This is a transcript of episode 274 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Can you speed up your learning with improv? On the podcast this week, Squirrel and Jeffrey are joined by fellow podcast host duo Russell and Ken of the “I Need to F-ing Talk To You” podcast. In this episode, Russell and Ken discuss their Forum Theatre for Business methods and Squirrel considers if they’ve been missing a trick by not incorporating real actors in their conversations.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Read the next episode in this series here.


Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel, and hello to our guests today, who are Ken and Russell from the “I Need to F-ing Talk to You” podcast. Ken, Russell, if you can, tell us a little bit about yourself and your podcast so our audience knows who you are.

Russell: Yeah. My name is Russell Stratton. I’ve been a leadership coach and facilitator for many years. I was an operational manager for a while, I was an HR manager, and then moved into corporate facilitation, I worked with leaders in various types of organizations to help them improve individual and team performance.

Ken: And I’m Ken Cameron and I started my career as a playwright and theatre director, I spent about 25 years in that end of the profession. Then about a decade ago, I transitioned over into leadership training. I should put a caveat on there, there’s a rumor that you don’t make a whole lot of money in the arts. So during that entire 25 years as I was a playwright and theater director, I was also an arts administrator and kind of rose to the heights of my profession running the Canadian National Theatre Festival, which gave me a lot of administrative and leadership background that I was able to use as I moved into leadership coaching.

Squirrel: Fantastic. It’s timely to have you here especially given the episode we put out last week on the value of making things up: bringing more of an improvisational approach into your project plans and being able to respond to what comes up. One of things we learned when we were on your podcast is that you use an improvisational approach for learning, which I think is fascinating. I understand that you describe it in your book I Need to F-ing Talk to You. You use this approach which I think is called “Forum Theater for Business.” Is that right?

The Business with Forum Theater

Listen to this section at 02:05

Ken: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s really rooted in a form of theater that is called “forum theater,” it’s also known as “theatre of the oppressed” in social justice circles. It was created back in the early 1970s, 1960s in Brazil by a gentleman named Augusto Boal, and he used it for social change. He would create a play, but they would interrupt the play and call time out so to speak, and they would invite members from the audience to come up and replace actors in a scene, and then they would continue the action in an improv manner to try to change the outcome of the play. So you could imagine that Augusto Boal would go into some of the poorest areas of Brazil and maybe do a play about oppressive landlords, and the goal was to try to get the audience to form a tenant’s union to fight back against their own oppressive landlords. The play would get to a certain crisis point, and they would call time out. They would bring people in from the audience. Somebody would replace the mother, who would kick the landlord out. They would say to the husband, “You get a job.” They would say to the son, “You go to school.” Then they would gather other members of the audience who would take on roles as other members of the community and they would kind of emulate what it might be like to create this new tenants union. And what Augusto Boal discovered was he had much more success with this methodology than he did with just talking to people and doing a play that was a one-way flow of information. He found that by getting the audience up and acting or particip-act-ing, that it would actually make an impact on society. As this work grew and spread around the world in social justice circles, it also started to be applied in other forms. You’ve probably heard about doctors who go through standardized patient programs where they have an actor who comes in and plays the patient, or you’ve probably heard about people in the military or in police forces doing live action role play in which they hire live actors to come in and play the criminals. All of that has its roots in the work from the 1970s with Augusto Boal. We take all of that work and we apply it to a business context.

Jeffrey: That’s fascinating. My daughter was in the police cadets in London as part of the Met police force, and she would go to camps where they would have to do scenarios where people would be in a scenario and then they have to act out. And that’s experiential learning is something that you experience. But I didn’t connect that to this theatre of the oppressed. Very interesting.

Russell: And that’s very much where my interest came in it, so Ken had come at it perhaps originally from the arts side, I’d come at it from the business side. I’d worked with a lot of police forces, emergency services, ex-military personnel, and as you’ve alluded to, a lot of their training is simulation-based. So how do we deal with interviewing someone suspected of robbery? It’s not “Let’s look at a PowerPoint of how we would do that and then say what we think we would do.” They would actually do it, and various other obviously more complex stuff as well. So what I was interested in is how could we help managers in organisations have those difficult workplace conversations that a lot of people avoid so that they can help improve individual and team performance and do it in a way so it’s simulating real life. So the idea of being able to have an improv artist who can become that difficult or unruly member of staff and people can practice having the conversation using that stop-start theatre that Ken’s just described, and be able to do it in a supportive environment with other participants who can offer their suggestions, swap out, you can watch somebody else do it. Two people could deal with it both effectively, but both dealing with it completely differently. It gives people a chance to learn from doing, but also from watching others doing it in a simulated environment.

Professionals? In MY Workplace Simulation?

Listen to this section at 06:08

Squirrel: Well, this is pretty amazing because we’ve been doing stuff like this for about ten years, and it never occurred to us to use actual actors. Jeffrey runs a dojo in which people practice. We wrote an entire book about how to practice and rehearse your difficult conversations, but we talked about doing it in a mirror, going to a dojo, getting a friend, getting a person in your family. I like eight-year-olds, they’re really good at pretending to be difficult people, but we never thought of actual actors. Jeffrey, why didn’t we think of that?

Jeffrey: I don’t know. Ken, I’m sure you’ve got some ideas about what we’re missing out by not bringing a trained actor into the mix.

Ken: Well, something we often talk about is that when two people from the same workplace who are not experienced in this kind of improv are doing roleplay, what invariably happens is one of two things. If partcipant A is the employer and participant B is supposed to be the employee, participant B either goes really easy on participant A—because they don’t want to make it too hard because they’re going to be next, or because it feels awkward and fake so they just laugh through it—or the opposite happens in which they turn into a complete jerk and just make it really hard on you. They become obstructionist all the time and you can’t actually get through the conversation. As a result you get frustrated and neither one of us actually ever learn anything but I get a good laugh.

Jeffrey: I can see the pitfalls of that. I have done group sessions where we have people take turns role playing and I’ve seen those kind of dynamics you’re describing, and what makes it successful is having someone who can facilitate and point out and overcome the power dynamic. I have an example, the VP was role-playing and kind of steamrolled the conversation. The initial response was like, “Well, yep, they got what they were after.” But then I was able to say, “Well, how did it work versus the outcomes you’re supposed to get? What did they learn?” Which was the point of the dialogue. “Did they learn anything different than from the default?” And everyone realized, no, they didn’t. So actually while at the one hand it was a commanding performance in terms of power, it didn’t hit the educational objectives of the role play that everyone was aiming for. But it would have been easy to lose that in the positional power over the workplace. So I can definitely see that having someone coming from the outside who’s not going to be cowed by the fact they’re talking to the vice president is a tremendous asset. The thing that occurs to me is also if I go back to the origin here of this director who found this important shift from telling the audience what to do in these plays, laying out the scenario and trying to educate them as passive recipients to then this shift to active; I think for myself, I’ve become less interested in getting up on stage and talking about the theory of communication, and instead more intersted in how can we get the audience involved and acting and things out, going to their real world, having an experience. I’m reminded of the action learning approaches and the quote that there’s no learning without action, there’s no action without learning, giving people that potential to have an experience and learn from it.

Russell: Absolutely. Back to the point you were making making earlier, it becomes less of a performance and more that you’re literally working with somebody through a particular scenario. Ken does an excellent job facilitating the workshop in a way that allows people to try different approaches, to stop, to go back, to get feedback from the actor in character. So it’s a bit like your example, “Yeah, he achieved the outcome, but how did it leave the person feeling?” Well, the actor can give you feedback in character. “Yes, you got what you wanted, but I felt totally demoralized at the end of it and unlikely to want to engage with you in the future.” That’s useful learning for the person to receive and also then to see somebody else try it who might get a similar outcome in terms of they got what they wanted, but have left the conversation in a much healthier place in terms of as the two individuals. I think it allows people to explore different parts of how they tackle these situations. Ken and I have just finished a fairly lengthy piece of work with an engineering company. One of the things that the engineers, project managers, senior engineers, mid-level leaders were good at doing was building the case, dealing with the facts. What they were less comfortable at dealing with is managing people’s emotions. So it really brought in that emotional intelligence of recognizing the signs in somebody else, being able to manage your reaction, being able to sort of manage the reaction of somebody else in an ethical way. That was great learning for them. And because you’re dealing with different people each time you run a scenario, our actors were saying they may have done the scenario four times in four different workshops but it was completely different each time because you had different participants. Each brought something else to the table and the actor is really just playing the character, but they’re playing off of what the participant is doing, good, bad, or indifferent. So, you know, what they enjoy is it’s not like they’re playing the part of “difficult Jim” four times. The character becomes different in many ways because what they’re seeing and they’re able to be more flexible with it. So it’s a really sort of interesting experience for everyone.

How do you DO that?

Listen to this section at 12:19

Jeffrey: I have one final question about how you set this up, because you described having the same scenario in different organizations: to what extent do you find in your model are you creating different scenarios for different organizations you’re working with? Do you go in and do discovery to figure out what scenes to bring in and you have a catalog, or you do custom work, or are you more like “Nope, everyone’s human, everyone has the same problems. We just bring the standard material, but they express them differently and we discover the nuances that are happening with those people in that situation.”

Ken: The answer to your question is “Yes, and.”

Jeffrey: A great improv answer right there. Perfect. People who listened to us last week will recognize that one straight off.

Ken: So we will go in and do extensive interviews with the client so that we’re able to get the details and get a sense of what’s going on in that company. In that discovery process we’ll uncover what communication issues the leader feels they want to see addressed and what what kinds of issues might they have. We’ll also ask what are some of the typical things that come up and with whom so that the actor can be cast as the employee, but they can also be cast as a difficult boss. They can also be a difficult customer. They can also be a difficult external partner. We’ll write multiple scenarios depending on how long the workshop is. If it’s half a day, we might get in three scenarios. If it’s a full-day workshop, we might get in 4 or 5, and we’ll write different scenarios and look for details that match that particular industry. So in the engineering firm, there were issues around air quality management, wind tunnel work, structural integrity, and a lot of issues around that. There was even a pipeline issue that was also around engineering. But if we’re going into a construction firm, then it might be about safety, it might be about accidents happening, etcetera. Then we will marry those details into some ready-made templates that we have. So we have some templates about how a conversation can be structured and we’ll just kind of plug those two things together. This allows us to structure each scenario so that the actor can easily understand and easily digest it. That’s where, as you described, there are common communication pitfalls that are in the scenario template, but then we’re plugging in details that are very, very, very specific to the client so that the participants feel as close to real life as possible without having the real life people in the room, and in a situation in which they can call time out and rewind the conversation, take it again and try to see what would happen if they reacted differently.

Jeffrey: I love that. It’s fascinating to hear this and it resonates with a lot of different things. That ability to repeat, retry, and the depth that you can go with having the trained actors in the setting, the work that you do to make it feel realistic. I can see this is going to be a very rich learning experience. The closest thing actually resonates with me that our listeners are likely to have experienced in real world—I’m curious what you think about this Squirrel—is actually there’s an element which sounds a bit like pair programming.

Squirrel: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Jeffrey: Even mob programming where one person is “driving,” typing at the keyboard, but people in the audience can shout out about what to do and they can go for it until they get stuck and then call for help, and other people in the audience can step in.

Squirrel: Or get up and bring somebody else to the keyboard, which is just like the forum theater approach where you bring in someone else. So if listeners have experienced any of that, that may give you some grounding in what a workshop with Ken and Russell might be like. Would you guys be willing to come back next week and talk to us more?

Russell: For sure.

Ken: Well, that’d be exciting. I’d love to do that.

Squirrel: Okay, good. So Ken and Russell will come back. Thanks Jeffrey, Ken, and Russell.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.

Russell: Pleasure to be here.