Fabian Lempa is Research Associate at Freie Universität Berlin and looks into the field of applied theatre interventions in and for companies. Applied theatre, he explains “means types of theatre that don’t usually occur in traditional theatre institutions, but rather find their way into social contexts in order to set in motion various and specific constructive processes of change.“ So when you think about a major or minor transformation in your organization applied theatre might be an option. But there is a set back too! While you usually have a clear idea about what your transformation is about with theatre you have to be prepared for something you have not imagined beforehand. Lempa puts it this way: “As recent studies on the aesthetics of performance have emphasized, the contingency and the emergent nature of performances, characterized by the interplay between actors and spectators, are neither controllable nor predictable. No one can control how a performance is perceived and neither actors nor spectators can claim to control the unfolding or the effect of a performance.”
For any business person this situation might be unacceptable. To them it represents a risk when you are not in control of your change process. Why is it then that there is a continuous increase in applied theatre in organization as Lempa points out: “For some years, social and cultural sciences have been stating the rising theatricality of all spheres of society. Put in highly simplified terms, this means an ascertainable increase in the importance of concepts, qualities and procedures from the world of theatre for other social areas. And the symptoms of this tendency are ubiquitous. For example, we – most evident in our media discourses – use theatre metaphors to describe the behaviours and appearances of politicians, the processes of soccer games or religious processions, staging these social events as spectacles. But it is not only a metaphorical phenomenon. We are, at the same time, participants of these social realities which we describe with theatre vocabulary. So we have to play certain roles, to present ourselves in specific ways and to be social actors in these ‘cultural performances‘.”
Lempa has collected a great amount of practical examples as part of his research and shares them openly: “For example, many enterprises are ordering so called tailor-made plays, which mean plays exclusively written for and suited to a certain company. Those are often used to put the spotlight on actual problems and relevant issues. For example, as a theatre provider told me in an interview, a big car company had problems with increasing medical leaves of its employees. So he was commissioned to write a theatre play which was performed in front of the whole staff and intended to create awareness for the high level of costs the raising absence rate implied. Another company I observed in March 2015 had a bigger restructuring process of its IT sector, which entailed a lot of new challenges for the employees (e.g. new ways of communicating, new areas of responsibility, new hierarchy structures). Six of these challenges were transformed in specific theatre scenes and performed during a staff meeting by professional actors.
In this case, the tailor-made theatre intervention was meant to convey to employees that the company management was aware of their needs and the visualization was the starting point for intensive discussions about thinkable solutions for the represented issues.“ These examples put employees into a rather passive role but there are examples of more active audience involvement too, Lempa says: “For example, I took part in an evening reception of a financial service provider who invited important business customers, for the most part bank directors, from all over Germany. Four actors were hired to conduct a so-called “Walk Act” during the event, meaning a particularly interactive theatre form, in which the performers don’t play on a stage, but instead act directly amongst the guests in certain roles seeking to create playful moments with them through improvisation. In this particular case, the actors formed two couples. One presented themselves as tourism commissaries of Berlin and did an entertaining knowledge quiz about the city and regional dialect with the guests. The other two actors slipped into the roles of a married couple, afraid of losing their savings and wanting advice from the bankers as to how they could invest their money well, thereby initiating funny conversations and short, cheerful competitive games like arm wrestling. The Walk Act took almost three hours and pursued two aims: the first was to entertain and ensure a casual atmosphere. The second, which was the internal objective of the event organizers, was to convey a dynamic, innovative and “human” image of their company through the use of a lively theatre format.“ Last but not least Lempa found theatrical approaches in personal development and explains: “A further example, which I will only describe briefly, is the use of theatre for personal development that I researched through participant observation and interviews at a leading chemical company over a period of ten months. There, in different seminars, young managers learnt to give feedback and to improve their communication skills when handling stressful and challenging conversations with employees. For that, they did role-plays with professional actors, so-called “seminar actors”, who assumed the roles of real existing employees trying to represent them as authentically and realistically as possible. These actors functioned as learning partners or theatrical “crash test dummies”, as a trainer called it once, and the theatre intervention served as a kind of “experimental lab” in which the seminar participants could try alternative behavior patterns and different communicative techniques. The commonality of both theatre forms lies, in contrast to more staged and less interactive variations, in turning employees into playing subjects, even if the manner in which they do this diverges. For me as an observer it was very interesting to see how the employees dealt with these situations in which they had much less control than they were accustomed to in their daily work life and entered a largely “unfamiliar territory”.
The examples that Lempa has collected do not provide an easy answer but give a good indication about why applied theatre has become an accepted option in organizational transformation processes: In times of complexity and acceleration uncertainty increases. Things can be planned but rarely are they executed as planned. Change above all is experienced. Considering these developments and insights we may wonder if the examples provided already make best use of what theatre practices can offer to business and as to whether they can actually have a true impact long-term. If the artistic practice is a short intervention or event with the actual business players in a rather passive role – will it result in a lasting transformation that a bank or chemical company strives for? Will it enable individuals to not only embark on a personal learning journey but a quest for individual insight and self-knowledge?
This is exactly what Witten near Dortmund based Projektfabrik aims for when they bring permanently unemployed people into a fairly extensive program to actually prepare, rehearse and perform a theatre play. Individuals are not forced but participate on a voluntary basis. The programs that took place already in close to forty German locations over 300 times are always a shared initiative where Projektfabrik, employment agency, local and cultural institutions join forces to realize the project. Joined by professional artists and applied theatre experts, who guide the process and coach the participants a result can be accomplished, that goes far and beyond skill acquisition or tool training. “Through the means of theatre practice, participants can find ways to express their true self and find their place in the world“, Projektfabrik founder Sandra Schürmann says. When using artistic practice in such a profound way, like Projektfabrik and their partners do, art is not a tool or method, but a journey into a whole new world of self-transformation.
In any case it is another great example that Lempa has not talked to us about. Not yet at least.