Theater of Life: How the Dramatic Arts Can Help Your Organization
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
You've heard of the Drama Club: they're the expressive crew in the halls, singing show tunes and playing in the costume closet. They have mad skills. They are also fearless. These are the people you want on your team.
It is not entirely true to say they are fearless. Everyone has fears, but theater people are expert at managing their fears in order to accomplish their goals. They are experts at acting "as if" in order to push through discomfort to reach achievement. They employ a very strong set of skills that we can all use if we only knew how. I'm here to tell you how.
Actor and Improvisation genius Greg Hohn's book, Putting Improv to Work: Spontaneous Performance for Professional and Personal Life talks about the necessity of being comfortable with ambiguity. He writes,
"Navigating ambiguity–and looking at it as an opportunity rather than hazard–is key to successful improvisation on or offstage. Improv (theater) allows us to go beyond certainty without freaking out, to get comfortable with ambiguity and even flourish in it."
These are among the top skills obtained in a theater education. In addition are the ability to successfully collaborate, to delegate tasks effectively, to create a realistic and feasible schedule, to be both process AND performance-oriented, and have the ability to think on one's feet. And this is not an exhaustive list. Theater people are often exceptional problem solvers with the ability to perceive obstacles from multiple perspectives and create a multitude of solutions quickly and with a limited set of resources. All this from putting on a production of Little Shop of Horrors.
That's not to mention the personal and social benefits derived from countless hours of rehearsal. These are highly competent and self-assured people who know themselves well. That is a rare skill in the workplace, and we all want confidence in our co-workers and leaders.
But how do you teach these things to non-theater people? Are the rest of us out of luck? Not at all.
These skills are universal, it is only our comfort levels that waver. The confidence comes with practice. And the biggest component of the practice is . . . rehearsal. That is, repeated efforts under the direction of a skilled and dedicated guide or coach.
As is the case with so many things we shy away from, we must use our discomfort as a guide. It is when we lean into our fears that we grow. And to do that we must feel safe. There are few places safer than the theatre. Within the conventions of the audience/performer relationship is an expectation of vulnerability. We want to see the whole performer, and in fact, we can intrinsically tell when the performer is hiding. As the great stage director Anne Bogart once said, "You cannot hide on stage–Be visible!"
We can all take a note from this wisdom. On the stage of life–whether professional or personal–we cannot hide. By showing and sharing your whole self with your team, you signal your willingness to grow and move into new territory. When the entire group makes this journey, amazing things will happen. Just ask Greg, who teaches improv to business students at the Kenan Flagler School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of his students said of this work,
"I cannot think of a class that more directly benefited me in my current role within HR at Bank of America than Applied Improv. I am in a lot of situations where I either have to present in front of an audience or I have to deal with an HR situation with a client [. . .] the exercises we did in relation to thinking off the cuff and managing your anxiety/nerves to make them a positive force in presentation has proven extremely beneficial."
Bradley Denis is a personal development and life coach with over thirty years experience teaching and performing theater. He offers one-on-one coaching and workshops in all these modalities. Learn more at bradleydenis.com