Smart Moves: All the office is a stage

What can actors teach to people with 'real' jobs? Fiona McNeill goes behind the scenes to find out
As that most famous of dramatists once wrote: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players". Indeed, many of us feel like bit-part players in a second-rate soap, and nowhere more so than at work.

Nevertheless, the idea of bringing actors into the workplace to advise on corporate life sounds bizarre.

Yet, surprisingly, a number of large and seemingly traditional companies have been doing just that and have found it an effective way of boosting morale and improving staff relations.

"People have preconceived ideas about actors," said Jill Connick of training company Actors in Management. "They think, 'Oh no, John Inman, men in tights', but it isn't like that at all.

"Acting is about communication," she continued. "As an actor, you don't necessarily need to have detailed knowledge of a particular industry. What you can offer is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Problems at work are hardly ever about technical things. They're about people and how they relate to each other."

Connick founded Aim in 1994 with fellow thespian Edward Harbour whom she'd met some years earlier in Macbeth. Both disillusioned with the profession, they sought a wider application for their talents.

Aim uses professional actors to bring training sessions to life. Typically, the actors perform a workplace scenario for the training group, illustrating topics such as bullying in the workplace, breaking news of redundancies, building confidence and dealing with performance appraisals.

Rather than passively watching a video, members of the group are invited by the facilitator to comment on what they have seen. They may make suggestions on how the characters could have handled things differently or even interact with the characters themselves to see how they would cope with the situation.

While the actors remain in character, employees are not asked to role- play. Freed from the embarrassment of hamming it up in front of colleagues, they are better able to concentrate on the training issues and learn new ways of communicating with each other.

"A large part of our work is what we call 'coaching'," Ms Connick explained. "We ask people to observe the characters very carefully, to listen to what is said and, also, to notice what is unexpressed. They may even want to ask the characters some questions. Maybe there's something they've always wanted to ask their boss, for example, to try and understand their behaviour a bit better. We give them a chance to have a practice run. People usually really enjoy it, but it's not frivolous. We ask them to do a lot of thinking."

Staff from companies such as the Lloyds TSB Group, P&O Nedlloyd and Sun Life of Canada have taken Aim's training sessions. Jenny Knight, Corporate Personnel Officer for Brighton and Hove Council called on Aim to launch the council's new training initiative at a management conference of 150 people earlier this year.

"We wanted to show a different approach," she said. "I must admit, we took a risk bringing in actors. After all, this is local government and people aren't used to 'luvvies'. In fact, Aim was very professional, more like business consultants then actors. You couldn't really call them 'luvvies'; at all.

"We talked to them at great length about what we wanted," Ms Knight continued. "They went away and wrote a script. They performed two scenes for us at the conference showing a performance appraisal - one positive and one negative. The actors were totally convincing and everything they said was in the context of our organisation so people could relate to it.

"The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I think it worked because it was so immediate. It gave everyone the chance to learn by watching. If you ask staff to do their own role plays they get embarrassed. We were very impressed."

Aim itself has also learned a few lessons. "Until I started doing this, I had a very low opinion of acting," Mr Harbour concluded. "Now I see that actors really do have skills that can help other people. We can make a difference."

Actors In Management can be contacted on 0171 689 7788.