The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
The two-way street
Animated, Winter 1999. The arts are bringing something different to current business training practice - combining a people-centred approach with a left-field mentality that gives the participants an 'out-of-the-box', experience unlike any other. As artists having to deconstruct what it is we do, to be able to work with people for whom just being the centre of attention may be an anathema gives us a greater understanding of ourselves and of our work. Toby Wilsher of Trestle Theatre Company explains
It has been a commonly held belief that all that business has to offer the arts is sponsorship, and all that the arts have to offer are a variety of interesting looking begging bowls. Unless you are a major arts institution, and preferably a building, you will have realised by now that sponsorship is pretty much dead in the water: the amount of money raised is rarely commensurate with the time and effort put in. But over the last few years some arts organisations have been building relationships with business that are about a fairer exchange - about doing business together, in fact.

Increasing numbers of us have been working in the field of business training, a field that is full of people doing all sorts of things that usually entail sitting behind a desk filling out personality type tests, or hanging off a rock on the name of good team communication. The arts are bringing something different. We offer active learning combining a people-centred approach with a left-field mentality that gives the participants an 'out-of-the-box', experience unlike any other, that sticks in the mind for a long time to come.

Trestle Theatre Company has been cautiously dipping its toes in this field of work for nearly two years, and it is only now that we feel we have fully appreciated what it is we have to offer, how to present it, and how to sell it. Prior to this, word of mouth or contacts have provided a steady trickle of work from clients such as The Halifax plc, Sainsbury's, Eastern Electricity and Arthur Andersen. We are realising the benefits of a business training programme, and launching ourselves on the market with quality print, CD-ROM and taster sessions for other trainers.

The benefits? Let us not be shy about this. We are not working in the subsidised sector here; we get paid a market rate for a job done - a strange feeling for a theatre company. Basically, two people can earn in one day what a cast of ten and three crew could charge for an evening's performance. It becomes a cost-effective way of raising income to put towards the core business of the company - making theatre. With standstill funding, rising costs and a glass ceiling on fees, this is the new reality for us, the only way to keep fulfilling the needs of our art without resorting to smaller and smaller casts, shorter tours and lower production values. Business training, corporate work - this is the future for us. Unless funding levels return to that of say, ten years ago, we shall continue to explore and exploit what it is we do, and where it can be applied outside a theatrical environment. But it is not just the money. By having to deconstruct what it is we do, to be able to work with people for whom just being the centre of attention may be an anathema gives its a greater understanding of ourselves and of our work.

So it has become a two-way street. We are doing business with business. They are buying from us something they cannot get anywhere else, a theatrical approach to training that is enriching and enlightening their workforce, and that sits alongside traditional training methods very comfortably. As a trainer, it has meant taking into account a whole new set of expectations. Games that we might play with a new ensemble of actors within the first hour of the first rehearsal could be, to a non-actor, extremely threatening, focusing everybody's attention on one person and their ability to carry out a very simple pattern of physical moves. Simple that is, if you are used to moving, and having people watching you as you do it. When participants enter the room for a business workshop with us, the chances are that most of them are deep in their panic zones, where nothing can be learnt, nothing enjoyed and all is negative. Their fears? Being made to look foolish, being criticised, being uncomfortable, being seen by others from outside, loss of face and dignity. Fairly major anxieties!

It is our job primarily to bring these people into a more comfortable state of mind, to relax and reassure them so that we can up the ante, taking them into their stretch zones where things are learnt, experiences are memorable and discoveries are made. We play simple games that concentrate on groups rather than individuals, which let us make discoveries about each other that are amusing, not threatening. Simple games can be deconstructed to make learning points about good communication, about giving and receiving 'gifts', about eye contact and clearly expressed intentions.

After just one hour with a disparate group of individuals at a workshop recently, it was commented that they felt like a team that had been together for months, rather than one hour, such was the level of understanding between them. This was because they had been communicating on a personal level, laughing together, being creative together, in an atmosphere that encouraged such discoveries. If theatre can be aware of how different it is from most people's everyday experience, it can use such knowledge as a tool in training. An oft heard comment after a workshop is how clear and obvious the learning points were, whilst how different and exciting the methodology.

What must be understood from the outset, for an arts practitioner, is that business training is not about imparting theatre skills. It is not professional training. The participants are not there to learn about acting, but are using our methods to learn about body language, voice production and team building. The criteria we set ourselves for evaluating our success in a workshop must change. The learning experience for the participant is both experiential and metaphoric, giving them the understanding and the vocabulary to assess their performance, and that of others, back in the workplace. For us it is about making clear and relevant learning points to do with the way people communicate with each other at work, the way they present themselves to others. We can teach them about their own creativity, about giving and receiving ideas, creating ideas, communicating ideas. We can show them how, in theatre, we go out of our way to create conflict.

This gives us an understanding of how it works, how it can be resolved or managed. We are not trying to compete with the traditional trainers or the Jungian psychologists. We are not offering therapy, or business solutions to business problems. Our skills are about the management of people, and about them reaching their potential and getting on with each other.

The real strength of the arts in business training is its unique character. Nothing else is like this; you have to come to us for this experience. But this strength can also be its downfall. With no parameters for standards in place, the opportunity for a bad experience is there, and by association the entire genre can be tainted. It is easier to condemn and dismiss the arts since there exists a stereotype of the kind of person involved - fey, shallow and pretentious - and should there be a bad experience it could be conceived that we were only conforming to stereotype, that the doubters were right all along. In these early days, people are sticking their necks out by bringing in a theatre group for their training - a lot of convincing has to be done at boardroom level - and if we are to become part of the norm we have to fulfil people's high expectations.

To those wishing to explore what they have to offer the business community, I would suggest they look hard at what they do best, and see how that can be translated to the business environment. We have to be able to walk the talk, communicate on their level, in their language. But we still have to be us - slightly odd, a bit Bohemian, a little dangerous. That is what they are buying, after all. And if it is successful, it can be enormously rewarding. They gain from us, we from them, and chances are you could get them in to see the next show. How is that for audience development?

Toby Wilsher, Trestle Theatre Company. Contact +44 (0)1727 850950.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001