From the Field / Series

Actors Who Mean Business

Role Play Simulations in Corporate Training

By Dara O’Brien

Final Part of a Three-Part Series

Most actors balance efforts to find work on stage or screen and refine their professional skills with the challenge of earning a living. In any given year, estimates reveal that between 90% to 98% of actors do not earn money from the practice of their craft. They navigate a maze of side hustles, gig work, temping, and day jobs to support themselves while retaining the flexibility they need to continue on their artistic path.

The quest for flexibility often insulates actors who opt for full-time work from workplace dynamics. There are some actors, however, who are deeply immersed in the climate and culture of corporate America. But unlike their workplace colleagues, they are merely playing the part. In this continuation of our series on role play training and the actor’s experience (here are Parts One and Two) we turn to actors who participate in corporate training simulations. These artists employ their professional skills to help corporate work forces acquire and sharpen the tools they need to succeed.

Actors at Work

“I wanted stable work that utilized my skills and training and offered a more predictable career,” said Martina Potratz, actress/facilitator/leadership coach. “I jumped into corporate role play and was able to make my living and still pursue acting and producing.”

Actors work with organizations across a broad range of industries to perform role play exercises with employees of all levels and functions. Goals can range from imparting specific knowledge and skills that are fundamental to job performance to fostering professional growth. Simulations are used to

  • Build performance management and leadership skills
  • hone project management capabilities
  • teach or sharpen customer service and sales techniques
  • enhance communications, presentation, and interview skills
  • encourage collaboration and team building, and more.

The actor’s preparation involves researching the world of the organization and its culture. “We go deep into understanding the world of the client and the people we are training,” explained Brenny Campbell, an actor/consultant/executive coach. “What defines and distinguishes each organization? How does their work get done? What are some common struggles to look for?”

Spencer Scott Barros, a DEI consultant and facilitator, and Jacqueline Gregg, an actor/trainer/facilitator

Fine-tuned feedback is crucial to the role play process, particularly in relation to professional growth. Actors frequently provide this feedback, thus going beyond the role they play to serve as performance coaches. “After fifteen or twenty minutes of role play, I take off my actor hat and put on my trainer hat,” said Jacqueline Gregg, an actor/trainer/facilitator. “I give participants feedback based on what I saw and how they can improve.” Campbell observed that the feedback actor/coaches provide is as important or even more important than the role play exercise itself.

Through it all, the actor/coach is paying careful attention. “It is all about the participant and their experience; responding to their offers and building with them constructively,” said Campbell. She focuses on the participant’s spoken language as well as their body language and posture, tone, and presence of lack of eye contact—and observes whether they are taking cues from her as well. “To get people to be responsive to someone else is essential,” she said.

Corporate role play training can be offered on a one-to-one basis, in small groups, or moderated by a skilled facilitator for an audience of one thousand or more. “Role play is a great tool to get a message across,” said Gregg. “I think learning happens best when people are interactive.”

Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, role play has become increasingly in demand as a tool to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. “Organizations held up a mirror to themselves and said, ‘how can we do better?’” said Spencer Scott Barros, a DEI consultant and facilitator who is also the founder and artistic director of Liberation Theatre Company. “They started trying to find ways to facilitate this conversation in the workplace.”

Barros facilitates DEI role play workshops for companies in financial services and the tech industry and beyond. The interactive nature of these workshops is key. Unlike role play in other corporate settings, the ultimate goal of these DEI workshops is not skill-building or professional growth, but to provide a launchpad for discussions around inclusivity. “We’re there to create a platform to start the dialogue,” Barros said. “To give organizations the tools and skills to help navigate these conversations in the workplace.”

Role play has become increasingly in demand as a tool to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.

In addition to extensive improvisation, actors perform scripted scenes that spotlight potentially biased behavior that might surface in a business setting. As Barros noted, these scenarios are usually focused within four tracks: race, gender, language and culture, and LGBTQIA concerns, and are interspersed with breakout sessions that explore the issues and discuss both positive and negative reactions to individual characters.

Scenarios might include a manager giving very different feedback to employees of different races or genders, a meeting where ideas from white male colleagues are lauded while similar suggestions from others fall flat, or a work event where casual jokes about a colleague’s ethnicity go unchallenged.

Despite advances made by women in the workplace, the gender track remains a pillar of DEI training. Barros’ workshops spotlight “the way that women aren’t seen, or are expected to embody male qualities to show that they’re skilled and talented,” he said. “What it’s like being the only woman in the room, and dealing with the expectations like, oh, she’ll order the coffee, or she’s got the notes.”

Actors Jed Peterson and Jessica Carmen play co-workers vying for a VP position. By permission: Sixth Degree

Discussions happen through smaller breakouts as well as with the group as a whole; the actors remain in character in all discussions as they improvise their responses. “Even though I say from the beginning this is highly interactive, when the actors engage in character, people always have this look of shock,” said Barros. “They expect it to be like a TV show or a film where they just watch.”

“It’s about situations that women often experience in the workplace, like being cut off in meetings or not getting credit for their ideas,” said Potratz.“And it’s also about smaller moments, like not being invited to career-advancing events and missing out on the kind of informal feedback that can be helpful to people’s careers.” She stressed the importance of engaging men in these conversations—probing their response to given scenarios and “pushing back when people say that never happens or we’re exaggerating.”

Research enables actors to understand corporate culture or a company’s business model, but they draw on their own experiences with prejudice and bias for an authentic representation of what is being explored. “We want actors to pull from their real-life experience, because in the moment when you’re improvising you never know what’s coming at you, “Barros said. “The actor has to be prepared for anything that the audience may throw their way.”

Team leader presenting corporate plan to executives in boardroom. Photo by Yanalva on Freepik

Extensive preparation and an authentic connection enables actors to create believable characters that speak to the culture and concerns of the client organization. Upon completion of the session, participants are often shocked to discover that they’ve been working with actors all along. “People come up and say ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you guys were actors,” said Gregg. “I thought they just brought you in from a different branch of the company.” As Barros observed, “The biggest compliment that we can receive is that participants think that we actually work for the company.”

That does not mean corporate role play isn’t an art. “It’s very similar to acting work,” said Potratz. “You learn lines, you look for subtext, you build a biography. How can you use your own personal experience? Where do you need to stretch? Where do you need to do research to understand what your character might be experiencing as they go through this world?” As Gregg noted, “You use the same acting tools to create a character and make it believable and live in the moment.”

That’s where acting training comes in, taking in the energy of the room, reading signs, listening and being present.

Martina Potratz, actress/facilitator/leadership coach

Due to the highly interactive nature of this work, improv training is essential. As Barros noted “actors have to be fluid and flexible and able to pivot on a dime. Not everybody can do that.”

Equally vital are well-honed listening skills. “That’s where acting training comes in,” said Patratz. “Taking in the energy of the room, reading signs, listening and being present. I’m exhausted afterwards, because you listen all the time.” Campbell referred to x-ray listening: “How do you listen below the content?”

The duality of serving as both actor and trainer demands a particular commitment from actors who do corporate role play. “These actors have a passion to do this,” said Barros. “It’s not just about a paycheck, they’re doing it because they really believe.”

“I’ve learned so much more about human communication from doing this work,” said Gregg.

“I am able to see learning happening before my very eyes, see the light bulbs going on. It’s being involved in creating change on a grander scale.”

As Campbell noted, “I keep doing this work because it changes people’s lives.”

Non-Traditional Applications

Tools of theatrical arts are being put to use in non-performance settings now more than ever.

The practice of Applied Theatre (or Applied Performance) promotes the application of theater-based tools and techniques in civic and community settings. This emerging discipline is gaining ground through degree programs at major colleges and universities all over the country, as are degrees in Educational Theater.

Diversity training Image by Freepik

The Applied Improvisation Network unites artists who use the principles, tools, practices, skills and mindsets of improvisational theater in non-theatrical settings. Applied improvisation workshops are readily available across the United States and beyond.

Regional theaters like Alliance in Atlanta, The Barrow Group in New York, and Pig Iron in Philadelphia offer corporate training programs that use the tools of theatrical storytelling to foster personal and professional growth for non-actors. Participants rehearse, play theatre games, improvise, and explore acting exercises to enhance creativity, communications skills, and leadership capabilities.

The fact remains that the road to career success and even a living wage earned through work in the creative arts is challenging. By looking to alternative applications of the actor’s craft, along with expanding access and applications of the techniques that sustain it, new opportunities for artistic expression and financial compensation for theatre artists are emerging.

DARA O’BRIEN is a playwright and actress based in New York City. Her article previous articles for this series includes “Acting As if” – Role Play Simulations in High Stakes Police Encounters” and  “Given Circumstances: Actors Play a Role in Academic Settings” Her article “Company Managers: Women at Work” was published in WIT Journal in July 2016. Her plays have been presented or developed at The Cherry Lane Theatre, Urban Stages, the Abingdon Theatre Company, Resonance Ensemble, and HB Studio. She received the Thomas Barbour Playwrights Award for her play “Early Sunday Morning,” which had a staged reading featuring Melissa Errico by The Schoolhouse Theatre, and was featured in the Naked Angels Tuesdays@9 Reading Series. She is also an actress whose work includes the New York premiere of “Gidion’s Knot” by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theatres, and Lady Capulet in “R&J” for Web Series Shakespeare. When she isn’t acting or writing for the theatre she is blogging about food at AEA, SAG-AFTRA. Dramatists Guild of America. 

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