Forum Theatre as an Effective, Empowering Means of Problem- Solving in a Corporate Setting

It is no secret that as of late, many companies and organizations have begun to put a concerted effort into the health and well-being of their employees. Why?  Sure it’s nice to have a Gym in the office building and creative off-sites to rock-climbing centres, but doesn’t this just distract employees from their real work? If an entire office is attending a 2 day “creativity in the workplace” seminar, doesn’t productivity become an issue? Doesn’t everyone just have to play catch-up for the rest of the week? Aren’t these things more trouble than they are worth? Why are so many companies doing this?

The answer is because a company’s success comes down to people.  It is not strategy nor forecasting that affects the overall efficacy of an organization so much as it is employees. It comes down to Sue from accounting and Al in HR and they need to feel that they have a real reason to come into work every morning. They need to feel that their perspectives matter, are heard and appreciated and that they are part of something greater- a real team with an important function within a larger company that has a reputation to uphold.

If employees feel that their company cares about them as individuals and the daily contributions they make, then employees will in turn care about the company they work for and contribute as best they can. It comes down to people and their willingness and ability to listen and communicate effectively with one another, to adapt to change, to establish trust between co-workers and clients and to see the value in working together. It comes down to people and this is why employers are willing to spend much time, energy and resources investing in off-sites and guest-speaker seminars.

How effective, though, can a 1 day or 3 hour lecture/seminar be? Is that enough time to bring a team together?  To solve long-standing issues that plague the workplace?

Those of us who are in the business of designing and facilitating these workshops know that “off-site” time is valuable. We appreciate that we have to convince you quickly that what we are saying is relevant and applicable to your personal work situation.  There are many “experts” out there, ready to waltz into your boardroom equipped with power-point presentations and colourful graphs and statistics. That’s not how we work. True as stats may be, when it comes to problem solving and learning about communication and trust, sitting and listening to a lecture is simply not the best way to spark meaningful, memorable discussions or to effect real change in the days and weeks following the workshop.
To leave a long-lasting and tangible impression, workshops must be catered to suit all learning styles. This is why, at Anderson – Sabourin, we always balance lecture style facts with participatory on-your-feet exercises and detailed follow up discussions. We state the facts, engage with each other, make surprising discoveries and discuss these findings in relation to the everyday reality of your workplace. For us, successful workshops are those that are engaging throughout and result in outcomes that are relevant to all participants.

One of our recent discoveries, in working closely with our friends, The Extant Jesters Theatre Company, is a format that does just this: “Forum Theatre.” The Extant Jesters are expert actors, improvisers and seasoned professionals when it comes to Forum Theatre. The Extant Jesters model themselves after the traditional court jester. Like the joker card in a deck, the Jesters have no fixed rank in any given company’s hierarchy.  They come from outside, bearing a unique, more objective perspective. They work in the guise of entertainers but all the while bear inspired, observant and truthful messages. They use wit, candor and creativity to entertain and provoke in a non-threatening and humourous manner.  They answer not to the king, of course, but to corporations who wield the real power in today’s world.
The Extant Jesters, as far as we can tell, are the only ones in North America who have adapted and are actively using the Forum Theatre format in the workplace.

While the practice of using Forum Theatre to encourage active problem solving, leadership and teambuilding within organizations and in corporate training is fairly new, the invention of the Forum Theatre format has been around since the early 1960s when Brazilian artist-activist Augusto Boal first founded Theatre of the Oppressed in Latin America.

Boal believed that theatre had real potential to bring people together, to engage both the heart and the mind, but felt that the traditional institution of theatre was not fulfilling this potential.  In his popular book “Theatre Of The Oppressed,” Boal takes issue with the Aristotelian system of tragedy that he considered coercive.

“Aristotle’s system of tragedy survives to this day, thanks to its great efficacy. It is, in effect, a powerful system of intimidation.”   Boal felt that so long as an audience was made to sit passively, projecting themselves onto the protagonist, and following the journey vicariously through to its cathartic moral ending – audience members would walk away feeling fatigued, frightened, obedient – but not empowered.

Boal, highly influenced by the writings of Paolo Freire, sought to use theatre as a tool for social change, and to create plays that could open dialogue between actors and audience. He believed that audiences deserved to have an input on the action they were watching, were capable of being part of the drama, and could help one another explore all possible ways of solving a problem.

“It is fundamental to Boal’s work that anyone can act and that theatrical performance should not be solely the province of professionals. The dual meaning of the word ‘act’, to perform and to take action is also at the heart of his work.”

Boal labeled audience members “Spect-actors,” scripted provocative scenarios featuring common, complicated instances of oppression and invited viewers to stop a scene in the middle to offer the characters suggestions that might lead towards a more positive outcome.  During one such performance, so the story goes, an audience member got so frustrated that the actor wasn’t following his instructions, that he got up out of his seat and took the actors place on stage. Unbeknownst to him, this impassioned audience member sparked the invention of a new kind of political theatre. From that moment on, Boal adapted his format to encourage audience members to actually step into the action unfolding and replace a specific character. The other actors improvise around and react in character to the audience member’s new tactics.

In his native Brazil, Augusto Boal focused on the overt forms of political oppression and oppression resulting from race/class inequalities that audience members were familiar with. In these instances, it was always clear who was in the role of power-holder and who was the victim. When he attempted to transfer his format to countries in North America and Europe, however, he found that ideas of “oppressor” and “oppressed” were not as cut and dry as they had been in Latin America.  In Europe and North America, Boal discovered, interpersonal relationships were latent with status-shifts and oppression that lurked beneath the surface and was often the result of individual egos caught up in a web of mis-communication. Oppression took on a whole new meaning, and had to be considered at various levels.  This is something that Boal practitioners like Julie Salverson struggle with daily: “How do we handle that huge contradiction between empathizing with the oppressed within the oppressor?”

Also, Boal noticed, in Europe and North America oppression was frequently internalized, caused by excessive self-critique. This lead him to coin the term “Cops in the head” to refer to the subtle ways in which people tend to sabotage their own potential, and hold themselves and others down. These “Cops in the head” are subversive and can lead to misunderstandings that have dire, long-lasting consequences. Forum Theatre scenarios in affluent countries and within big businesses often focus on examples of this subversive status-shifting and manipulation, and the end results of such behaviour.

As our clients know, we at Anderson Sabourin incorporate improvisation into many of our workshops. Even the most basic improv exercises help our clients find unique ways to asses themselves and their actions, to listen more deeply, remain calm under pressure, give up control, learn to take risks, and to view one another in a different light.  Forum Theatre goes one step further. It reflects the real life reality of a specific workplace and situation, it highlights the complexities and conflicts at hand, and gives participants an opportunity to step into the action and “rehearse for reality” attempting to problem-solve their way to a more positive outcome. A process that he called “dynamization” was essential to forum theatre for Boal, as he considered it a new kind of catharsis wherein the spectators purge of the fear it takes to intervene rather than purging of their desire to act through passive, vicarious identification with the protagonist.

For the forum theatre experience to be as effective as possible, a few key things are necessary.
(1) The presented scenario must be realistic and reflect the reality of audience members.  Prior to the workshops day, much consultation and preparation goes into writing the script and creating the characters, including gathering reports from managers and employees, and consulting with various team members about what they see as the most pressing issues.  The writers pay careful attention to the nuances and vernacular of each workplace and seek to incorporate these subtle elements into the written scenario. Before presentation, the client is encouraged to sit in on rehearsals, give feedback and make the necessary changes to ensure all information is accurate and that the scenario does reflect reality. On the presentation day itself, if the audience decides that several aspects of the scenario are not in fact realistic, then the players need to adapt on the spot until the group agrees on an accurate picture.

(2) There are no right answers.  The host (labeled the “joker” by Boal) must work to make the stage a welcoming and safe space and encourage as many “spect-actors” as possible to step into the action and offer their personal perspectives.  The joker must honour the suggestions made by each audience member.  Sometimes unexpected tactics meet with surprise success, but it is the jokers job to de-brief each and every intervention with the group at large, and always ask: “Who wants to try something different?”

(3)  “Magic” solutions are too simple. “Magic” in Forum Theatre, occurs when a suggested solution is too easy and doesn’t take into account the full reality of the staged scenario. For example, perhaps there is a scene where a shy character, new to the company and afraid of loosing his job, is trying to confront his boss about a racist remark.  An audience member may have the impulse to step up and say: “Well, I know.  He just needs to tell him off!” And so proceed to approach the boss character aggressively, yelling, telling him exactly how he feels underappreciated, disrespected and is “gonna sue his pants off…” Sure, in the moment this sort of intervention can make for a real Oscar-worthy performance, and can be liberating for the participating audience member and the group alike. But in this case the joker must turn to the audience and ask whether or not they believe such an intervention was “magic.”  Would a man who has always been shy, and is afraid of being laid off, actually be courageous (or foolish) enough to do something like that? The audience decides.

Forum Theatre is a highly effective way to empower employees, and help them to view everyday obstacles from a distance, thus enabling them to more accurately asses multiple perspectives on given situations and actively find new solutions. Forum Theatre is a memorable addition to any training workshop, as it deals directly with delicate issues that effect employees, involves them in body and mind in the problem solving process and engages the group in follow-up discussion. It is a profound and effective rehearsal for reality.

2 Responses to “From Brazil to Your Boardroom”

  • Jo-anne:

    Simply want to say your article is astounding. The clarity in your post is simply impressive and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with succeeding post. Thanks a million and please keep up the solid work.

  • Emmitt Denmon:

    I really liked this angle that you have on the topic. Using theater to teach and entertain makes a lot of sense since people are bombarded with entertainment from everywhere these days. Certainly wasn’t thinking on this at the time I begun browsing your newsletter a friend sent me. Enjoyed your blog as well.

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