Page last updated at 17:14 GMT, Sunday, 29 November 2009

Can Shakespeare teach business leadership?

By Kabir Chibber
Business reporter, BBC News

Linbury Theatre
The workshop is all about performing a play in two days

Many a middle manager knows the pain of having to sit through a leadership seminar.

The Power Point presentations. Blue-sky thinking. Flip charts. Prawn sandwiches.

On a cold day in West London last week, 12 men and women began a leadership course of their own.

But, unlike the usual run-of-the-mill courses, each person at the end of their three days of training will have to put on a short play starring real actors in front of an audience.

Unusual workshop

This is the Director's Cut, a workshop run by a company called the Leadership Theatre.

At this particular session, the group was made up of managing directors and IT and HR managers.

Some people come in all cynical, but by the end they're buzzing
Peter Scraton

They sat in a "down and dirty" rehearsal room, as founder Paul Jamieson put it, which smelled vaguely of feet.

Tony Hall, another founder who has taught leadership at Cranfield Business School, says the course is partly about changing preconceptions.

"It breaks down the notion that the arts aren't commercial and businesses aren't creative," he says.

The first day starts off normally, with participants sitting at desks in a U-shape, discussing their jobs and skills.

But there are a few things that point out you're not at the usual conference centre.

The sound of actors rehearsing (and swearing loudly) can be heard through the walls at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), which is a partner in the venture.

And the men and women have to fill out the people that most inspired them - plotted on a chart from birth to present.

And then they are all told that they will get their plays at the end of the day, meet their actors tomorrow and put on a performance in front of 60 people the day after.

Personality-based plays

Mr Hall was inspired to set up the venture after hearing a Radio 4 interview with Russell Reich, who had written a book with the late theatre director Frank Hauser, about directing.

"Everything he was saying about directing for the stage applied to leadership," Mr Hall says.

Peter Scraton, e2v
Mr Scraton backed the idea and remains a supporter

He started to see other similarities between theatre and business development and set up the Leadership Theatre with actor and trainer Mr Jamieson and psychologist Clare Amos.

And the plays themselves are not easy.

This time around, they included A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From a Bridge and David Mamet's Oleana - about a university professor accused of sexual harassment.

They have also previously had Romeo and Juliet - which was set by one manager in modern California - but they try to avoid Shakespeare in case some attendees find the dialogue difficult.

The Leadership Theatre speaks to each of the participants' managers before they arrive and, taking that conversation into account, assigns them their play based on their personalities.

They will then have to get two actors on their side to perform an eight-minute excerpt of a well-known play.

Comfort zone

But can performing a play really help you learn to be an effective manager?

The Leadership Theatre says that by working with the actors, the bosses learn techniques - like giving effective feedback - in a new setting with people that are not used to management speak.

The actors give blunt feedback on their new directors during the rehearsals - and there have been conflicts when managers tried to do something too flippant or did not listen to advice.

Some actors, for example, do not want to work with the workshop attendees - a blow to the egos of people who have been in senior management for a long time.

Mr Hall says they gently prompt the actors to address weaknesses in the participants' directing - and therefore their leadership skills - during the rehearsals.

The whole experience is about taking people out of their everyday experiences.

"Initially, some of the engineers and IT guys do struggle," Ms Amos says. "They think the play's in a box to be performed, and then they realise there's hundreds of options.

"They find themselves so far out of their comfort zone."

Cynicism

These courses were commissioned by Chelmsford-based electronics company e2v, on the prompting of HR director Peter Scraton, who has worked with Mr Hall previously.

He has sent more than 100 employees on the course so far, and is enthusiastic about the extra confidence in team members that have come back.

company logo
The Leadership Theatre has been going for two years

"It's a great metaphor, acting is all about human relationships," he says. "It's helped us with our succession planning."

Part of his passion for the idea comes from his father, who was a sculptor and had a lifelong love of the theatre.

He was attending the Director's Cut course himself for the first time.

"Some people come in all a bit cynical, but by the end they're buzzing," Mr Scraton says.

Several of the attendees - who were from e2v's partner companies - were more than a little cynical.

One said he would read the Russell Reich and Frank Hauser book on directing that night - in the pub.

"We texted our boss saying we were just going out on the lash for three days," his colleague then said. "He wasn't best pleased."

This was before the group was taken to Lamda's Linbury Theatre to see the space they would be working in.

Everybody suddenly became more nervous.

The Leadership Theatre does longer courses - including one in story-telling.

Mr Hall believes that the company could expand in the future - if there is the demand from businesses.

The evidence suggests there might be.

"We used to take a while to get DVDs of the plays back to them," Mr Hall says. "We used to get calls every day, asking when they would get them.

"We're a bit better at that now."



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