Problem solving, good decisions, visions, and – of course – critical thinking, are all traits required in leadership, traits we chase in hiring, training we search for to help our teams achieve greatness, characteristics that are easy to define but not so easy to achieve. As leaders, how do we nurture these traits in our employees and associates? Content-based learning is not necessarily transformative. Transformation takes a different approach, one that the Humanities in general, and theatre in particular, foster through questioning and changes in perspective.
When the French playwright Antonin Artaud commented in Theatre and It’s Double that the role
of theatre is to attack the audience, he hit upon the key to using theatre as significant tool in leadership training. Far beyond traditional content-based activity, the lessons learned when using theatre as a foundation for teaching critical thinking, stay with participants simply because theatre does attack the senses, emotionally engaging the audience. Using theatre, with its story platform, makes it accessible, memorable, and – as a teaching tool in critical thinking – is an effective, lasting exercise. Case in point: Henrik Ibsen.
When Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882, he was launching a counter-attack. He had written a play, Ghosts, which confronted venereal disease, a serious social problem of the time. Audiences revolted, condemning the play while continuing to live with their problem. Countering their response with the play, An Enemy of the People, Ibsen produced a work with much more far- reaching attributes, especially for teaching critical thinking. This was the first “problem play,” a work which ends with an answer, but a unsatisfying answer that the audience understands is no answer at all. Steve McQueen’s 1978 film of the work loses none of the play’s emotional impact making it not only a foundation for problem-solving and critical thinking, but a highly engaging exercise.
The challenges presented in this play, written over a hundred years ago, have changed little. The work features five characters, all leaders, who represent five fundamental sectors of society often found conflict: Governance, science and technology, small business, big business, and media – all uneasy bedfellows. The play’s characters are both part of the problem and part of the solution. In the case of the play, they all had a hand in making the problem. Each carries enough power and skill to take the lead and break the stalemate. In breaking the problem down and empathetically looking at the characters — their good points and their bad points – then delving into the situation, the workshop opens new ways of looking at problems, of seeing situations from multiple positions, and, ultimately, of finding satisfying resolutions. “This workshop really got me to open my eyes to having more empathy,” commented a participant. “What one thing looks like to one person may very well not be the case.”
This is the kind of vision that builds teams and develops problem-solvers. Participants learn that sometimes it takes a different approach, or that it takes a dedication to finding a solution, that the point is not being right but rather, to build a team and solve a problem. Another point that participants make is that the work made them better negotiators. “By remaining neutral, dealing with both sides,” read one response, “I am doing what is best for my company.” The story helps teach the fine line, the balance of a good negotiator or facilitator. Taking theatre into a management workshop format gives participants a fresh approach to learning and a welcome divergence from content-based, PowerPoint-driven sessions.
Artaud’s aggressive assertion – that the role of theatre is to attack the audience – counters the penchant for seeing theatre strictly as a venue for entertainment. Between attack and entertainment lies a fertile field of Applied Humanities. The works of writers such as William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Richard Greenberg are but a few works among the many in the rich canon of theatre literature that provide in-depth material for leadership and management discourse.
Like no other medium, the immediacy and intimacy of theatre engage an audience in a living,
breathing collective consciousness that exists exclusively at that moment and will never happen again– which is why theatre develops critical thinking and dialogue while it builds teams. And, this is exactly why theatre is a productive venue for business and leadership programs. Theatre supports an innovative workforce able to think beyond the margins and into the imaginable.