There's no business like show business

All the world's a stage it seems - and that includes your local supermarket. Staff from a number of high street companies are being sent on drama workshops to improve their communication and presentation skills at work. Watch out for the sulky teenager on the deli counter, says Meg Carter - she could be the next Lady MacBeth.
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The Independent Culture
Don't be too surprised if, the next time you visit your local bank or supermarket, the cashier starts reciting Shakespeare. Sainsbury and Midland Bank are two of the latest in a growing line of companies turning to the theatre for ideas about how to educate and inspire their staff.

These companies and more - including Mars, Andersen Consulting, The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer, believe acting skills can help them perform better. It might sound airy fairy but in fact the argument that creative processes might have some bearing on business success in business is endorsed by management gurus like Charles Handy and John Harvey Jones.

"Communication skills is what acting is all about. That and self confidence and teamwork. It's a neat fit," declares Marah Winn-Moon, community affairs manager at Sainsbury, who recently ran a pilot scheme of drama workshops involving staff at a number of local branches.

Twelfth Night was the focus for Sainsbury's experiment with participants encouraged to focus on Shakespeare's use of language. "We used it to examine a number of key areas - such as how to deal with a difficult customer and how use of language can diffuse a potentially difficult situation," she says. "We also looked at body language - like how you look when you're bored. How to look if you want to be helpful. And how to cope if you're on your feet all day stacking shelves."

The sessions, which involved every member of a store's staff working with professional actors, were "a great success" Ms Winn-Moon claims. Indeed, such is her enthusiasm for the approach that corporate amateur dramatics - otherwise known as "industrial theatre" - will shortly be incorporated into the company's core training programme.

Cynics might be tempted to argue it's little more than a shrewd sales pitch from under-worked actors, but the theatre companies involved have developed a convincing line in business speak. Even London's Globe Theatre recently got in on the act with Richard Olivier and Mark Rylance championing an initiative to use Henry V to teach business people leadership qualities.

"There's been a fundamental change in attitude amongst organisations from being product-led to being people-led," explains Trestle Theatre Company's general manager Penny Mayes. "As a result, there's greater attention being paid to keeping people in a company and developing their skills instead of chewing them up and spitting them out. What we can provide is an opportunity to inspire and motivate as well as a chance to work out various work-related and interpersonal issues through performance."

Trestle's corporate sideline is based on the idea that if you are aware of your body language and the body language of others, you can avoid potential conflicts in the workplace. The company offers businesses a basic two and a half hour workshop involving role-play using a selection of different masks with expressions ranging from happy to grumpy and sad.

"The masks enable the hierarchical structure of a group of people to be broken right down allowing participants from all levels within an organisation to benefit," Ms Mayes claims. "Touchy-feely `games' help the participants overcome any inhibitions they may have. The end result is a significant boost to self-confidence as people are always amazed when they discover what they are able to do."

The sessions start with very basic technical exercises which would be familiar to many actors, she adds. "We then start to examine various ways of expressing ourselves through body language without speaking by addressing core ideas like acceptance and rejection, communication and avoidance - with all the participants working in pairs."

A different approach has been taken by another theatre group, Lively Arts. In the best traditions of `Fame', it offers businesses the chance to stage their own production in a single afternoon (see panel). "We take as our starting point the belief that everyone is creative.

"It's not about participants learning from us, it's about how we can stimulate things inside you which either you don't remember or don't put into practice," says Lively Arts's co-director, David Pearl.

Today's companies need creative thinking more than ever before, Pearl insists. Yet the "unforgiving perfectionism of today's business environment" all too often works against it. Drama therapy can provide a learning environment where participants' work and personal lives are brought more closely together, he believes: "It's about encouraging them to take part and work together as a team, and reassure them that if they fail, they can do so safely."

All of which can deliver clear business goals, Pearl insists. One of Lively Arts' latest briefs, code named `Project D'Artagnan', is for an unnamed financial services company. The production, yet to be sprung on an unsuspecting staff, will be loosely based on The Three Musketeers, to teach participants lessons about swashbuckling and panache. Oh, and to help them murder the competition.

So brace yourselves - and put on your dancing shoes. `Industrial theatre' could soon be coming to a personnel department near you. The downside? You might find yourself in a chorus line alongside your boss. But at least the tickets will be free.