Acting in the Here & Then: The Theatre of Working Together, 2017-2087
Acting in the Here and Then: The Theatre of Working Together, 2017-2087 offered participants an experience of creative engagement with the potential for the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations’ (TIHR) work over the next 70 years, drawing on practices fundamental to many actors, directors, and crew in the work of creating live theatre. In an active, experiential, and (above all) playful exploration, facilitators and participants co-investigated work through two primary “lenses:” the notions and uses of status and role onstage, and the construction, use, and/or destruction of the “fourth wall” boundary often understood to separate actors and audience.
We believe that these lenses, used most frequently by theatre artists, carry profound implications for collaborators in all fields of work and play. To explore this hypothesis, the workshop offered experiential investigations of status, role, and the fourth wall boundary, through activities including facilitator demonstrations; individual guided exercises; games in pairs and groups; and individual, small group, and full-group reflection (as time and group interest permit.) Neither “performance” during the workshop, nor prior theatre experience, was required or expected – only thoughtful, playful engagement in the context of the TIHR’s extraordinary celebration.
WORKING IN PUBLIC, BRINGING IT ALIVE
Designing, proposing, and delivering Acting in the Here and Then for the Tavistock’s 70th Anniversary Festival meant going public with a commitment I’d made while rehearsing Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in 2014: to fuel and cultivate vitality, acuity, agility, and humanity in all the work I do, and in every workplace I touch.
I had returned to theatre acting after a fifteen-year hiatus – much of which I’d spent as a strategy and leadership development consultant throughout the US. Powerful experiences of learning and exhilaration in that work, for both my clients and me, often preceded disquieting conversations behind the scenes – at the airport, during a coffee break – when we’d share deep disconnects between our aspirations and out lived experience. We’d confide in one another about work environments that could feel deadening, and pressures to bring less vitality, less of our humanity, into our work.
As an actress with director Kevin G. Coleman, I found a different fundamental imperative for work: simply, “bring it alive.” Everything I could offer was welcome, required, and reciprocated, every time I walked through the door. The stark division between this fully human workplace, and some others I’d known elsewhere, couldn’t be attributed to doing artistic rather than commercial work. Some theaters dehumanized artists terribly, I knew – and some investment banks, healthcare systems, and consultancies (to name only a few “other” organizations) could magnify, and put to brilliant use, the deepest talents of their people and their teams. These realizations fueled two commitments on my part: first, identifying what we did during Kevin’s productions that supported our collaborations and outcomes, and second, introducing and (where necessary) translating those practices into work environments that depend on teammates’ full engagement and vitality to thrive.
In tandem with my growth as an actress, I encountered Group Relations work – linked to my love of theatre in its emphasis on both the here-and-now of lived experience, and the practitioner’s use of self as her primary instrument of work. Aligned with the Festival’s final day, themed “Transacting With the Future,” Acting in the Here and Then offered participants an experience of core rehearsal concepts and techniques with particular potential to illuminate challenges within Group Relations work – and in the workplace more universally – over the next 70 years of Tavistock history-in-the-making. With these opportunities in mind, my colleague Sarah Corbyn Woolf and I offered a physical warmup to awaken vitality, and games and exercises focused on actors’ use of “status” to heighten acuity (by attuning to the minute non-verbal shifts and cues that shape working life so powerfully) and agility (by beginning to play with these shifts, uncovering new possibilities for action).
Exploring humanity in work was our goal, aligned with the overall Festival theme of “Reimagining Human Relations in Our Time.” Naming (and making “public”) the ubiquitous, but often hidden, status transactions within human relations was our first strategy. Since the Festival, I have come to connect that effort with the Group Relations conference practice of management’s “working in public.” Working in public – as stage actors, and all leaders know – can feel vulnerable, and even terrifying. To manage that terror, some schools of theater instruct actors to imagine a “fourth wall” separating themselves from the audience. Similarly, I believe, many leaders erect a variety of barriers between themselves and their colleagues, customers, shareholders, and other constituencies – to the grave detriment of all. The courage to work in public, conversely – an actor engaging here-and-now with an audience, a CEO working fully in the moment to address organizational strife – offers potential for connection and relatedness at work that nourishes and expands our human possibilities.
Our second strategy (after making status transactions public) was play. Participants and facilitators played throughout the afternoon – with both new discoveries about taken-for-granted interactions (e.g., what we will do to avoid being caught observing an intriguing stranger!), and the humor, even joy, to be found within that discovery. Theatre director and educator Keith Johnstone, took up the notion of play while commenting on Bion’s Experiences in Groups in his 1979 book Impro. Bion’s group members, wrote Johnstone, were attacking each other’s status while pretending to be friendly. Johnstone then ventured that had Bion, instead, taught members to play with status transactions as games, members’ laughter and cooperation would have been released. Acting in the Here and Then made that experiment. Laughter, in abundance, was released. Now and in the future, I am dedicated to exploring and releasing the cooperation and humanity of participants in this work, and that of the Tavistock Institute, through the next 70 years and beyond.
I anticipate ongoing work with the Tavistock in 2018: certainly through a Lunchtime Talk elaborating on these themes and their applications, and hopefully through further work regarding the arts in organisation. In 2018, I will also formally launch Agon Advisors to offer training and development services to leading global businesses and business schools. Agon takes its name from an ancient Greek term denoting “game” or “contest,” and draws primarily on practices from theatre, Group Relations, and complementary disciplines. We aim to cultivate individuals’ and organisations’ capacity for world-class, in-the-moment collaboration — a capacity that can transform the experiences and potential of everyone’s work. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to “take public” this work during the Tavistock Festival, and eager to expand “the theatre of working together” with Agon in the vital projects and partnerships to come.
Founder & Principal, Agon Advisors
Jessica Burlingame (Housatonic, MA, USA) offers coaching, team/organizational consultation, and training and development services that integrate business-based frameworks and techniques with theatre-based and psychodynamic approaches. She has worked with organizations including The Condé Nast Publications, Citigroup, and The Bridgespan Group (an affiliate of Bain & Company). She holds an MBA and an undergraduate degree in literature from Columbia University, and completed additional undergraduate work at the University of Bologna. Recent theatre roles include The Winter’s Tale (Camillo) and Twelfth Night (Feste).
Sarah Corbyn Woolf is an NYC-based actress committed to illuminating the connections between the personal and universal, and seeking the threads that run through centuries of theater, art, and humanity. She has performed with a variety of independent theater companies around Manhattan, including The Woolgatherers which she co-founded. She has trained with Shakespeare & Company, The Humanist Project, and Wesleyan University, from which she received her B.A. in Theater.