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Why Your Next Meeting Should Include Business Theater

© DNA Seattle

Improv can help meeting attendees develop soft skills.

Ever have a problem with overattendance at your general session? Dave Gaston, director of PBM Brand Management at CVS Caremark, did, during the Woonsocket, R.I.–based company’s annual three-day sales meeting in Texas. And believe it or not, the throngs of eager attendees awaited a session that included training on an auditing process—rarely a crowd-pleaser. What drew attendees—especially those who did not even need to be there—to this particular session? Second City Communications, the corporate and marketing arm of the Second City theater company, where celebrities from John Belushi to Tina Fey launched their careers, was giving the presentation.

“After two full days of training, the thousand men and women [were] pretty well numb,” Gaston says. “We used Second City as a point of relief as well as to highlight some takeaway learnings in a way that would be entertaining.”

The first session was a big hit. People texted their friends to come down to the second, identical session, and many of the first session attendees stayed in their seats for another go-round. “After all that sales training, you can’t buy too much of that,” Gaston says. “To get somebody really excited about appropriate learning…it was sometimes said in an inappropriate way, but it was spot-on [with] excellent salient points throughout the presentation.”

Whether a name-brand improv company or a troupe that just has great corporate chops, business theater can enliven dry topics, help employees talk about sensitive subjects or speed up understanding of critical issues. Gaston credits Rick O’Connor, CVS Caremark’s vice president of PBM Brand Management, as the main driver behind doing something unique with the program. Notes O’Connor: “Storytelling is essential, and success demands provocative engagement.”

“Humor is a great way to create an environment that is conducive to open communication,” says Steve Johnston, president of Second City Communications in Chicago. “What we are able to do in the corporate market is take shared experiences and use them as insight so it really rings true. We’re corporate psychologists, if you will.” Second City puts on more than 150 events a year for clients that, beyond CVS Caremark, include Apple, Deloitte, MillerCoors, Kraft, Microsoft, Discover Financial, Farmers Insurance, Lowe’s, Red Wing Shoes and Xerox.

Gaston says the thrill of having a familiar improv style applied to CVS Caremark was a big part of the draw. “The style of skits they were doing were things that we’ve all grown up with,” through Second City’s performances throughout the country as well as alums turning up on Saturday Night Live, Gaston says. “It was very refreshing to see them apply that same kind of onstage acting to our industry.”

Tackling Sensitive Issues

While dry topics like compliance and auditing are ripe for a humorous approach, the power of theater can also tackle much more sensitive issues, like diversity and giving employee feedback, notes Gail Golden, director of Dramatic Solutions, an interactive business theater company based in Buffalo, N.Y. She recalls one client that was having an issue with a multilingual team. Some of the members of the team spoke only English, while others were bilingual. The people who spoke only English felt left out of conversations that they couldn’t understand.

“We just mirrored the workplace, with no comment on what was right or wrong,” Golden recalls. At the end of the presentation, one of the bilingual managers stood up and said, “From now on in my office, I am going to make sure we speak English.”

“It was very powerful,” Golden recalls. “The client is still talking about it six years later.”

While not every business theater company tailors scripts to their corporate clients, Golden says that is the most effective way to reach employees bored with traditional talking heads and online training sessions. “The laughter of recognition is huge as they watch us dealing with all the things they are dealing with,” she says, adding that in most cases during her performances, a participatory improv element follows a scripted portion, allowing attendees to brainstorm what they can do to help the characters. “That’s where the learning comes in,” she says. “It’s not didactic; it’s very organic. It’s educational but it’s fun.”

Second City has found there’s little risk of having a performance bomb as their performers are skilled in reading audiences, and much of the material has been tested with Second City audiences. And there’s great reward: Because improv involves audience suggestion, interesting real-time possibilities emerge, enjoyed even by audience members who may not be big comedy fans.

Absorbing the Culture

A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to get to those real experiences, however—and any company that wants to get the most out of a business theater show needs to be willing to let the writers attend company meetings and shadow employees to absorb the company’s unique culture and jargon.

Second City really studied CVS Caremark’s culture prior to the events, attending as many as 15 meetings and conference calls to get a strong sense of corporate culture. “We have a very specific language—every culture does,” says Gaston. “Our group was overly impressed with how much of the language they nailed.”

A Little Too Real

Turning sensitive and important business issues over to a bunch of actors can be scary, says Donna Sines, executive director of Community Vision, an Osceola County, Fla., organization that builds community through natural resource education and leadership training. “It’s completely out of your control. Anything can happen,” she says. “But after the first time I did it, I was sold.”

Sines knows the risks firsthand. Participants in a Community Vision diversity training session performed by Dramatic Solutions were stunned when one of the attendees said to one of the actors, “You’re an a------. Know how I know? Because I’m an a------, too.”

Shocking? Yes, but also, “It was one of the funniest leadership moments we’ve ever had,” says Sines. “The characters were so ‘in character’—they said everything wrong, and their attitudes were all wrong. Every faux pas, every politically incorrect thing was said, but in such a way that people could see themselves.”

The diversity session was part of an intensive program in community leadership skills for civic and business leaders. Sines says the entire program is predicated on immersion: When the group studied the environmental issues in Osceola, they went out on airboats to see native grasses and hear experts talk about lake quality, so they wanted a similar experience of multicultural issues. “It was the most interactive way we could think of to present diversity,” she says.

That attendee’s aha moment, recognizing himself (and in his case not in a good way), is one of the cornerstones of any business theater endeavor. In addition to the fun factor, fast-tracking learning and understanding is a key benefit to an improv approach. “We’re an accelerant,” says Second City’s Johnston. “That’s the way our clients look at what we can do—they have an objective, they know what they want to achieve and they see us as a way to get there faster.”

Line, Please!

Ready to add some drama to your next meeting? Here is what you can expect when working with a business theater group.

Setting Objectives Approvals and Review Scripting
Professional business theater companies will meet with your organization to define the problem you want to solve and your expected outcomes. While some events are best served by an “off-the-shelf” script, most successful business theater shows display a deep knowledge of the client’s corporate culture and lingo. Be prepared to allow the writers access to meetings and key players who can help solidify your messaging. The finished script will always be subject to client approval. Depending upon the situation, a read-through over the phone or a live rehearsal can also be staged.


Jeanne O’Brien Coffey writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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