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Theater-based Training with a Focus on Diversity: by Cynthia Cristilli
SOUTHPORT, CT –/ -- DiversityBusiness.com /- Historically, for much of our social existence, theater has been the main form of mass communication. The efficiency of drama, its ability to convey complex emotions and to provoke empathy from its audience, has been used effectively by rulers and rabble-rousers alike for thousands of years.

Corporations, non-profits and small businesses are now finding theater-based training an invaluable tool to utilize with employees in understanding diversity, bias and respect. The proper use of drama in human dynamics education can be a powerful touchstone for many participants, greatly enhancing their ability to absorb important messages. Effective use of this tool holds a mirror up to employees’ interactions, offering a unique perspective into what motivates individuals to act in the ways in which they do. Theater in training also provides audience members with a visceral example of the pain and repercussions caused by discrimination and harassment. These theatrical snapshots, when well written and performed, can stimulate employees to see things in a different light and serve as a catalyst for creative thought and change.

As the owner of a drama-based training company I have, together with my partner, designed and created a broad range of programs that focus on many different aspects of diversity. From sexual orientation to race relations, the aging workforce to gender discrimination, I’ve seen audiences transfixed by the challenges that the characters in our dramatizations must overcome. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then talented actors can inhabit this picture and make it come alive. These living and breathing portraits create lasting impressions that will stay with employees long after other, less powerful trainings have faded.

Creating a diversity awareness program around theater is not as simple as hiring local actors to come out and “put on a show.” A professional training company well versed in stage craft is essential, as is a comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter. Each presentation should be thoroughly researched and designed, with an eye towards the policies and culture of the particular organization. The creators must have a very clear objective in mind, with supporting materials to reinforce their message. The temptation when writing a script with an emphasis on this topic is to reduce it to a simple laundry list of issues. One should resist the inclination to include an African American woman, Asian man, disabled veteran, senior Caucasian man and a self identified gay woman all on stage expounding on the difficulties of fitting in. Focusing instead on just one or two character’s challenges regarding diversity can serve as template for others to project themselves. We all, at some point in our lives have felt the sting of being judged by our defining characteristics, rather than who we are inside. Capturing the universality of these feelings should be one of the goals of the scriptwriters.

Throughout the process of development, subtlety and shading must lead the way, just as it does in real life. The workplace is usually not the platform where big eruptions on race, culture, gender etc. tend to take place. In fact, blatant acts of bias and discrimination are rare. This certainly doesn’t mean that this behavior doesn’t occur; it’s just that it’s played out under the radar, in indirect and oblique ways. For example, instead of conspicuous interracial hatred we more often see people making assumptions based on race and then acting upon them. Instead of glaring homophobia we witness certain individuals being overlooked or undervalued because of their sexual orientation. As a result, job dissatisfaction grows, defenses are built up and hearts are hardened. These actions and their consequences can all but cripple a company, undermining teamwork, impeding growth and contributing to the loss of the best and brightest employees. Realistically written dramatizations should expose these subtle elements and help audiences internalize the lessons with out aggrandizing the circumstances. Well crafted scenarios can take on these delicate complexities in ways that will resonate with trainees, leaving them to ruminate about their own responsibilities in terms of fostering a culture of respect.

When my business partner and I sit down to write a script of any kind about workplace issues, be it diversity, sexual harassment, ethics, communication or leadership, we always start with a few basic rules:
  • First and foremost: The characters must be believable, not caricatures. Every dramatization should feature multi-dimensional individuals who are not all good or all bad, but are acting in ways that they truly feel are appropriate for the situation.
  • Second: Circumstances in the scenario must be as close to real world business practices as possible. Naturally allowances are made for time constraints, but each situation should ring true to the participants.
  • Third: There must be a major obstacle or a conflict with high stakes, the number one rule of good play writing.
  • Fourth: No easy answers or quickly tied up solutions. We baby boomers watched a lot of television in our early years, which may have given us the impression that no dramatized problem is too tough to be solved in 26 minutes plus four commercial breaks. Alas, the real world is much different, especially when dealing with the deeply embedded behaviors that lead to bias and discrimination.

Rather than showing simplistic solutions, we as trainers, challenge our audiences to come up with their own plans to help the characters in our dramatizations. Before the scenarios take place, participants learn and discuss some of the basic rules for overcoming bias. As a group we dissect the very human tendency to make assumptions, and learn how to catch and analyze these assumptions before putting them into play. The art of empathy is promoted and encouraged, with distinctions clearly made between feeling “sympathy” for an individual as opposed to feeling “empathy.” Trainees are also given real world skills in which to practice inclusion, among them the task of engaging those they don’t know in small talk. Finding similarities and using them as a foundation for friendship is the very best way to begin to learn about our differences.

Throughout this portion, one caveat is made very clear: when it comes to dealing with diversity, inevitably mistakes WILL be made. Inserting your foot firmly in your mouth at some point or another should be expected. Instead of slinking away and avoiding the offended party, one should have the courage to acknowledge these mistakes and sincerely apologize. Anticipating the hurdles and learning to navigate them is an important technique to absorb in any kind of human dynamics training, and is essential when it comes to enhancing mutual respect in the workplace.

After the dramatization, and armed with these basic skills, participants work together to develop strategic plans to assist our characters. Incorporating their own stories and experiences, trainees discuss options and their possible outcomes. This course of action creates a team building dynamic among the participants. More seasoned employees have an opportunity to share their knowledge, while new staff members can contribute fresh perspectives Working as a team and establishing a shared goal is one of the by products of our training programs and begins its own inclusion process among the audience members.

Overcoming bias, embracing diversity, and practicing inclusion may be common buzz words these days but they also engender strong feelings within people, despite all the hype. To imagine that deeply rooted prejudices can be dealt with and demolished in an all-day, all-weekend or even all-week training course is folly. Anyone familiar with the challenges of diversity knows that there are no absolute 100% solutions to eliminating bias. To focus on complete transformation in thought and action is an unattainable goal. Instead, let us first open the doors to reflection. Create a forum where staff members can deeply consider the issues at hand. Allow employees to examine all sides of a situation and understand why an individual acted the way that they did when faced with a form of adversity. Provide employees with the tools that lead to a better understanding of one another, then encourage them to collectively create a moral barometer where they can measure their actions and reactions to those who appear “different.”

To quote Hamlet: “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” To catch the conscience of your employees and demonstrate your commitment to diversity, do something out of the ordinary. When organizations challenge themselves to provide innovative forms of education, workers, in turn are stimulated to think outside the box. Drama based programs can invigorate training-weary staff members and cause even the most cynical to sit up and listen. Employees know when their organization is making the effort to present current issues in a new, more user-friendly light. These endeavors greatly impact job satisfaction and morale. The fringe benefit will be appreciative staff members who did not have to sit through yet another power point presentation, but were educated and entertained at the same time.

Taking the step to incorporate theater in training programs can sometimes mean convincing the skeptics of its ability to effect people. You need go no farther than your own television to remind yourself of the power of performance. To be able to translate this potency to business practice is too valuable a tool to overlook. To the skeptics we must ask, how could our ancestors have been wrong for thousands of years? When it’s time to spotlight diversity issues in your organization, simply think back to the fundamental goals of ancient theater… entertainment, education and elevation.

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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