Drama-based training: Lights, camera, training

Far from being the preserve of those learning & development managers with a little too much of the luvvie in them, drama is becoming a key feature of mainstream training programmes.

According to Bill Cashmore, director at Actors in Industry, an increasing number of companies are now looking to use professional actors for training. This can take the form of role and ‘real’ play (based on a past or future scenario that a candidate or business faces), case studies, coaching or management classes, or scripted scenarios that underline company values.

Setting the scene

From an L&D manager’s perspective, the ability of professional actors to depict real corporate situations for discussion makes the inclusion of drama-based activities a natural progression for companies keen to explore experiential learning techniques – particularly in areas such as management skills, selling, customer service, coaching and diversity.

For Richard Wilkes, account director at Steps Drama, the high level of engagement that drama guarantees means it really comes into its own within behavioural awareness training and practical skills building, although he emphasises that it would be unsuitable for any type of technical knowledge transfer. Wilkes says the majority of Steps’ work centres around awareness-raising – such as bully­ing, diversity or corporate values, with two or three actors, for example, appearing in a workshop and presenting a situation that needs to be discussed.

“Drama-based training is not about banging people over the head,” he adds. “It’s about winning hearts and minds. It’s about challenging delegates – not just intellectually, but emotionally.”

While aspects of this training can include individual and group input – forum-style theatre, for example, enables delegates to direct the action on stage – as well as role play, Marcus Hamer, director of Silvercube, insists that companies should only ever include drama that features trained actors.

“Even if they have a background in amateur dramatics, a non-professional will not be able to suspend the disbelief or keep up the momentum without becoming self-aware, self-critical or breaking out of the role during training,” he says.

Cashmore, who runs a core team of 70 actors, agrees: “It’s vital to use professionals because of their ability to switch from one characteristic to another. They can react effectively, and realistically, to what is taking place at that moment. An actor can move things on by degrees – they just turn up the notch.”

Performance culture

Wilkes also warns that any use of delegates within drama-based training should be carefully considered.

“Some people will feel inhibited,” he says, “or will be unable to take the training seriously.”

He adds that this also extends to delegate-on-delegate feedback: “You’re much less likely to be truthful with a colleague. Actors are well trained and because they are external, they’re much more objective during feedback. We would never ask people to perform unless a client has specifically asked us to do so.”

According to Hamer, all the actors working for Silvercube are specially trained to provide both a candidate and an organisation with feedback. “They are able to play the part and pick up on all the signs that an individual is displaying,” he explains. With such valuable information available, Hamer reveals that role play is becoming much more bespoke these days, with candidates using the training room to work through real-life situations.

This attention to real outcomes should feature heavily in the course design of any drama-based training, says Wilkes. “L&D managers need to think about what level of engagement they want from their delegates and whether they want them to come out with more skills. They also need to consider how this training will challenge the culture.”

Flourishing theatrically

Cashmore and Hamer also agree that while most L&D managers may think they know what actors can do, in reality most don’t – and, therefore, can benefit hugely from consulting a specialist at the formative stage of design. Although Wilkes points out that any reputable supplier will be happy to offer free demonstrations, he says that companies should still look at references and ask what experience a trainer has had working with a similar company or in their particular industry.

Costs for this type of intervention can range from £1,200 for a one-day course for 20 delegates, with 10 people each attending a morning or afternoon session, to a few thousand pounds for a conference of around 200 people, based on three scenarios with a facilitator. A one-day forum-style theatre event, where actors are cast to emulate the types of people in an organisation using a bespoke script, will usually accommodate 100 people and costs around £5,000.

“Drama-based training can be incredibly cost-effective,” claims Wilkes. “For example, getting a sales team of six together to work on closing skills with an actor over the course of one day can work out great value for money.” Actors in Industry can also provide combined actor-facilitators, something that generates additional savings, says Cashmore.

Case study: Purple Monster

In September 2008, training provider Purple Monster ran an experiential customer care workshop for a cross-section of staff from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s maternity department.

Building on a previous two-hour workshop, which had detailed the expectations for all staff in the hospital trust, the course aimed to use drama to promote the importance of listening skills for good customer service, to work on body language, tone of voice and word choice, and also to provide staff with the opportunity to rehearse real and challenging situations.

After conducting research within the department, Purple Monster devised a one-day workshop, which included behaviour-changing exercises. Delegates were encouraged to participate in drama-based exercises to increase their ability to connect positively with patients and diffuse difficult situations. Course feedback revealed that the team felt the workshop had allowed them to connect with each other in a way that they had never previously experienced. The hospital says this good rapport has been sustained on the wards.

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