Even proponents of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre probably don’t want a Flat Broke Theatre. With long-term economic doldrums making grants and other donations scarce, theatre companies and actors these days are inevitably on the lookout for new ways of generating revenues. Some artists and companies now seek to build business partnerships with organizations they once looked to only as potential donors. They may well wind up helping these organizations train their workforce.
The use of theatre components in corporate and organizational training is nothing new. In Adam Blatner’s 2007 anthology Interactive and Improvisational Drama, Joel Gluck and Ted Rubenstein traced the practice back to the 1940s, when improvisational exercises were used in military and intelligence training programs. Tricia McDermott, founder and producing artistic director for Airmid Theatre on New York’s Long Island, notes that trust-building activities that corporations and other organizations have long used were adapted from theatre games familiar to actors.
Airmid—which specializes in works by underproduced female playwrights—recently began offering two seminars: “The Art of Business Presentations” and “Executive Presence.” Companies don’t get a tax write-off when they hire Airmid for trainings, McDermott notes, but they’re “still getting recognition for supporting the arts—and seeing themselves in our programs and in our materials.”
In Airmid’s “Business Presentations” seminar, participants practice exercises for relaxation and vocal projection. They learn to harness theatrical skills for sales pitches and other meetings. McDermott, working with Airmid managing director Kelly Woodward, models some exercises for participants. But neither McDermott nor Woodward works specifically in the capacity of “actor” during these sessions.
In programs elsewhere, though, the actor’s role is central. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis currently offers programs in team building, presentation skills and leadership. Veteran Guthrie performer Nathaniel Fuller developed the leadership-training program, which centers on the works of Shakespeare. Fuller delivers passages from Henry V, Twelfth Night and other plays during the course of his 45-minute presentation.
To introduce the idea of motivation, Fuller gives the “Once more unto the breach…” speech from Henry V, treating participants as the young king’s soldiers. “And then I get them on their feet,” he says, “and I repeat passages of the speech and have them repeat them and start doing the actions that the words suggest, so that they can start feeling the implant of sensations in their bodies.”
Fuller tailors each session to a company’s particular needs. He has presented to executives and administrators, religious organizations and student-services groups; he has worked with audiences as few as 9 and as many as 200. Part of his aim (which he doesn’t reveal to his listeners) is to prompt participants to think about how theatre can serve as a leadership resource—a touchstone more inspirational than “a spreadsheet or some formula.”
Delivering Shakespearean monologues in a new context has proven “freeing” for Fuller—he can put his own spin on the iambic pentameter in a way he cannot do when speaking from the Guthrie stage. And moving back and forth between presentational and representational performance modes during sessions has enhanced his ability to stay flexible. “There’s not a whole lot of improvisation,” he says, “but I have to be able to do that at a moment’s notice.”
Like Fuller, actors working with Life Theatre Services, a San Francisco–based organization, must be fluid and adaptable during the trainings they help conduct.
Cynthia Cristilli and Molly Goode founded Life Theatre in 1992. They had trained together as actors in San Francisco and remained friends while pursuing acting careers in New York. In June of this year, Goode—along with two other Life Theatre regulars, Liam Vincent and Deborah Wade—acted in a multiscene scenario presented to a San Francisco–area educational organization. It was part of a state-mandated training on sexual harassment.
In the presentation, Goode played Dee Dee, an academic recruiter who hopes to snag a renowned professor for the faculty roster. Vincent portrays Alex, a representative for the professor. Conflict ensues when it is revealed that Dee Dee’s assistant, Rebecca (played by Wade), had a messy affair with a married man while working at a previous job, and that she posted provocative photos of herself on her private Facebook page. Alex is horrified. Will Rebecca’s questionable personal behavior jeopardize the recruitment deal?
Cristilli—acting as facilitator—stops the action at one point to present a “didactic” covering the basics of sexual harassment law. The storyline then resumes—building to a climax as Rebecca comes to believe she is being harassed by Alex.
At this point in the session the audience is invited to confront the actors directly in an “interaction” exercise. All three performers remain in character, defending their behavior to the roomful of trainees. Audience responses during the interaction segment are eager and thoughtful—the trainees have clearly paid close attention to details of Cristilli and Goode’s storyline. At one point in the confrontation, Dee Dee claims that she has no control over Alex’s actions, that she is only responsible for supervising Rebecca.
“You need to have control over the work environment,” one trainee admonishes.
In addition to the sexual harassment program, Life Theatre has offered programs on AIDS/HIV awareness, cultural diversity, business ethics, stress alleviation and other topics. A televised program the group created on dealing with aging parents won an Emmy Award in 1999.
Cristilli, who received training in drama therapy at New York’s New School for Social Research, says that using paid, professional actors has always been a key factor in Life Theatre’s success: “What we wanted to do was make it about theatre. We wanted to perform plays.” Adds Goode: “The audience really gets lost in it because we use excellent actors, who are charismatic and quick on their feet. I’ve seen it done with nonprofessional actors, and it can be a bit of a chore.”
An organization’s employees may initially be hostile to the idea of performers enacting what they imagine will be cheesy, dreary, condescending skits, but Cristilli says that Life Theatre actors—through a pervasive use of humor and a concentration on gray areas rather than absolutes of “right or wrong”—usually win participants over fully. Clients concur. Says Joni Lewis, associate director of human resources for FibroGen, Inc., a research-based biotechnology company: “[Life Theatre’s] method of engaging the audience by enacting situations with professional actors enhances the comprehension and retention of the information in a way that online training or other rote learning methods simply cannot do.”
Both Vincent and Wade believe that performers involved with Life Theatre’s brand of corporate training benefit from having a background in improvisation. During the interaction segments of the sexual harassment training, specific teaching points must be covered in order to fulfill mandated requirements. As facilitator, Cristilli guides the trainees toward exploration of these points. But audience feedback can often meander, and actors need to get things back on track. They must have extensive, complex character and storyline details stored in their memory for the interaction exercise. “The first few times I did it,” Vincent recalls, “it just seemed endless.”
While some performers may dismiss corporate training gigs as “not real acting,” Wade finds great value in the work: “It actually brings people together to talk about something that’s important, even more than when you go to a talk-back in a theatre. You actually see people get a resolution about things that we all worry about.”
Mark Dundas Wood writes frequently about the arts.
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