That’s entertainment? That’s consultancy!

That's entertainment? That's consultancy!

What can business learn from theatre? What are management consultants to do when the "luvvies" start to muscle in on their patch? Marc Brenner loosens his clothing and steps onto the stage of "consultancy by theatre".

“Take off your shoes and socks, stand in a circle and stop talking,”s to do when the “luvvies” start to muscle in on their patch? Marc Brenner loosens his clothing and steps onto the stage of “consultancy by theatre”. says theatre director, Piers Ibbotson. And so began the workshop, devised by the Royal Shakespeare Company and its prime sponsor Allied Domecq, designed to release creativity and hone problem-solving skills among business-folk.

Over the past few months, the team behind the Releasing Creativity course has been invited into organisations in order to solve a wide range of problems. The course has helped companies to restructure departments, boost presentation skills and bond new teams.

9.45am: Bare feet and blue faces

In an echoing and cavernous rehearsal room in South London, Ibbotson explains that he will be presenting a “taster” of the full service the RSC offers. Twenty executives drawn from companies as diverse as Ernst & Young, Marks & Spencer, Arthur Andersen, Seagram, Halifax Building Society and Coutts & Co nervously form a circle and start a “warm-up”.

Employees often find it difficult to remember the names of people working in their own organisations and so the “name-game” played among these total strangers causes much embarrassment but also does much to break the ice.

Ibbotson subsequently unleashes a frenzied version of school-ground tag that really separates the fit from the flaccid. A few of the more desk-bound executives turn a midnight shade of blue while lumbering around the room, reaching out in vain to tag the more lithe members of the commercial world. At this stage, it is difficult to see where the business benefits in such activity lie. We are all used to chasing after colleagues, but this is usually restricted to the Christmas party. The management consultants acquit themselves well by showing a pliable physicality all too often absent from boardrooms. By the end of the 45-minute “warm-up”, half the room is warmed-up and the other half over-cooked.

10.30am: Chaos is good for you – try it

Ibbotson explains the more serious intentions behind the work that lies ahead of the participants. “The business world is starting to talk about releasing creativity in its workforce. There is a problem with this.

True creativity grows organically from chaos and mess. All too often, mess is not tolerated within an organisation. Everything must be controlled and structured. In the world of theatre, creativity of any sort cannot grow from such order.

“In order to release what’s possible firms must create an environment where mistakes can be made, where controlled chaos can reign, where hierarchy disappears. In the safety of this rehearsal room, where all of the above applies, we will explore what you are capable of,” says Ibbotson.

The suspension of hierarchy is one of Ibbotson’s first tasks when entering a firm. “Naturally, actors have a vague structure of hierarchy but this is always suspended in the search for a good idea,” he says.

It becomes clear that in the theatre, actors take the time to try different scenarios and then select the most effective approach.

Susan Taylor, director of communications at Seagram, points out a potential problem. “In business, you simply can’t afford to take the time to ‘rehearse’ different business solutions. You only have the time to make the ‘right’ decision.” And another problem surfaces: the RSC might be successful at suspending hierarchy for a day’s workshop among employees but does it really believe that those barriers will be broken once staff are back at their desks? It seems that the effectiveness of “consultancy by theatre” rests heavily on the maturity of the staff who undergo the course.

Keen to raise the level of concentration in the room, Ibbotson passes a large stick of bamboo cane to each participant. As the casually-dressed executives stand in a circle wielding their weapons, one is put in mind of a politely middle-class version of Lord of the Flies.

The ensemble is asked to imagine a five pence piece in the middle of circle, then invited to place the ends of their sticks on that single point, raise the sticks up high, while still focusing the ends on the central point. The seemingly simple task proves deceptively difficult.

But the almost meditative nature of this exercise has, after a few attempts, calmed the room and readied the course participants for some real work.

Ibbotson concludes: “In the theatre, we can draw on 2,000 years of experience in bonding teams, visualising and solving problems, as well as creating compelling performances. After coffee, we’ll show you how.”

12.00pm: If you blink – you’re fired

The worlds of theatre and business are fiercely competitive. One day you’re on the front pages and the next, you’re using the same paper as a blanket to shelter you from the cold. In the “Presentation & Pitching” segment of the day, Ibbotson illustrates how first impressions can be affected by the simplest of physical tics. In “Hire and Fire”, eight hapless volunteers have to walk the length of the rehearsal room alone and announce themselves to the other 12 members of the group who are lined up like a firing squad. Once they have announced themselves, the jury takes a vote on whether to hire ’em or fire ’em.

What follows is a fascinating examination of how the tiniest factors can affect your performance, your pitch or your interview. The position of the head, the openness of the body and face, the volume of the voice, the level of eye contact are all dissected by the jury. Once the imperfections have been pointed out, the candidates repeat the exercise and an immediate improvement is marked. When attempting to improve bearing and vocal range Ibbotson usually employs the skills of a trained voice coach who has much success in improving the authority and power of individual speakers.

It seems that walking and talking are out, if you want to make a good impression. Furthermore, if you resort to foot-shuffling of any description, you might as well hang a sign around your neck saying “Don’t take any notice of me, I don’t really want to be here”. Co-director Kate Raper stresses that you don’t need to have trained for three years at drama school in order to give a good performance. However, a few private lessons might have come in handy for a few of the participants who are asked to use their voices to “inspire”, “amaze” and “fascinate” us. Ibbotson is very patient, but in the world outside the rehearsal room you might hear a cry of “Next!”

2.00pm: The importance of structure

Ibbotson is in the business of re-engineering. Plays need to be crafted, moulded so that the optimum communication is achieved. He is a great proponent of “showing and doing” not “planning and talking”. Taking the general concept of “the state of British theatre today” he asks the group to arrange themselves into a tableau that represents that theme. After much shuffling and reorganisation, a picture develops of a crowded West-End theatre watching a tired murder mystery, a fringe theatre company with one audience member and a wealth of others who have their backs to both scenes and are totally disinterested. Ibbotson glumly admits that it is a pretty fair picture.

He then goes on to ask the group to arrange themselves into what they believe to be the “ideal state that theatre should be in”. Many configurations are tried and the discussion flourishes. This is, perhaps, the most effective part of the day. We are witnessing problem solving at its most active.

When such principles are applied to working departments it is not surprising that the results are so impressive. Applying this technique makes the entire process truly collaborative and wrenches it away from the drawing board.

3.30pm: Sing for your consultancy

Three smaller groups are created and each is charged with having to present a three-minute advert to the rest of the group expounding the virtues of either business or the arts. Says Ibbotson briskly: “You have 40 minutes to prepare it. I want the entire advert to be in rhyming couplets. You will use no props and you will end with a song. Any questions?” Glancing around the room, it is possible to observe waves of nausea rippling skin.

But the end results are better than anyone had imagined. Such creativity has been whipped up throughout the day that the presentation of the work is a culmination of everything that has gone before. True team-working skills are on display as members of the group take turns to direct, act, write, and choreograph. The group that presents “We Don’t Need Arts Education” to the tune of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, has to be seen to be believed, though Andrew Lloyd-Webber needn’t give up the day job.

5.00pm: Feedback

Back in the circle, Ibbotson goes round the group for comments. Dorothea Dignan of Mindshare, has enjoyed the day but is a little unsure as to how the exercises could be put into practice back at the office. Peregrine Banbury of Coutts & Co takes a wry view of how some of the more energetic games would be taken in an austere bank. “The sight of some of the more senior members of staff crawling between each others’ legs is a sight I would dearly like to behold,” he says. Generally the reaction is very positive. Taylor feels that the day has been the perfect forum to “acknowledge mistakes and learn from your weaknesses”.

Ibbotson stresses that the work undertaken in the office environment is always more valuable. “You cannot treat training such as this as a one-off hit. Personal development, team-building and leadership techniques must all be part of an on-going process”. He leans forward, takes a well-timed pause and adds, “The results you reap after releasing creativity are enormous, if people in business are willing to take a chance on working with artists. There’s so much to learn.” The possibilities offered by one day’s work has fired the imaginations of nearly all of the 20 participants.

The stage-struck executives, having been offered their moment of “controlled chaos”, gather their bags and sadly put their shoes and socks back on.

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