September 2012

September 5th, 2012 by Robbie Swales

Why did the use of actors grow so rapidly during the nineties? It’s all to do with behaviours. The increasing use of computers in the workplace, and the development of more complex relationships between workers in organisations, meant a greater focus on people behaviours. As the numbers of computers increased in the workplace, many very mundane jobs could then be done by these computers. With fewer people in the workplace, the traditional hierarchies were being replaced by smaller, leaner and more complex teams.

I first came across cross-functional teams, when I roleplayed for a large pharmaceutical company.  I was roleplaying an employee who was a member of three teams and therefore had three team leaders. This was a very challenging situation for the team leaders, as they may ask one of their team to carry out a task and the response might be “Sorry, I’m very busy doing a task for another team”. I have to say I rather enjoyed this roleplay, as it became evident that the only way the team leader could manage was to be an effective influencer. Flattery got them a long way with my character.

In the nineties, as we grew the company, I was still doing some acting jobs. I acted in a popular soap powder TV commercial, where I played an employer who appeared to have given a job to a young man because his white shirt had been so beautifully washed by his mother. At that time I was also roleplaying on a Selection Interviewing Skills Programme for a high street bank. The trainers joked with me that they were going to cancel the entire programme and just select new candidates on the strength of the whiteness of their shirts!

In those early days there were some jobs that we turned down, as we felt that they didn’t fit into our remit of learning and development. I took a call at our office from a national newspaper. Could we supply an actor to go to a selection of GP clinics in London, seek a consultation with a doctor, and describe a range of symptoms that were associated with cancer? The purpose of the exercise was to see how many different diagnoses our ‘mystery shopper’ received from doctors with the same set of symptoms. We declined the job. By being a drama based training company we were already a niche provider in a niche market! We needed to stick to training and not diversify into mystery shopping and dilute our offering. Those were our justifications for not doing the job, but also, we just didn’t feel it was necessarily ‘above board’.

Also during those early days I came to appreciate the power of acting. I had been a professional actor for twenty years in theatre and TV before I first roleplayed. I had always been ‘distanced’ from my audience: in TV you don’t even see them (except with live audiences in TV Sitcoms) and in the theatre you have the structure of the theatre building effectively separating you from the audience. But I felt that it was only when I roleplayed that I understood the extraordinary effect that ‘going into role’ can have on the recipient of the experience, the delegate sitting opposite me. At the end of roleplays the delegates would often say, sounding surprised, “That was so real!”

This effect is called “the Suspension of Disbelief”. And it still amazes me! I think that we all have an inbuilt grammar for experiencing theatre. I find this particularly evident in the type of interactive theatre work that we are involved with now. Two actors can stand in front of, for example, twenty five delegates and after the introduction to the programme one of the actors can say “OK now I’m going to be Derek, a line manager and I am about to have a meeting with Susan” and the two actors go into the meeting and everybody in the room goes along with the fiction of the drama.  I feel the magic of drama much more forcefully in this context than I ever did in the theatre – it is so instant and immediate.

In our first five years we only provided one to one roleplay. Our interactive theatre work started in about 1997, quite by chance rather than design.  Richard and Janet, the two other founders of Steps, were doing a job for the MBA students of a university, in the splendid old building of the Spreadeagle Hotel in Midhurst. Richard and Janet had been sent some roleplays which they had prepared. They were under the impression that they would spend the afternoon carrying out one-to-one roleplay with each of the students.

When they arrived they were ushered into a large hall with ancient beams where there were about forty students waiting. Our client introduced our pair as “Two actors from Steps who are going to run a drama based session” and left the hall!  Forty is far too many delegates to be handled by two roleplayers for one-to-one roleplay, so Janet and Richard had to think fast!  After a quick, whispered conversation, they announced that they would jointly play out some scenarios, and one of the actors in each scene would ask the delegates for advice, which they would subsequently play out in front of the delegates.

Steps interactive theatre was born!


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