In a conference room at the San Francisco Hyatt, between formal strategy sessions, 250 human resource professionals from the Bank of Boston are standing in a circle, making strange noises at each other. Creative Advantage Inc., an improvisational theater group, is teaching them to play "sound ball."
At the Nature Place conference center in Florissant, Colorado 150 miles outside of Denver, 20 utility plant managers from the Public Service Co. of Colorado have gathered for a week-long off-site meeting to develop a new company strategy. They begin by taking turns describing the difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching situations they encounter on the job. As each manager speaks, actors from Playback Theatre West, a Denver-based improv group, capture the experience in a short, interpretive minidrama.
What's going on here? Has corporate America lost its collective marbles? Or is business finally coming to its senses — all of them?
Companies as diverse as Boeing, Hughes Aircraft, AT&T, and Wells Fargo Bank are turning to theater groups to find creative and evocative techniques for bringing emotion into their meetings. The goals: push people out of their comfort zones, spark innovation, encourage emotional engagement.
Consider the case of the James River Corp., a Richmond, Virginia-based paper company. Its relationship with the Zellerbach paper company had been a long and healthy one. Then in spring 1994 Zellerbach announced — seemingly out of the blue — that it would no longer handle James River's products exclusively, a decision that put millions of dollars worth of business in jeopardy. George Lipp, 52, director of commercial products (West) for James River, remembers the aftershock: "Our people felt jilted. It was a soup of emotion made up of anger, shock, alarm, and hurt."
On a whim born of desperation, Lipp called in Jonathan Rosen, 52, director of TransFormance Theatre, to set up a weekend-long meeting between top managers of the two companies.
Rosen opened the meeting by handing out cans filled with coffee-beans for the group to shake in time to the music. Then he began drumming. Lipp began sweating.
"I wanted to jump out the window," Lipp recalls. "Everyone was slumped in their chairs, looking at the floor, slightly embarrassed and confused. I thought I was toast."
But by the time Rosen stopped drumming, the feeling in the room had changed. The nervous chatter was gone, replaced by a new-found warmth. Rosen asked the managers to tell a brief story illustrating how they felt about what was happening at work.
As each man spoke, members of Rosen's troupe transformed themselves into the characters in the story. The performances were a mix of pain and laughter, revealing the emotional subtext of the decision for all involved.
It's been one year since the retreat, and James River has won back every cent of its business with Zellerbach. Lipp points out that many complicated factors made it possible. But, he says, it was TransFormance Theatre that allowed the managers from both companies to resume their working relationships.
Creative Advantage of San Francisco offers improvisational theater techniques as a "creativity tool." Alain Rostain, a 32-year-old former Price Waterhouse consultant, formed Creative Advantage in his living room three years ago after taking part in Bay Area Theatresports, a form of improv competition. That experience, Rostain says, convinced him that the attributes of improv — intense teamwork, fast thinking, careful listening, and risk taking — are the perfect fit for a marketplace marked by chaos and uncertainty.
A third improv group, Denver, Colorado-based Playback Theatre West, has developed a unique tool — sociometry — to document the "real" organization chart inside organizations. At a group retreat, each person lines up behind the superior he or she trusts the most — other than the boss. The result is a living map of the informal networks inside an organization. To follow up, Playback actors ask people to explain their choices — generating a conversation about leadership.
"People have allergic reactions to this work," says Marc Weiss, an actor with Playback, "because they think it's therapy and the business world is a place of work. So if you bring emotion into it, everything is going to be a big mess. But humanizing the workplace is a competitive strategy. You get the most out of people who are happier and better connected to each other and their work. It's that simple."
Louise Palmer, thespian-poet and feature writer for "Boston Magazine," made her stage debut at age 13. Contact Jonathan Rosen, director, TransFormance Theatre, at 206-567-5084. Contact Alain Rostain, CEO, Creative Advantage, at firstname.lastname@example.org . Contact Marc Weiss, an actor with Playback Theatre West, at email@example.com .
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.