Using the wisdom of theatre to give better performances at work

“It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” said Jerry Sternin in The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems.

There are a lot of pressures in organisations to perform at our best. But if we don’t create space to try new things that might well fail, we easily end up in mediocrity. 

Lots of entrepreneurs can talk about the idea of being willing to fail - but it’s hard to get this to work in practice. The stakes are often high, and people are reluctant to take risks in front of each other. 

But what if we take inspiration from the world of theatre, where many directors use the rehearsal process to evoke more creative and collaborative performances from their casts?

Creating a powerful rehearsal space

If we think our work has to result in a definitive performance we put everyone under pressure which stifles creativity. What if we see ourselves and those we work with as being in a rehearsal space? This can reduce performance anxiety. It encourages flexibility, a willingness to change course easily and to be affected by each other. 

The stage director Sam Mendes once said of rehearsal space, “there are no right or wrong decisions in this room, just interesting and less interesting ones.” In theatre, rehearsals are opportunities to explore possibilities rather than just follow someone else’s plan. 

This may be anathema to more authoritarian directors - and perhaps to many entrepreneurs - who think it’s their job to direct the cast to their own vehemently held vision.

But the more improvised approach in theatre may be a much more creative model, better suited to uncertain times.

In that approach to rehearsal, there’s an expectation that things will be rough and ready and imperfect. That’s the only way to allow enough experimentation to discover things that are surprising and new. 

Piers Ibbotson, in his book, The Illusion of Leadership, describes a rehearsal process where the director asks questions of the cast without pretending to know the answers, and gives oblique suggestions rather than direct ones that appear to require compliance. For example, rather than saying “go faster”, they might say, “imagine you’re late for a train and need to go soon.” The more oblique instruction activates the players imagination, rather than forcing them to do as they are told, and puts the director in a co-creative, rather than supervisory relationship.

When we apply this at work, we experience our challenges in more energetic and imaginative ways. We learn that it’s possible to have a different kind of contract with one another. We can be more open about our struggles, resist the urge to fix each other, dream more interesting dreams and find different ways to struggle together. 

It might seem messier and sometimes there will be conflicts. But with discord comes an opportunity to reconnect. When we’re able to explore dissatisfaction more boldly, they come alive, create launchpads for learning and how to create a truly supportive space for one another. 

One of the most definitive performances in modern theatre is that of the Australian actor Philip Quast as a mesmerising Javert in Les Miserables. But it turns out that Quast likes the rehearsals more than the finished show: “The rehearsal room is everything to me, it’s problem solving, it’s teamwork – like working on a farm where you work together as a team to make something grow.”

His approach to rehearsing a new play is to study the play but not to learn his lines. He argues that learning your lines before meeting the other actors is a mistake: you develop a preconceived idea of your performance instead of creating something fresh in response to your fellow cast members. 

This kind of aliveness is essential to helping groups to be creative. It’s all too easy to make detailed plans which risk cutting us off from what’s really happening in the room - and in the constantly changing business context in which we operate.

So the next time you gather your team to discuss operations or strategy, consider treating it more like a rehearsal of possibility than an attempt to force a single-minded vision on a disparate group of people.