Auckland actor finds all the world’s a stage – even work

With special feature audio.

Ever thought your work would make a good sitcom? How about a stage show? A researcher is helping staff at an Auckland firm turn this idle fantasy into a constructive reality: they’re collaboratively creating a piece of theatre about what it’s like working in that company.

It’s called “organisational theatre” and it’s an example of a new approach to developing staff that puts people’s creativity quite literally centre-stage.

From Aristophanes to Brecht to Brazilian political activists, theatre has long been used to provoke social change.

Researcher Leny Woolsey says the theatre she’s co-creating has a different focus.

“It’s about helping an organisation to learn and better itself, and maybe even helping people laugh at themselves.”

Ms Woolsey, who has worked as a professional actor in London, is doing the project for a PhD in Management and International Business at the University of Auckland.

The company she’s partnered with is the New Zealand branch of Hilti, a multinational that supplies specialist tools to the building industry. Headquartered in Liechtenstein, it has almost 20,000 staff globally.

Ms Woolsey had met Hilti New Zealand’s general manager, Alistair Dickie, while she was working for the business school as an adviser to prospective students and helped him choose to pursue his Executive MBA there.

Growth surge
The local Hilti operation is going through a growth surge, with staff numbers increasing dramatically. As you’d expect, there are many different responses to such rapid change.

“Our growth is very exciting but brings many organisational and structural challenges, where the theatre of learning can facilitate the journey from efficiency to autonomy,” Mr Dickie says.

Ms Woolsey’s theatre project is running alongside a wider change programme involving similarly outside-the-box thinking.

“They already have an experimental, adventurous culture, which appealed to me,” she says.

Ms Woolsey began by interviewing 38 staff members. She asked them to tell her true workplace stories in a dramatic narrative way, and gave them figures and wooden blocks to enact their stories.

“I told them it could be a story that makes them feel proud about working at that company, or that reflects something they’d really like to change there,” she says.

“Often people were reticent at first about using the props but once they tried it, it freed them up. By watching from the outside they can be more objective. Some got quite elaborate – one had 12 characters.”

Next, she ran a “play-building” workshop in July with one of her supervisors, Professor Peter O’Connor, and a smaller cross-section of the company staff.

Weekend workshop
Participants spent the weekend at Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s West Coast, doing theatre exercises and devising possible characters and storylines. At the end of the workshop, actors from Auckland Playback Theatre used improvisation to bring these characters and stories to life.

Since then, Ms Woolsey’s been turning all the raw material from the interviews and workshop into a full-blown play – complete with lighting, sound, comedy and music.

“I pulled out themes, snatches of dialogue, and developed composite characters,” she says.

“The play needs to be close enough to reality to provoke an emotional response, but removed enough so the privacy of participants is protected. I may include satirical parody songs to help break the tension. It needs to connect with the audience, but they also need to be able to lighten up.”

The final production will be performed to staff by professional and student actors at the company’s annual conference in January 2017.

Straight after the performance, facilitators will lead the audience through a discussion of the play and its themes, possibly including “forum theatre”, where the audience gets to rewind and change parts of the action.

For her research, Ms Woolsey is interested in how people change as they go through the process of building a play, the dynamics of collaboration and self-reflection that surface along the way and any shifts in those dynamics.

Already, participants have told her they got a lot out of the interviews alone, with some finding them cathartic.

'They thought I was a therapist'
“Quite a few people thought I’d been brought in as a therapist – I’ve been given a uniform and desk. People have shared some pretty private stuff, good and bad.”

She’s also interested in what happens after the curtain falls, and will do follow-up interviews and focus groups over the following months.

Companies can use organisational theatre’s insights into creative expression and collaboration to their betterment, she says.

“It’s really important that companies, and any organisation, are aware of what’s really going on in their workplaces. It’s only by being aware of something that you can emphasise or correct it. If the dynamics they find are constructive, the company might want to promote that; but if they’re destructive forces, they’ll want to address them.”

Two approaches to staff development dominate in New Zealand, she says: classroom-based courses, and Outward Bound-style programmes.

Ms Woolsey believes businesses need to try newer approaches based on creative self-expression and is thrilled that Hilti NZ has taken this leap of faith in supporting her research.

“Organisations need to be bolder when it comes to developing their people,” she says.

“The younger generation expect more - they expect to be valued for their creativity as well. Increasingly, work will have to be flexible and individually tailored and meet those human needs for expression. Companies could really benefit from being an early adopter.”

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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