Theatre As A Learning Tool

Theatre As A Learning Tool

HR stands for the acronym human resources, and, if we further break it down -human refers to “human beings” and resource means “supplies one can draw in order to function effectively.” Hence, when human beings are drawn and utilised for higher performance, the term human resources gains meaning. Theatre on the other hand, comes from the word theatron (meaning a specific place), which means a place where performance related to an actual or imaginary event is staged by people. So, what do HR and theatre have in common? people and performance!


Look at the corporate dynamics. Projects are envisioned, plans are drawn, goals are set, leaders show the way, people are allocated roles, project kicks off, people deliver on their promises on time, they adapt to the changing circumstances, and finally, they perform and deliver. The scenario is more or less the same for a theatre company, which has to deliver a flawless performance in each show, and, keep the audience engaged. So, running a theatre group is not very different than a corporate, with the added anguishes such as artists’ ego, want of funds, audience with a limited attention span, and, fewer trained actors.


So, a person who has done theatre in his/her life is likely to handle the HR role a great deal better because theatre would have taught him/her goal setting, communication, empathy, situational leadership, time management, and, diversity and inclusion. We, however, live in a country where there is a good chance that if you are in a worthy corporate job today, you would have prioritised your education over theatre, sports, or extracurricular activities, and, therefore, theatre as a tool, finding its way into learning and development is only natural. The overall business of ‘theatre‑based training companies’ has grown by 30% every year over the last 5 years, and, there is sufficient data to indicate that theatre and arts are not a fad, but in fact, are the new age tools towards behavioural training.


Art form as a learning tool


When the tools and techniques of an art form can become a methodology for learning, it can be derived that it has become a learning tool. And, that is where the adult learning model comes into play. Adult learning paradigms believe that an adult will learn on his own as long as you create a safe and respectful space, make learning practical, learn from each other, and, learn on the job. This generally requires creating a theatre and art based experiential methodology through two models. The direct approach is when the world of corporate can directly gain from an existing tool from the world of art. The Indirect one is when the art form can be used as a medium to create a learning environment which is safe, immersive, and, finally transformative.


“Adult learning paradigms believe that an adult will learn on his own as long as you create a safe and respectful space, make learning practical, learn from each other, and, learn on the job.”


The Direct Approach


Here, the concerned team work on enabling managers and leaders to be able to create impactful communication by adding to their skill set the tools and techniques of storytelling – be it content structuring, medium sensitive or tools of body language, voice culture – all taught in the actor training process. In fact, how can one think of doing sales training without teaching them how to script, rehearse, and, perform to a client, not to forget the skills to adapt – all techniques of improvisational theatre. The biggest strength of a good actor is his awareness, and, if that can be taught to leaders – they can bring transformation to people and organisations! Actor training techniques can be applied to sales, communication, executive presence, negotiation skills, difficult conversations, and, performance appraisal reviews. No amount of watching TEDx talks can ever replace actual rehearsals to create that speech which will motivate your team! It is ‘learning by doing.’


The Indirect approach


In 2010, when people were asked by a speaker what they thought of training they described it as ‘people sitting in a round table seating, pretending to listen to the speaker who is showing 100 slides, while munching salted biscuits with terrible tea, checking their mails on mobile.’ In fact, everyone was actually looking forward to lunch. Death by .ppt is not a joke, but a reality, and, this is where training must become entertaining.


The audience is required to be put at the centre of your universe and design. Theatre believes in the same, and, this must be applied to training as well. What if a theatre‑based activity shadow-shared to build ‘trust and collaboration between team members’ was held? What if a project simulation was to teach ‘importance vs urgent matrix’ and the project was to create a dance/play performance? Visioning workshops come alive when leaders do not speak, but instead, make collages and express their thoughts! Innovation workshops gained from ‘focus generating’ activities from the world of music and yoga! Leadership styles were a lot easier to understand by way of using improv theatre. Thus, workshops derived from theatre and allied arts became the conduit to teach management concepts, followed in practice, all the while led by a theatre-based trainer to ensure that the workshop is participative, engaging, and, driven towards specific measurable learning outcomes! With theatre and art-based methods, .ppt was replaced by .exe ‘learning by doing.’


Over the last six years, there have been many more exponents of art-based training who have risen to the centre stage in India and received tremendous response. This in itself is an indicator for the rise in popularity of theatre-based methods for training.


 ‘Applied theatre’


Unlike popular misconception, as much as theatre is not just about acting, the theatre‑based tool is not about doing plays or role plays, it is a great deal more. In the corporate scenario, where there is so much pressure, it is a tool which helps you connect at your EQ level and harness the power for managing yourself and maximising your individual output. For instance, during a learning mela for a technology giant, street theatre was utilised to convey the message of ‘learning and development’ to the employees, and, with an interactive play-shop (play+workshop), a message pertaining to POSH was delivered across all the employees in 15 days. Effective Performance appraisal review workshops was delivered as a tool at the ‘forum theatre’ for a leading telecom company, and ‘theatre games’ used to do culture workshops with a media house, while ‘playback theatre’ and ‘theatre of the oppressed’ was adapted for diversity and inclusion training across organisations.


As an engagement tool under HRD, theatre has been used to create ‘dramatic engagements’ to deliver home an engaging message to employees in sales/hr/annual conferences (200-2000 people) through offerings such as ‘human orchestra’ ‘giant human jigsaw’ ‘puppetry-based business simulation’ ‘dance-theon’ etc. A theatre‑based format called ‘play-shop,’ an interactive play performed by actors on a learning theme built on scenarios from the corporate and hosted by a senior trainer as a facilitator, which can reach 300 people at a time, has been used to tackle serious themes like ‘unconscious bias’, ‘sales training’, ‘posh’, ‘customer service’, ‘organisational value cascading’ – entertainment-based learning!

“Is it good for a specific area of learning?”

Theatre based tools are not a fad or a cure for specific ailments. It is akin to studying Science, NLP and psychology. And, its relatively new in India as compared to the other methods. Through our findings, we have deduced that theatre-based learning has direct results on sales training, team bonding, and diversity and inclusion, but, that is only because the medium has not been explored for many other themes.

Theatre may have existed as a medium since ages, and ‘applied theatre’ / theatre‑based media have been in existence in the western world for more than a few hundred years, and, corporate theatre is even younger. Theatre techniques (actor and group dynamics) have been collated and published in the west, and, have constantly evolved over the years, pioneered by theatre makers, and, then theatre in education teachers. The western world is very familiar with such a training format for children in schools and the adult learning model has benefitted a lot from it.

With the millennials becoming a dominant force, Learning has to be more dynamic, engaging, in small bytes, and interactive to make itself driven. In such a world, theatre-based tools along with other experiential methods will be needed to fulfil the EQ needs of employees through human interaction sessions and also make an entry in an interactive digital avatar in the form of engaging content. A customised web-series on leadership practices? An interactive VR performance appraisal training video? A posh detector app? And, who better to tell these stories than theatre professionals.


“Theatre-based tools along with other experiential methods will be needed to fulfil the EQ needs of employees through human interaction sessions and also make an entry in an interactive digital avatar in the form of engaging content.”

Sunil Vishnu K is the Co-founder and Director, Training Sideways. With over 14 years of work experience, he dabbles as an actor, director, voice over artiste, and CEO – avatars which he brings to training design and delivery on themes like leadership and brand value immersion to innovation and diversity. Sunil has a marketing communications degree from MICA and is the recipient of “international fellowship in arts management” from John F Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts.


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