Using Theater for People Development

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being – Thornton Wilder

Theater has been an important part of our culture for several centuries now, adapting its form, purpose and expression to suit the context from which it emerges and which it intends to influence.

It is a composite art form, integrating several other forms of expression; literature, music, dance and stagecraft.

It is intimate, it is immersive, and it is so completely gratifying.

I have experienced for myself, and witnessed in others, the immense benefits that the practice of theater brings to the journey of personal development, even though self-development may not be its prime objective. What, then, is the real objective of practicing an art form?

Art for art’s sake. That’s what I believe. Everything else is just a beautiful outcome of the creative process. With our outcome-obsessed mindsets, it is refreshing to do something for the pure joy of doing it.

In the context of organizations, and in the work of People Development, I and many people like me use tools and techniques from the world of theater in this work of helping people become better versions of themselves, giving them resources and strategies to navigate their worklives with enhanced depth, presence, grounding, empathy and creativity.

To clarify, using theater as a methodology of personal development doesn’t really train people on theatre, although it does sensitize people on the process of converting a thought into visual expression.

The tangible use of theater in organizations is to employ tools and techniques from the world of theater and put them in the context of what people do and utilize those tools to develop some specific “soft skills”.

There are several benefits of employing theater as a device for Personal Development:

  1. It is real-time. It is very immediate. You are “doing” things, not just talking about them. Action speaks volumes, and the entire process of interpreting a thought into action happens with a lot of awareness. That is an absolutely great way to put people in touch with their patterns and encourage them to discover their nuances, the subtle things that set each one of us apart from the rest. In terms of experiential learning, this is as experiential as it gets.
  2. It connects: people to each other, people to spaces, people to objects, thoughts to activity, emotion to expression, motives to action.
  3. It is very engaging. It almost necessitates complete engagement from people; physically, cognitively and emotionally. The process of “enacting” and giving manifested life to thoughts and words requires one to be completely involved. There is hardly any half-heartedness in that. Complete engagement in the process of learning is necessary, although not sufficient on its own.
  4. It is a lot of fun. Acting is a lot of fun. The pre-condition here is that an environment of ease and fearless exploration already exists in the space in which these exercises are happening. With the correct priming and context-setting, that environment is not hard to create.
  5. The novelty factor is pretty high. Most people haven’t been exposed to Theater, even as an audience, let alone as a participant. So the novelty of the experience for most people is pretty high, and that contributes to the engagement that people feel while experimenting with theatrical tools.
  6. It is experimental. It allows taking risks. It encourages exploring different versions of the same “truth”. Everything is okay, as long as it gets the message across. There is no right or wrong. There is hardly any convention. It frees people up; it allows them to “iterate” their expression until it becomes that which truly articulates what they intend to.
  7. It fosters creativity. Art forms are creative expression. Practicing an art form spurs people to look at the same thing differently. It creates alternatives. People discover ways of “acting” that they didn’t know existed. This makes them more resourceful and better-rounded.
  8. It enhances performance. Here, we talk about performing the self, which we are doing in any case. In every interaction, we “perform” a part of who we are, and we are a sum total of all facets of our “selfs” that we can perform.

At a more personal level, theater can be a therapeutic tool, it is meditative. It helps people reconcile the conflicts and irritants that their energies may have been carrying for a long time. A form of theatre called Playback Theater has proven to be quite useful in this context, and is used extensively by behavioral therapists.

One could go on talking about the benefits of engaging in this art form, as more and more and far subtler benefits emerge the longer one has been dipping their toes in this pursuit.

In one of my previous avatars, my friend and I created a business out of using theatre in corporate organizations, not only for People Development, but also as vehicle for advancing engagement and inter-personal collaboration. Running those workshops was as gratifying for me as it was useful for the participants. It touches the real soft parts of the soft skills that organization find so hard to develop, let alone measure and reward.

Here’s to acting.

 

 

Authors

5 Comments

  1. Rachit said:

    Awesome write up, reminiscing good old days of acting :). Absolutely in agreement with you that it does help personal development but above all let us do it for the pure pleasure of doing it rather than with the worrying about outcomes.

  2. Adrian Kirk said:

    I use theatre based techniques all the time in my work and find them to be highly effective.
    Forum Theatre is an exceptional way to use what you’re referring to. It helps explain ideas, explore ways and embeds new possibilities.

  3. Stephanie Burgetz said:

    Yes! Absolutely agree. The University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada) has had an undergrad BA Honours in Drama in Education for over 20 years. The focus of their curriculum is on integrating theatre and theatre arts exercises, approaches and techniques into work with pre-school-highschool children and teens as methods for accessing and creating deeper understanding, knowledge and connection to the topic(s) of study. I have seen, experienced and integrated much of what I learned there into my work with adults – and in particular in with leader development. And you are right – it is also about the pleasure, the energy that comes from being creative, and (I believe) the deep satisfaction that comes from the challenge. Thank you for this article.

  4. Marc Bridgham said:

    Liked this article very much. I have combined my own degree work in both Theatre and OD to develop an approach I’ve called Process Theatre, which incorporates aspects of scripted theatre, improvisation, and other techniques. It has been very successful in introducing new processes to workgroups, simulating systems, both human and non-human, creating mutual understanding among participants in a process or system, and finding big and small process improvements. I agree that theatre somehow touches people in a way nothing else does and frees them up to express themselves, share their own truths, and open up to dialogue and change.

  5. Kymberly Dakin said:

    Excellent refreshing article! I’ve been a trainer, coach and Playback practitioner for over a decade and I’m truly inspired by this piece. I have a theatre performance background and taught acting classes for a number of years. I began early on to focus the curriculum on the true stories people would come in with – and also realized that adults tend to seek out acting class when they are in periods of transition – personally and professionally. I would add to your list the notion that acting skills give participants a way to identify the different roles they use in their lives; the qualities, both positive and negative that make up those roles, and what playing those parts gains them in their lives. Additionally, a fine acting teacher I studied with for years in New York – George Morrison – had us realize that to be onstage in a part requires the awareness – a “Second Attention” of two realities: the story being played as well as how the audience is responding. I’ve found this to be valuable in coaching and presenting.