Get your act together

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am

Theatre-based coaching is a fresh and sometimes zany approach that gives workers the tools to be more effective in business

Imagine a room filled with right-thinking adults. There is nothing wrong with the water, and the air is free of airborne hallucinogens. But for some strange reason, they are all walking randomly around the room, nearly knocking into each other, knees bent, butts out, and shoulders hunched.

To add to this visual feast, many of them are letting out sounds akin to someone dying.

A minute passes, and their weighty walk is replaced by an almost feathery gait, chests swelled, heads held high, bodies swaying to the influence of a non-existent breeze. Sighs of relief are heard.

This scene was not at an institute for the insane, but in a clean studio tucked on the upper floors of an inconspicuously modern office building in Tin Hau. The people were not committed mental patients, but in this particular case were two lawyers, a business consultant, a teacher, an actor and a journalist.

Welcome to the zany world of theatre-based coaching.

Using tools, techniques, and concepts familiar to theatre and rehearsal rooms such as body language, use of voice, listening skills, heightened observation, use of space, collective responsibility, collaboration techniques and improvisation, theatre-based coaching is being used by corporations to help workers communicate better, make better speeches and presentations, inspire creativity, or to play out hypothetical business scenarios.

'It has proven effective in a wide variety of businesses for a spectrum of communication challenges, from the hotel industry for building frontline staff confidence, to media business for designing and delivering influential presentations and sales pitches and ... [for] corporate leaders as a way to pull optimum performance from their teams,' said Teresa Norton, founder of Norton Associates which runs the training.

Based in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, the company provides executive coaching and strategic communication training resources including group facilitation, improvisational theatre and mediation.

'Part of the usefulness of theatre-based coaching comes from the experiential nature of the learning and the freshness and clarity that actually 'doing' rather than just discussing can bring. Role play is being used more and more in the business world.'

But she added that, unlike more conventional forms of training or coaching, theatre-based work is not about 'becoming someone else', but rather focusing on finding a way for people to work effectively while staying true to their natures under a given set of stressful circumstances.

In her workshops, she employs professional actors, putting participants in real-life scenarios. The role-play is then 'directed' much like in a movie or a play, with the director stopping the action intermittently to offer feedback on aspects such as tone, physicality, and the use of language.

Ms Norton has also used several exercises designed to help actors 'stay in the moment'; drills which have helped executives who found it difficult to stay focused during meetings in the past.

Because corporates are always looking for new ways to train their staff and increase productivity, Ms Norton said business had never been better, with new clients coming in through referrals. This mirrors a global phenomenon whereby corporates are beginning to become more aware of the power of applying theatre techniques to the workplace - although awareness among the mainstream corporate training sector appears to remain dim.

One executive training consultant in Hong Kong, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believed theatre-based techniques were appropriate training tools for some companies. His consultancy has in the past employed professional actors to help conduct training classes for executives, but he does not plan to employ theatre techniques in more training classes in the foreseeable future - the reason being awareness of its use is still low compared to conventional methods, he said.

Still, because of a nascent interest, stage actors are starting to exit the stage, eyeing the lucrative profits that can be made advising corporates.

For example, the New York-based Actors Institute, founded in 1977 as a school focusing on advancing actors' careers, and counting among its alma mater Sigourney Weaver and Ted Danson, has recently shifted its focus towards giving advice to those in the less glamorous world of business. It now reportedly does 90 per cent of its work with corporate clients.

Noted actors who have in the past dipped into the lucrative world of corporate training include British comedian John Cleese, one of the founding members of the renowned comedy group Monty Python. In the 1970s, he produced and starred in a series of successful business videos such as Meetings, Bloody Meetings, and More Bloody Meetings about how to run good meetings.

Perhaps one of the factors contributing to the rise in demand is the intuitive and out-of-the-box nature of theatre-based training.

The exercise at the beginning of this article which required participants to walk around imagining they were either 20 pounds lighter or heavier, was designed to demonstrate how easily people's outward appearance is affected by their thoughts.

When asked to imagine that there was a bright light emanating from their chests, for example, the participants reported appearing - and feeling - more proud and heroic. The lesson being that to project a certain message, such as leadership, people need to consider not only the words being used, but also how appearance plays a part in getting the message across.

It also helps that most workshop tasks are fun. After all, who would not want to try their hand at acting?

But insights can sometimes also be deep. At the same workshop, guest facilitator William Hall, a specialist in improvised drama who uses theatre masks to explore the way they change how people relate to themselves and to others around them, argued that the facial expressions worn by adults in their waking hours were not the natural shapes of their faces.

Mr Hall is a member of the San Francisco-based Fratelli Bologna - a group which dubs itself the 'Business Theatre People' for helping executives visualise hypothetical business situations by playing out the scenario. He was invited to Hong Kong by Norton Associates to run a series of workshops in April.

During the session, titled Confident Communications 'Unmasked' he argued that people's daytime facial expressions were the product of learned experiences of decades of training and indoctrination by parents, teachers and peers alike.

Every morning, people unconsciously slip on a mask - adopting a pre-selected set of facial expressions that experience has taught will best get them through the outside world, and shield them from the wide array of bullies, scammers, and weirdos they are likely to encounter over the course of a normal day.

Mr Hall also argued that this may explain why, for example, men often notice many women on the streets exuding an air of snobbishness. This is essentially a silent 'stay away' sign put together by a complex combination of learned facial expressions, supplemented by body language. The alternative would result in being harassed by too many men, Mr Hall believed.

The trick is for people to pause before walking into certain scenarios - such as making a speech, going into a meeting, or pitching an important client - and reflect on how to present the most appropriate expression to the audience, effectively slipping on a new 'mask'.

'We spend many years in school developing our vocabulary and refining our ability to express ideas clearly. We take vocabulary tests and learn how to construct a sentence. But we learn about the display of facial expressions and body language socially, essentially through trial and error. My work is about bringing some of that unconscious knowledge back into your consciousness, so people can communicate more effectively,' Mr Hall said.