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Learning with Dramatic Effect


A number of training groups use drama to facilitate learning, but how does the cross-over work? This article looks at one such company, where trainers vary their working lives between the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and boardroom development.

Imagine one day spent working with Kenneth Branagh or Niamh Cusack and the next with a group of City executives. This is the world of some of the trainers who work with management development company Jo Ouston & Co.

In the Jo & Co philosophy successful professionals in the theatre and in the business world, although they may seem miles apart, have at least one characteristic in common: the quality of truth in expressing themselves.

“Acting, good acting, is not about pretence,” says Barbara Houseman, theatre director and JO & Co trainer. “The power of an actor on stage doesn’t come from outside; it’s not assumed, like a costume, but born of an inner truth that links the actor to the role.”

Barbara has over 25 years’ experience as voice specialist and theatre director. When she is not in rehearsal rooms with companies like the Royal Shakespeare coaching such actors as Kenneth Branagh, Naomi Cusack or Ralph Fiennes, she is likely to be found in the training rooms of Jo Ouston & Co helping business executives to understand the real nature of presence and communication.

As Barbara explains: “Whether you’re working with actors or business people, though you may be talking about voices and bodies, these are simply means to help them understand their real potential as individuals. It’s all about connection – so that the audience, whether in the theatre or in the boardroom, feels a connection with a real individual, and so with a real message. I often take my experiences of work in one world back to the other. Though the two groups differ in where you concentrate, there is great value in cross-fertilisation.”

Trainer Darell Moulton has just finished a spell working with Fantastic Four star Ioan Gruffudd on his latest film Amazing Grace. Between such assignments Darell uses his experience of bringing out the unique character of individuals to helping business people to, in his words “feel more comfortable in their skin.”

“I focus on helping people put over intention and integrity in their messages, but not in artificial ways,” he says.

Darell believes the essence that underpins the JO & Co approach has been used for hundreds of years. “I’m always intrigued by the fact that Queen Elizabeth strengthened her voice and her personal presence by employing the special skills of a Cambridge don. In this way she discovered her gravitas, and has been remembered for it ever since.”

Although like Barbara he agrees that the emphasis of what you do differs between actors and business people, he believes that one resource is paramount for anyone outside their comfort zone. “However much people or circumstances may change, it is always true to say that centering is key for anyone, no matter what their profession.”

All Jo& Co trainers teach centering skills that instil calmness and clear thinking in situations of pressure. Such skills are invaluable for an executive making a presentation or an actor about to go on stage. Barbara, Darell and her colleagues use centering in the context of a wider understanding of body-mind interaction. NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), for example, uses a system of analysing how thought processes are projected in physical behaviour, re-mirrored, and how in this way a positive or negative cycle can be triggered – the most favourite example being arm-folding as an expression of closing off communication. But simply unfolding the arms will not, alone, re-open channels. The process of centering will, because it will link relaxation of body with ease of mind.

Working with this sort of linkage is a constant theme with JO & Co trainers. Richard Quine, ex-RADA teacher says: “The similarity between actors and business people is that both need to understand their bodies in order to keep their minds clear for the priorities of the moment – to try to keep away the clutter of irrelevant stuff that may be going on. The difference is that actors have to be true to the script, business people to themselves and their explicit skills.”

Richard and his colleagues also find great value in the principles of EI (Emotional Intelligence) that approach to behaviour, which promotes an awareness of the emotional climate of any situation. Emotionally intelligent people don’t necessarily ‘take the emotion out’ of situations, but take intelligent account of what’s going on and aim for positive adjustment. In JO & Co’s estimation, emotional intelligence is a key quality in successful managers and leaders.

Summing up the parallels between actor and executive training, Richard Quine says: “One of the first things we do with both groups is to get an understanding of the context. Teaching off-the-shelf skills for off-the-shelf situations is not helpful. What does the actor need to deliver? What is the shape and colour of the role? What world does the business person operate in? What is the function and style of the business? Everyone, actors or business people, have areas they need to develop. It’s all about bringing out potential. In business it may be about communication. In acting it’s about the drama inherent in the role. In either case the strength of the performance comes when it stops being a performance and becomes an expression of what makes the individual unique.”


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