August 2012

August 5th, 2012 by Robbie Swales

This year, Steps is celebrating twenty years of existence. It therefore seems timely to reflect on the development of drama based training over this period.

In 1992 there was, and had been for over twenty years, a very rich provision of drama in schools that had been provided by the TIE companies, (Theatre in Education). These companies were in a very good position to move into the ‘adults in the workplace’ market, but few of them did. The first adult providers, such as Steps, were started by actors who had had ten to twenty years acting experience in theatre, film and TV, and were then looking for another way to create an income stream for themselves. That was certainly my situation. I had been a professional actor for over twenty years, and I was now married with three small children and the insecurity and stress of being a jobbing actor was beginning to pall.

When we set up business in 1992, the main requirement from clients was for the provision of professional roleplayers for assessement and development centres. Our first large assignment, in 1995, was to provide nine roleplayers for two days on a development centre for a high street retail bank. They had been running the centre for about two years, and they had sourced their roleplayers internally from within the bank. This meant that the nine roleplayers tended to be white males! Apart from our acting skills, the bank were pleased that we could provide five women and four men and amongst this group were actors of ethnic minority.

Another area that supported and used roleplayers back then (and still does) was the health sector. Our first opportunity for paid work was provided by Guy’s and St Thomas’s Medical School. During their training, medical students were put through a one week ‘Communications Skills Course’, to help them develop a friendly and supportive ‘bedside manner’. We roleplayed on Day Three and Five of the course. On Day Three we roleplayed a range of challenging patients: overtalkative, non-communicative, anxious and alcoholic were some of them. Day Five was cheerily called ‘Death and Dying’. This was a challenging day for the roleplayers, as we had to play characters who were dying or characters being informed that a very close relative had just died. Naturally, the responses of the characters was highly emotional and by the end of the day we had to retire to a local pub to revive ourselves!

While roleplaying in a health care context, I had my first real insight into the power of roleplay, and how it needs to be held within some very well defined boundaries. I was roleplaying on a programme that was training doctors to assess poorly performing doctors. It was the pilot session and I was roleplaying a surgeon who was having to give evidence before a panel of three doctors, who were assessing the competence of another doctor. The simulation ran for about twenty minutes. I had left the room and was standing in the corridor when the doctors then came out of the room. One of them came over to me and said how helpful the roleplay had been and in which hospital did I work as a surgeon!

When I said that I was an actor she looked absolutely aghast. I sensed that she felt that she had been fooled in some way. She said ‘But you used medical terminology’.  I admitted that I had learned two pieces of medical terminology, to keep up my sleeve, to help create greater authenticity. She finally gave me a grudging admiration for have been so convincing and walked away. I had been under the impression that the delegates had known we were actors. I realised that in future we should always check that the delegates knew we were actors.  We were not, and still aren't, in the business of fooling people - we are in the learning and development business and I believe that the best circumstances for learning are in an open and safe environment...

Robbie's 20th birthday blog will continue over the coming months as part of our 20th birthday celebrations.




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