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Show Business

’InterActors’ Blend Stage Savvy With Business Sense


DramaWorks, a Northampton-based consulting company that uses theater to address the many challenges of the business world, has created a national presence for itself in under a decade. While its business model is hard to define, managing partners Tim Holcomb and Erik Mutén explain that because theatrical flair blends so well with the lessons of life, drama in the corporate world does, in fact, work.

In the theater world, acting jobs like those provided by DramaWorks InterActive are called ’corporate gigs.’

That phrase is just one way to describe what the company does, however, as it fails to fit into any one category. Some might call DramaWorks a theater troupe, others a consulting firm, and still others, an educational resource.

Hard as it may be to define the business, though, DramaWorks has created a successful niche by combining the disciplines of theater, psychology, and business management to create a surprisingly cohesive set of services.

DramaWorks InterActive was launched in 1997, under the direction of Erik Mutén, a psychologist and organizational consultant with an MFA in Stage Direction, and Tim Holcomb, founding director of the Hampshire Shakespeare Company in Amherst and a seasoned member of the theater, film, and television industries. The partners wanted to create a company that would take the organizational issues that exist in all types of companies and put them center stage, quite literally, in order to allow managers and employees alike to consider them, examine them, and ultimately, change them for the better.

What they have created is a nationally-known consulting business that provides a unique set of tools for its clients — beginning with the story-telling power of theatrical productions and continuing with facilitated discussion and problem-solving exercises needed to help move an organization forward.

"The core concept of DramaWorks is to help organizations move toward specific goals through action-learning," said Mutén. "A big problem with a lot of trainings is that they often lead to big discussions that eventually fall flat and go nowhere. Our model is much more effective at highlighting what the issues are, and allowing groups of people to gather ideas and work through them."

Setting the Stage

The company addresses a wide range of internal corporate issues, from gender and power dynamics, multi-culturalism, teambuilding, and leadership styles, to more specific issues, such as patient safety and privacy for clients in health care, or succession planning for family businesses. By staging largely improvisational skits, DramaWorks’ ’InterActors,’ as they’re dubbed, call attention to the complex interactions within a given company that can make it work, or detract from productivity, communication, or even the organization’s overall mission.

DramaWorks has collaborated with all types of businesses, and provides a tailored suite of programs for family businesses, health care facilities, and corporations hoping to evaluate their internal culture, sometimes during a time of change. In addition to live performances and workshops, the company also publishes videos for training purposes and soon hopes to add an interactive, online component to its services.

Its current client list includes several prominent names in business, education, and health care, among them IBM, Lucent Technologies, Harvard University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and State Farm Insurance. But the concept for a business that would couple theater with theories of psychology and management, and eventually appear at major corporations across the country, grew out of one small production staged locally.

A short play was drafted and performed for the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, dealing with the stresses of family-owned and operated business.

"We improvised a play and held two performances, and we thought that would be it," said Mutén. "But other family business centers across the country began calling and the idea started to take off."

Gradually, he said, DramaWorks expanded to offer improvisational theater pieces for a more- diverse set of businesses. One constant is the examination of what he calls "the human factor" that can often derail an existing or developing business plan or goal — the feelings, emotions, opinions, work habits, or simply the different types of people that must work together in various positions for a business to succeed.

The company typically performs assessments, surveys, and interviews within an organization in order to become more familiar with its structure and background, and stages a production that directly addresses the needs of the client. Sometimes, the skits performed are already part of the DramaWorks repertoire; other times, entirely new scenes are drafted.

In either case, Holcomb explained, the lack of conventional scripts, replaced by ’spines’ — improvisational tools that provide a framework of a story, but no actual lines to memorize — allows InterActors to remain fluid in their words and actions, and ultimately reach their clients on a deeper level while not hitting too close to home.

"We customize everything we do," said Holcomb, "to show the dysfunctional patterns that are holding a given organization back. Typically, a company will approach us with a specific problem, but often discover problems they hadn’t anticipated. We always stay one degree left of center from the company we’re dealing with, in order to remain hypothetical."

That could mean addressing issues at a health care facility through the guise of ’St. Everywhere Hospital,’ for instance. The effect is often one that gets people talking, both within an event and about it.

"Seeing something like a play being staged in the workplace tells people that management is trying something creative and different to address that company’s problems," said Holcomb. "That alone is important right there. It creates a buzz and shows people that their management team is doing Ö something."

Audience Participation

Holcomb was quick to point out, though, that while the dramatic portion of DramaWorks’ services provides its backbone, the additional components of the experience that involve the audience — an organization’s employees — are integral to its purpose.

He explained that each DramaWorks appearance, dubbed a ’learning event,’ attempts to meet the needs and reflect the corporate structure of each client, and thusly the event could last a few hours or a full day.

"We’ve really tried to integrate the consultancy part of the business as much as possible," he said. "We are called DramaWorks InterActive precisely because that interaction with our clients is such a large part of our goal, which is to facilitate and help create the work environments that we would like to see evolve."

Employees are always engaged in the experience following a performance, discussing the scenes they’ve been shown, the various characters, and how they contribute to the overall culture of the ’company’ in which they work.

"Generally, we show them a scenario that attempts to illustrate the things that aren’t working well," Mutén explained. "Then, we have people gather into groups to come up with a different vision of the same scene; a new way it could be played out that would lead to a better result. That scene is actually played out, and people have a chance to comment, again, on what worked and what did not."

The model allows people within an organization to see things from a new perspective, while remaining in a safe, private, and entertaining environment, Mutén said, noting that the ability to see mistakes being made, and later the more effective practices put into place, is another strength of the DramaWorks method.

"Only through action learning can we arrive at better solutions," he said. "Through simulation, people are able to try things out and make mistakes in an environment where it’s OK and even fun to make mistakes. They will play out a number of revisions to the original scenario, and begin to see very quickly what is working and what is not."

Christine Stevens, an InterActor with DramaWorks who has also collaborated on storylines for productions in the past, said gauging a group’s reaction to a performance is another way to begin dialogue among coworkers and move toward the eventual implementation of better work strategies and relationships.

"People are given a chance to share and talk about what they saw," she said, "And we’ll sometimes use sociometrics to reflect how people feel."

A sociometric exercise, Stevens explained, could be asking participants to stand at different points within the room based on how well a production reflects their day-to-day experiences, creating a tangible spectrum.

A health care-based performance, for instance, titled Who Cares? brings to light the many issues surrounding safe, comprehensive health care and the challenges hospitals face daily in order to provide it. As a nurse struggles to care for her patient as well as direct her aide, collaborate with doctors, fill staffing shortages, and learn new equipment (she’s also asked to chair the Nurse Appreciation Banquet Committee in the middle of it all), several characters come and go out of a patient’s room. These include an orderly, a dietary, a doctor, maybe a billing agent — and their interactions are seen by the audience through the eyes of a sick patient. A phlebotomist taking blood, for instance, uses a plunger rather than a needle, exactly how it might feel to a frightened patient.

Following the performance, the audience — typically health care workers themselves — are asked to create that visible spectrum. Stevens said she often stands at the spot where clients who feel they relate most to the scene are asked to move, and nurses usually crowd around her quickly.

"It’s very visceral for the people in the room to see, literally, where people stand," she said.

The 25-minute Who Cares? Performance and the accompanying 2 to 2 1/2-hour interactive session will be staged later this month at the National Patient Safety Seminar held by the Risk Management and Patient Safety Institute in Gaylord, Mich. It’s one of the largest groups DramaWorks will assist with facilitating change this year.

"Hopefully, the CEOs and managers that attend will come out of this seminar ready to promote a new level of communication among their staffs," Holcomb said. "It’s all about changing old paradigms into new ones."

Curtain Call

And although some seasoned theater-folk might smirk and call the performance a ’corporate gig,’ Mutén knows his company rises beyond any label. Further, he suspects his fellow InterActors, as well as their audience, will leave the event with a greater understanding of the wisdom that can be gleaned from groups, rather than individuals working alone.

"Live events like this are so important because working as a group, people can better create resilient, sustainable solutions," he said. "Together, people are smarter."

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]