— Cultural Sources of Newness

Breaking New Year’s Resolutions is Sometimes a Good Idea

It is hard to stick to New Year’s resolutions. Colleagues like Fabian Lempa  do not make it any easier by inviting me to a workshop he co-organized with Lilian Seuberling  entitled “Zwischen Freiheit und Norm!? Theater in Therapie und Unternehmen.” But I am glad I decided to put aside the resolution not to work on weekends this year and made my way to the Berlin Free University’s Institute of Theatre Studies at 9am on Saturday (February 21). The workshop was organized in the context of the ERC-funded project “The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre,” directed by Prof. Matthias Warstat . I was intrigued by the provocative sets of apparent oppositions: freedom/norm and the use of theater in therapy/business.

The day’s program for the 17 participants was packed full: each of the four invited experts had an hour in which to explain and give us a feeling for their field of work, a panel discussion and world café. We talked through the lunch and coffee breaks, and were definitely ready for a glass of wine (and more conversations) by the evening. The project team will surely share their insights after they have worked through the recording of the day, here I simply provide a brief overview.

Organizers and experts of the workshop

Organizers and experts of the workshop

1)     Ilona Heilmann rose to the challenge of explaining Gestalt therapy   (not to be confused with Gestaltungstherapie) in 15 minutes, starting with the succinct definition,  it is about “I and thou, in the here and now” (Perls). Gestalt therapists use numerous approaches, sometimes including techniques from the world of the theatre because they offer possibilities for entering into contact, for experiencing the whole, and for discovering the space in the middle.

She invited/instructed us to form two groups, and sent one to the end of the field with a sheet marked “freedom”, the group at the opposite end was assigned a sheet labelled “norm”. The members of each group took a moment to decide how to embody their concept. We first observed the others/the other side of the field, then moved towards each other. Ilona stopped us when we reached the dividing line in the middle, prompting us to explore: How does it feel to be in the middle? How does it feel to reach the other end of the field? How does it feel to return to the middle? And then to be back in the space we had started from? The diversity of responses showed that moving through the space had changed us/our perception of the norm/freedom field, and we had experienced that “the middle is not empty,” nor is it neutral territory, it is charged with possibilities.

2)   From the therapist’s setting, we shifted in the next session to the corporate world, where Dr. Claudia Borowy, founding director of inszenio (in 2006), offers drama-based communication training and corporate theater for organizational change and development. Claudia stressed that she is a service provider who listens to and seeks to meet the needs of her clients, a process that includes advising on the formulation of the issue to be addressed, and giving voice to multiple perspectives in the organization. She brings in actors to represent situations, using scripts that inszenio writes after having conducted interviews with diverse members of the organization. Inszenio uses different techniques, and often works with a variation of the Boalian “Forum Theater” whereby actors first play through a scripted piece, then a facilitator invites members of the audience to comment and suggest better ways of handling the situation.

She showed us film-clips from a session in which the actors first played an exaggerated version of the “sub-optimal” behaviors that the client wants to change, followed by a discussion with the employees, then the actors’ first attempts at improvement. Those were “failures” that invited the audience to point out further necessary changes. Claudia believes that there is a paradoxical relationship between failure and success in theatre-based interventions: the more “perfectly played” the scene is, the less well it will work. The “failure” of the actor to implement the instruction offers the participants learning moments. Furthermore, she does not want the participants to think they have to be great actors in order to be good managers/leaders.

The discussion about the film-clip raised the issue of humor in corporate theater. One of our workshop participants asked why comedy is so often used in many such performances. Claudia explained that she wants to create a platform where people will open themselves to the themes, knowing that employees are required to come. She has found that humor can help in “unfreezing,” but it is important to choose the kind of humor. She wants to work with “ironisches Augenzwinkern, immer mit wertschätzendenen Augenzwinkern.” She stressed that she avoids the kind of humor she has often observed others using, namely “mit gehobenen Zeigefinger”, or putting “Finger in die Wunde.” She wants to work with humor in a way that invites people to engage. (These bodily images are so powerful in German, apologies to other readers!)

Establishing the conditions for a project is a key part of the process. Claudia has to deal with managers who have “a kind of Excel table in mind: this input, that output.” “I work best when I have freedom to shape the process, decide which approach to take. I have to communicate to the customer that the outcome must remain open (Ergebnisoffenheit).”

Claudia then offered an example of a kind of failure that she said was not productive: a project in which the employees (with coaching help from actors) developed and then played short scenes from their daily reality, and the process brought to the surface significant conflicts she had not been aware of during the briefing for the project. Our Saturday workshop participants were surprised that she labelled this a failure: isn’t surfacing what is invisible or repressed in an organization one of the key reasons for bringing in the arts? Claudia explained that she considered it a failure because, yes, the potential of theatre to reveal underlying issues in the organization was evident, but the situation did not allow for constructive work on these issues, thereby leaving the participants in the lurch. This example impressed me—not because it is a rare case, I often hear about problems like this from employees. Rather, I was impressed by the self-critical sharing. It was the first time in my 6 years of research in this area that I have heard a provider of artistic interventions semi-publicly label a project like this a failure, and explicitly express a sense of responsibility for the problematic aftermath of a theatre-based experience.

3)    Fabian and Lilian had designed the program provocatively to keep moving us back and forth between the worlds of patients in therapy and managers with employees in organizations. So the next session drew on experiences with theater-based methods in a clinical setting. Bettina Stoltenhoff-Erdmann  started immediately by getting us in touch with our bodies, then she invited us to move into an imaginary space. Afterwards, she shared insights from her work with patients in the psychiatric ward of the Gemeinschaftskrankenhaus Herdecke.   At this hospital, art therapy is an integral part of treatment because all the staff work together to combine an anthroposophy approach with traditional medicine. Each patient is treated by a team, whose members meet regularly to bring multiple perspectives on the person’s condition and development. The patient is often present in these conversations because there is an emphasis on the patients’ willingness and ability to heal themselves. Bettina pointed out that the boundary between health and illness is difficult to draw, and that understandings of these concepts, like of “normality” vary culturally as well.

Instead of starting with medical symptoms, she orients her work with patients along themes common to all people: the desire to experience and express one’s feelings and needs; the desire to be in touch with other people, including dealing with conflicts; the desire to feel valuable/valued; and the desire for a better “live-liness.” She and her colleagues seek to work with patients to help them achieve their own definitions of a healthy life, but she admits that the medical system has a narrower definition that often revolves around getting people to “function” and “perform” “normally.” She has observed how often patients also start with this objective and then discover that “der Weg zu sich selbst ist oft verstellt mit dem Thema des Funktionierens.”

In her work Bettina uses a variety of theatre-based exercises to offer her patients spaces in which they can do things differently and thereby experience themselves differently. This approach expands their sense of what is possible for them in their life.  Theater-based methods offer people the experience of “dramatic reality: the moment in which they behave ‘as if’ and thereby discover a different way of perceiving themselves and others.” She often works with fairy tales because they all address themes in the human condition. The patients are free to choose the tale and the role they want in it. Bettina believes that playing a role in a story offers the patient protection, and the storyline offers a container in which to experiment. “The distance to oneself that the role offers also opens the possibility of discovering something about oneself, and the opportunity to break out of social norms and taboos.” The combination of playing and talking is important in this therapy: “Healing happens in the moment of doing; it is then anchored at the verbal level.”

After the briefest of breaks we swung back to the corporate world with Irmgard Sollinger , founder of t&k theater training kompetenz. She differentiated herself from Claudia’s work, saying she uses theater in large processes of organizational change rather than in seminars. Her ethic is to “treat employees as people, and to show respect to people and to the theatre.” She started working with corporate theatre in 1995 when she launched a project with the automobile corporation, BMW. In the beginning she had to persuade companies that using theatrer-based approaches would be helpful, but since around 2000 she noticed a shift: managers now realize they need help bringing an emotional dimension in to their communication, so they seek her support. T&K writes scripts for 15-20 minute plays (not just short scenes like Inszenio) based on research in the client organization and works with independent actors and other experts from the world of the theatre on a project-basis. Irmgard positions her work as a service to companies while also aspiring to producing good theatre out of the “exciting tension between the two worlds.” She showed us several film clips, starting with an interview on the regional television station of Baden Württemberg, then excerpts from two corporate plays and one from a film she produced.

Irmgard emphasized that the managers who commission projects explicitly tell her that they do not want her to present a harmonious picture, they want problems and concerns to be addressed directly. The actors take the risk for the employees by expressing those concerns openly. Yet she is also aware that the risk of failure is a personal one for the person in the company who is responsible for the project—in at least one case the board told the manager that his “job was at stake if the project did not work.” So Irmgard feels a high level of responsibility to produce success for the client.

She works with “top-down change processes,” and emphasizes that “theater cannot give solutions.” She therefore designs her pieces so that people recognize themselves “with one eye laughing and the other crying.” The intention is to get them to want to engage with the story and work out for themselves what to do about the situation.

Irmgard noted that drawback of having most of her projects commissioned by managers responsible for communications is that they tend to be event-oriented rather than process-oriented. When an event is up and running, they are on to the next one instead of planning how to follow up on the ideas and possibilities that the theater unleashes in the organization. She has had one project that was part of a process: she produced a film (“Clara Soft”) for the introduction of SAP in a company, and after the kickoff event sequences and ideas from the film were used in seminars and other forms of communication in the company. At the end of the year they made an Advent calendar with doors revealing the success stories that had resulted from the Clara Soft project. Irmgard attributes the difference in approach to the fact that people from the human resource development function were involved from the outset.

The participants addressed the purpose of producing dramatic scenes from the fears and concerns of employees. “Theater can express things in a clear way, and it creates memorable images that anchors messages for people so that they can continue to work on them later.” Does it make a difficult situation even more dramatic for them? Do they really feel their concerns have been heard? Does the corporate culture offer the necessary space for people to discuss their thoughts and feelings afterwards, and to address the implications of the scenes?


World Café conversations

World Café conversations

The day closed in two further steps: a panel discussion with the four speakers, and a world-café format whereby the speakers sat at different tables and the participants rotated every 15 minutes, each time engaging in a new discussion stimulated by a question the organizers had prepared in advance. Among the many points that emerged from these sessions were that people not only learned a lot about each different context, they also discovered more similarities than they had expected to see between the use of the theater in therapy and corporate settings, despite the underlying differences, in particular that therapy is (supposed to be) oriented to meet the needs of individuals in society while corporate theater is commissioned to get individuals to meet the needs of the organization in the economy. Many unanswered questions also remained in the air about the intertwined polarities of freedom and norm. The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre has a lot of material to work with! And so do the rest of us…. my computer is full of many more notes, and my head is swirling with ideas and questions. Perfect Saturday-at-work.

World café notes

World café notes