Using the actor factor: drama-based training

All the world is a stage, and that includes the workplace, where, increasingly, theatre-based skills are being used to facilitate learning.

Proponents say it is an effective way to engage trainees and bring real-life work scenarios into the training room.

The most common use of drama in learning and development draws on the concept of forum theatre. This was invented by a Brazilian actor called Augustus Boal, who originally developed the technique to help local communities stand up for their political rights.

Forum theatre works by using a small number of actors to act out a situation that will invariably involve a dilemma or issue that requires resolution. The audience is then invited by facilitators to comment on the scenes they have just witnessed and offer suggestions on how things could be improved.

This approach, says Ian Jessup, a senior partner at drama-based training company Interact, can be used to ignite conversations around particularly tricky workplace issues, such as diversity or sexual harassment.

A session on diversity could start, for instance, with a short dramatic piece where the players demonstrate a number of non-diverse and discriminatory behaviours aimed at causing reaction and prompting discussion.

Illustrating the problem

In the same way, a brief play on sexual harassment can be used to illustrate some of the subtleties of the issue. It is not always obvious to people how actions may be construed as sexually intimidating – by demonstrating this through acting, such issues can be illustrated more clearly.

It is drama’s ability to bring things to life in this way that makes it a particularly useful tool, claims Jessup.

He recently worked on a project where some comments from a staff survey were acted out in front of a senior management team. All the managers had read the report prior to the event, but admitted to only fully understanding the implications of what employees were trying to tell them “after hearing it with attitude”.

Interact is one of several UK companies offering drama-based training.

Jessup was a theatre director freelancing in the corporate training video world when he founded Interact 10 years ago. Since then, its revenues have grown 40% year-on-year. Such progress is indicative of a sector that has matured greatly in recent times.

“When we first started, we were simply seen as a provider of actors, but today, we carry out the full range of training needs analysis and consultancy,” he says.

Depending on research and preparation, Jessup says a session for 12 trainees featuring two actors and a facilitator can cost anywhere between £2,000 and £7,000.

But the company has not lost sight of its roots. Interact was founded on the principle that all profits should be ploughed back into the acting profession, and last year alone it donated more than 50,000 to theatre projects and charities. “We have never forgotten where our skills come from – the theatre,” says Jessup.

Professional performers

Today, the firm has more than 100 actors, performers, directors and writers on its books – many of whom have worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company or had parts on television.

But before you think about taking an autograph book to your next training session, Jessup stresses he prefers not to use people who are too well-known.

“People end up identifying them as their character from the soap opera or whatever, rather than the myriad of characters they must be in the workshop,” he says.

One ex-EastEnders actor who is now fully ensconced in the corporate training world is Simon Thomson, an account director at drama-based learning company Steps.

As befits a former BBC employee, he is keen to emphasise the professional nature of his company’s approach. Steps’ actors don’t just roll into town and improvise a performance off the cuff, says Thomson.

Every programme devised for a Steps client is bespoke, with research for a particular programme taking anywhere between half a day to two weeks.

To really get a programme right, Steps’ actors attempt to find out as much as possible about a company by interviewing employees at all levels, asking for examples and then designing scenarios to reflect these attitudes.

“We want our performance to ring bells all the time,” says Thomson.

The place where the arts and corporate worlds meet is an area of great interest to Mark Wright, head of creative development at Arts and Business Yorkshire (A&BY), a not-for-profit organisation. It aims to help local companies “harness the energy that exists in the arts world”.

“The business world is good at making people competent, but there’s a growing realisation within companies that it’s not the competency but the inspired ideas and emotional awareness that differentiates them,” he says.

“And the arts world is all about the emotional and expressing ideas.”

Wright admits many companies remain suspicious of this approach, and stresses his work is not about developing fully-fledged artists.

“Whatever we do, we embed it back into the workplace,” he says.

Different approach

A&BY’s learning and development arm Innovate recently developed an unusual programme for business consultancy Ernst and Young, aimed at helping its top talent to envisage and develop ideas.

Attendees were asked to work with the Northern Ballet Theatre to devise a ballet; the music, the moves and the wardrobe.

“We asked them to tell a story in a completely different language,” says Wright. “We wanted them to generate an idea, work as a team to realise that idea and convey it with passion and integrity.”

Innovate took a more conventional approach when it devised an assertiveness course for young managers at mortgage provider HML.

The actors taught the managers how to use body language to make a point. They then played different types of characters so the managers could practice what they had learned in a role-play situation. “Having real actors doing the role play adds a stack of reality to a training session,” says Wright.

And because this approach to learning allows everyone to have a say and get involved, people are less likely to think they are having training imposed on them, says Jan Fullerlove, a consultant at experiential training company Purple Monster.

This is an important consideration, Fullerlove says, when developing personal skills or dealing with emotive subjects such as diversity – areas where trainers need their trainees to buy into the programme.

“Often they can’t help getting in-volved. This approach narrows the gap between training and the workplace,” she says.

Fullerlove feels a drama-based workshop is also more likely to create an environment where people can escape the rigidity of the business world, relax and try new approaches to situations.

“People are starting to realise that we don’t all learn things from books – some people need the opportunity to try things out in a safe environment.”

by Ross Bentley

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