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Improvision into the future

It’s been a while since I blogged in this space. It is a pity; I love reflecting back on the work I do, particularly with regard to the improv workshops I run. Last week I worked with a tiny group of four IT specialists and we practiced the basic rules and concepts of improv before delving into some narrative games to cultivate active listening and empathy. It was lovely, uplifting work and I could see the benefits of it while we were doing it.

But, the truth is that while I know how important this work is, and how liberating, I still want to tackle the elephant in the room; racism. We deal with these notions every single day in our daily lives, on social media, in the news, at schools, at the shops and in public spaces. The one place it isn’t being dealt with in any open way is in the workplace, and in the corporate environment. Of course, lip service is paid, and BEE is thrown around, but structural and endemic racism and white privilege are not spoken about or even acknowledged. This is really very serious.

When I work with mixed race and gender groups I am aware of how so much is taken for granted by white, male voices; how much space and opinion they take up. Less so, but still vocal are the white women. Black men are next in line and then, at the end of the scale are black women. It is important that I am understood. This is not about personality, or ‘culture’ (that fabulous excuse for everything), or even corporate hierarchy. It is about who thinks they can do what they do. It is still a white man’s world, even though he is complaining loudly that it isn’t. He is still the voice in the room.

I want to work with these white men and women. I want to help them understand what structural racism, inherited racism, white privilege and white ignorance is all about. Because the reality is, unless they start doing this work, understanding who they are, they are going to come up against some seriously awkward and dangerous situations pretty soon. It is a challenge, because these are the very people who refuse to admit that there is a problem. They refuse to dispense with the notion that white males are being victimised or targeted. I want to unpack this notion that white people have had to work so hard for what they have. I want to manage the unrealistic expectations that white men have because they do not ever compare themselves to black people. I want to help them understand, acknowledge, accept, and then agree to do things differently. Like listen instead of tell, walk around in someone else’s shoes, accept collective responsibility for the past. It is huge, and scary, and ugly and messy. But it has to be done. I want to try and do this. Are you brave enough to contact me for us to try and start this work? Do you know of somebody in a company who would take the chance of going there?


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Engen Phambili 2012

This year I decided to create a musical for my yearly industrial theatre project. Music and singing is a huge winner with our audience. So, here are one or two pics from Engen Smile – The Musical. My amazing cast are Ntombi Makhutshi, Daneel van der Walt, Larissa Hughes, Richard Tafane and Aphiwe Mensiwa.


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Recognition, thanks, honouring.

I am at the airport, waiting to fly home from a rather extraordinary time in the North (Pretoria, Brits, Potchefstroom) doing something really exciting for a client, and I want to write about it before I lose the amazing magic of the work we did.

I was asked whether I could come up with a way to train up a very particular group of workers who work in the service industry. They are women who work for a catering company that services a few private hospitals. To be honest, the importance of their job far outweighs its rewards, particularly financially. I imagine they are earning pretty much the minimum wage, on average. Yet, they have direct contact with the patients. They have huge responsibility. The scope of their daily duties is really wide. And, most importantly, they are scored every month by a survey company that does random calling to ask service related questions. It’s a tough, relatively thankless job.

I wasn’t sure what I could offer them. I specialise improvisation in the corporate sector, and in industrial theatre, used to deliver a specific message. Neither of these two options seemed like what they needed. And then it came to me. More than anything else, these women needed to be recognised in some way. They needed to be seen and thanked, not challenged, tested or trained.

And that’s exactly what I proposed. And it was phenomenal. I watched suspicious, negative, tired faces turn into faces of joy and delight. I watched the truth of the thank you sink in, and I saw as women relaxed and told their stories. I watched six times, on six different occasions, a change take place, without ever calling for it, or naming it, or demanding it. It was transformationnal.

What I heard and saw and was part of has changed me forever. It has turned me into an unofficial HR campaigner. It has reinforced my belief that people are a company’s greatest asset. It has powered my knowledge in team work. It has absolutely confirmed that most people are committed to their work, even in the most trying circumstances, and that acknowledgement and thanks does not have to be grand, or expensive or ridiculous, but heartfelt.

I am going to keep the ‘how’ of this project a secret, because I am definitely going to be doing it again, with other groups and teams and members of the mostly invisible. And, I will push hard for the bosses to go there. And I know for sure it will make a huge difference. If you read this, and are inspired, contact me. Let’s talk.

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Up and Running

We all flew off to Bloemfontein this week to perform our first two shows of our Phambili road show. There are always a few nerves and glitches on the first day, but I must say that it went off brilliantly. I know this because of how the audience responded. They loved it. And so did the client. All is good.

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The Client

I must confess to feeling rather grotty this morning. I am down with flu. Luckily I am not the one performing today and my gorgeous cast are all well. I just have to sit it out while the client come to a dress rehearsal in our rehearsal room. I am excited and always a little nervous. There are no real surprises, the client saw a stagger through last week and they know the script, but it’s always exciting for them to see how it has developed and become more of a product. I still have to get bits and pieces of props and costumes, but mostly we are in place to go.

We fly to Bloemfontein on Monday, do a tech and sound and lights that afternoon, and perform our first show next Tuesday. After that the show happens without me, as it travels the country. I really am so lucky. I love what I do.

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Industrial theatre part 2

I had an incredible flash yesterday and I wanted to put it down and explain it. It was about why Industrial Theatre is so successful at communicating a message. Industrial theatre is all about understanding your audience, and creating work for them. It is about giving a particular (and very specific, in most cases) group of people exactly what they want to see. Characters are created with them in mind. The audience is mirrored on stage in terms of content, culture, language, aspiration and most importantly humour. Once the client’s message and brief is understood, it’s a case of finding the best way to put it across to the audience, making the performance inclusive in a way that traditional theatre often isn’t. Traditional theatre has developed a bit of a reputation (definitely in this country) for being rather elitist and inaccessible and most theatre makers perpetuate this by creating work that challenges and confounds. You have to be a ‘theatre buff’ to ‘get it’. I am; and I love it, but it is hard to grow that special audience. With industrial theatre you work the other way around. First find out everything you can about the audience and then make the show for and about them. Knowing your audience is what brings about success. Granted, it is an audience that doesn’t choose to arrive. It is a given that they will be there (unlike traditional theatre where most often an audience has to be found, coerced, nagged and dragged) so half the battle is won. But keeping their interest, and creating a connection is the sole focus of the work. And there is nothing more rewarding than when this works. I’m ready to get to rehearsals today!

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Rehearsing for an Industrial Theatre job

It’s Monday morning and it’s the second week of rehearsals for is a 35 minute play. I am amped. This play has been ‘commissioned’ by a corporate client, and it will be performed on a road show, around the country, with its message being mainly about service delivery. This is my seventh year of working with and for this client; proof that live performance is an incredibly successful way of communicating to this target audience. It is the best way of delivering this ‘training’ to a huge crowd of people who don’t have access to, or the vocabulary for other training methods. And the best part of it is that it is funny. I am absolutely certain that the best and most memorable learning takes place while you are laughing.

So, I’m off to get ready. In this day of teeny, underfunded traditional theatre shows I have the extraordinary privilege of working with a cast of five. Yes, the message is terribly specific, and the info can be boring sometimes, but we’ll do our best to hide it in fun. I have a cast of Cape Town’s top actors. We love each other and really enjoy the process, and the work. I’m off to another delightful day in the rehearsal room. Let me know if you’d like to put your nose in to see what we’re doing and how we do it.

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The Essence of Industrial Theatre

Yesterday we performed to our first audience of about 600 petrol pump attendants and cashiers. Today is our second show here in Cape Town and then the show goes around the country, performing in all the major centres.

I always need to see how the audience respond; they are who I have in mind from the very beginning. When coming up with a concept, before writing the script, you have to have the target audience clearly in sight. Who are they? What are their points of reference? Do they watch TV? What are their influences?

Industrial theatre often has to sit between what the client (the boss, who signs it off and pays for it) wants and what the target audience (most often the workers) will benefit the most from. It’s a bit of a balancing act that doesn’t always happen the way you imagine it will. It’s also about picking your fights; knowing which ones you’ll win and which ones you’ll just have to let go. Still, it’s great to work in an area of business where I have the theatrical expertise.

Yesterday it felt like the audience was listening really hard, which is good. The cast were nervous; it’s quite a thing performing to such a huge crowd after rehearsing in a tiny room. I can’t wait to see if everything ‘lights’ up today.

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We are doing our technical in the venue today, and our first show is tomorrow. Almost there!

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The Client Viewing

Engen Dynamic Live

Today we are doing a dress rehearsal for the client. They saw the show last week, with the actors in their rehearsal clothes and still on book (with scripts in their hands) and it went down well. Today they will see the ‘look and feel’ of the show too, albeit in a rehearsal room.

We have been having great fun. So much so that we are talking about sticking together and creating our own Christmas show! We all have some brilliant ideas. Watch this space.

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