacular view of Capitol Park, he runs a department responsible for ensuring clean air and clear drinking water, as well as overseeing the state’s mines and drilling and even its nuclear reactors—while having only about two-thirds of the workforce it did 20 years ago.
By all accounts, he’s done it well. The Senate clearly agrees and easily confirmed his nomination earlier this year. And with that, the word “acting” was removed from his title. He’s now the “secretary.”
Except, of course, for Friday nights, when he returns to the Harrisburg Improv Theatre and, once again, is “acting.”
The Harrisburg Improv Theatre is located at 1633 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, including classes and shows, visit www.hbgimprov.com.