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Role play / industrial theatre
All the World's a Stage

By Jonathan Haigh.
Published in Organisations & People, April 1994.

On the face of it, actors and business executives don't have an awful lot in common. The customary image of the executive - serious, suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying and goal-oriented - does not coincide much with the actor - flamboyant, hedonistic and prone to calling everyone 'darling' or 'luvvie'. But, getting away from such stereotypes, there are surprisingly many areas of overlap, where the techniques and skills of the actor have a great deal to offer the executive.
Actors have been employed as actors by the commercial world for many years, where they have helped businesses and other organisations convey a variety of messages through advertising, promotional work and training films. And therein lies the clue as to how aspects of the actor's craft can be used in the training environment.
Drama and acting are, in essence, about communicating. Conveying ideas and emotions in such a way that the audience suspend their disbelief, so that rather than watching the actors (pretending to be characters) demonstrating an event, they imagine they are seeing the actual event, the actual characters. To do this successfully requires the actors to have a very clear understanding of the transactions going on between themselves, both as characters and as actors, and an ability to transmit this process to the audience.
Now, in real life, inter-personal communications come with the entire background, history, preconceptions and emotional baggage of the participants. And to create credible characters on stage or screen, an actor has to create this background from scratch, or develop aspects of his or her own emotional make-up. It's like consciously creating a subconscious. And it gives a pretty good insight into how (and why) people interact the way they do.
Fortunately for actors, there are many games and exercises available to them, which have been developed over the years, which allow them to go through this process in an accelerated way. And, with only slight modification, the same games and exercises can be used in a business environment, to help executives develop their interpersonal skills.
For the purposes of this article, I shall divide up the games and exercises into four broad categories: technical skills, social skills, creativity enhancers and improvisation. The dividing lines are fuzzy, especially between improvisation and the others, and several exercises fall into more than one category, but it will help to give a broad indication of what can be achieved.
Taking each category in turn:
Technical Skills
These are some of the basic building blocks of giving a performance. Absolutely essential in presenting, they can also help in almost all communication. There are exercises for developing the voice, for using breath properly, for relaxation and overcoming nerves, for becoming more aware of body language and for improving posture. Most important of these are the voice exercises, as how we speak is one of the most obvious aspects of our interaction with others. After all, there are many people we do business with solely on the telephone, where our voice is the only way we can communicate.
Breathing, too, is essential. It's perhaps trivial to say that without breathing, we are dead, but so many people only use a tiny fraction of their lung capacity that they certainly are not as alive as they might be. Breathing fully and deeply, as well as being enjoyable, helps develop the voice and reduces the effects of being nervous. It also is a vital component in being able to relax fully, something which everyone can benefit from.
Social skills
Exercises in this area are designed to help people interact with each other better. There is a wide range of situations where such exercises would be applicable. To give a simple example: sales and customer service staff need to be able to pick up from a conversation all the nuances of both what is said and what is left unsaid - in acting terms, the subtext. By practising their questioning and listening skills and exploring the non-verbal communication, the better they will be able to do this, and the better they will be able to meet the customer's needs.
In the social skills area, role play and improvisation are a great help but other games and exercises are equally effective.
Take, for example, trust exercises. Trust is a vital element of working harmoniously with other people in any situation, not least during training itself. During a course, it's essential that the group members trust one another, that the trainees trust the trainer and that the individuals trust themselves. Without those levels of trust, it is difficult to make progress in other areas. This is a challenge encountered by virtually every cast in the theatre. A group of disparate individuals with sensitive egos, who barely know one another, is brought together to work extremely intensely on a project that will only last for a few months - or perhaps even less. They have to be creative, to give and receive ideas and information and to be very open with one another. They have to work together as a team so that they can create a product which will be original and interesting. In short, they have to invest a great deal of trust in one another.
Fortunately, a wide variety of trust exercises which are used by actors has been developed over the years. Examples range from the relatively simple, where someone with their eyes shut might be guided by a partner around the room, to the very challenging, where someone might fall backwards off a table to be caught by the other members of the group. Obviously, progress to the more difficult exercises has to be made slowly, so that the majority of the group feel stretched, yet safe. Individuals have to be allowed to opt out at any stage, without explanation or censure, as going too far too fast can be counter-productive. On the other hand it is a joy to work with a group that starts suspicious of one another, but by the end of a course is positively relishing more difficult trust challenges.
Enhancing creativity
Moving on to enhancing creativity. These are a set of games which aim to open up the imagination, to encourage divergent thinking. Anyone who has watched "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" will have seen several of these in action.
An obvious example is the game where contestants are asked to come up with different uses for a prop, such as a tennis racket. Not too difficult, you might think, especially when you don't have to be funny as well, but by the time you've done the obvious guitar, frying pan, fishing net, lollipop and various sporting implements, it starts to get harder, and by the third time round a group of eight, it requires some fairly off-the-wall ideas.
This sort of work is a great help in improving a group's problem-solving abilities. Not only are more ideas considered, but members feel less inhibited to come up with 'wacky' ideas - which might just work. Being able to think quickly on your feet, to come up with alternate packages, to find different ways of looking at a situation, is an important skill in many sets of circumstances - for example when selling or negotiating.
The other thing that such games teach is the need to accept things the way they are, and to work from there, rather than complaining, "but that's not fair", or "you've changed the rules". Preconceptions have to be avoided and a more open-minded attitude developed.
Improvisation is such an important element of using acting methods in the workplace that it almost deserves an article to itself. It is a method which can be used in many different ways in a huge number of situations.
At the most basic level, improvisation will be familiar to the large proportion of executives who have ever experienced learning though role-play. Selling and negotiating are obvious examples, but it's also well established in courses on interviewing, performance reviews, counselling, using the telephone and more. A trainer or colleague improvises (using a brief) being the other person in a situation, and the manager gets to practice doing whatever it is they are learning about.
Role-plays can be greatly enhanced, however, by using a professional actor as the 'other' person. It brings an energy and reality to the situation which is unlikely to be achieved in any other way. This can be unnerving. For example, trainees have been totally at a loss for words when confronted by the raw anger of someone who has just been told that they are to be made redundant. People's reactions in emotionally- charged situations like this are highly complex and can range from clamming up to blowing up - or almost anything in between. Trainees need to learn how to handle things whatever comes up, and experience suggests that they get a great deal out of the level of authenticity provided by working with actors. In such cases, improvisation allows trainees to take risks, learn from their mistakes and experience how a given situation will feel in reality.
On another level, improvisation can be used for trainees to discover something about a particular aspect of communications. For example, to get across to customer service staff the idea that an angry customer may be angry about something other than the problem in hand, that is, they may have a 'hidden agenda', we might get two staff to act out a situation of conflict ("Waiter, this steak is overcooked, I want you to take it back"), and get two other people to voice the inner thoughts of the protagonists ("This will impress my new girlfriend"; "Oh no, the chef's in such a bad mood, he's bound to be horrible to me" etc.) Experiencing, or viewing, scenes like this can emphasise the learning point and help introduce a new level of tolerance. This is a huge area and exactly what is done will depend on what needs to be learnt.
On the final level, improvisation can be used as a task in itself. In this case, the group is asked to work up a scene, or scenes, to perform. The process they go through in coming up with the storyline, working out how it might best be approached, developing the characters, and then rehearsing and performing the piece is the important part of the exercise. Many aspects of good communication will be required - brainstorming, cooperation, decision making, trust, discussion, openness - as well as the technical skills of putting together something that works dramatically and is convincingly performed. It is an extremely powerful process, which can also be very rewarding.
Improvisation is probably the most significant of the four categories covered in this article. Simply, it is important because it is something that everyone does on a daily basis. We all improvise our way through life. We may have goals and aspirations and plan our route, but there is no script, anything can happen, and how we react to events around us will determine how things turn out in the end.
The acting profession has come up with some great techniques which can help us understand what is happening in a given situation and help us react to that situation in a positive, appropriate way. This in turn helps us increase our level of success in dealing with whatever life throws at us. And that is something that we all aspire to, actors and business people alike.

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