News and views

Theatre based learning


December 13, 2022

Theatre based learning is an important element in many of our development programmes. It allows delegates to explore behaviours and strategies in a uniquely engaging and memorable way.

What is theatre based learning?

Theatre based learning is the use of professional actors to enact scenes which reinforce, or provide context to, training sessions.

The aim is to bring to life negative and positive workplace behaviours, in a safe environment. It gives delegates the opportunity to experience those behaviours from a third party perspective.

Theatre based learning is often referred to as “drama based learning”. These two phrases can be synonymous, although drama based learning is also used to describe role play where the delegates are the protagonists, rather than the use of professional actors.

The origins of theatre based learning

Theatre based learning appears to have evolved from the Educational Theatre movement of the 1960s and 70s. Educational Theatre, or Theatre in Education, was (and still is) used in schools to perform plays, often interactive ones, to engage the students with the topic.

In the 1980s, Educational Theatre fell out of favour and funding was reduced. However, by this point, businesses has started to realise the opportunities for their people to learn in this way. As a result, theatre based learning became a popular people development option for organisations across the UK.

What are the benefits of theatre based learning?

“Drama creates a concrete, direct and immediate representation of human interaction.”

Chris Stagg, theatre based learning director and scriptwriter

Using professional actors to act out scenes helps trainees to explore workplace behaviours in a very “real” way.

Rather than just reading about a topic, or hearing someone talk about it, theatre based learning means that the learners can be in the room while it’s actually happening – stimulating more senses and helping them to engage with, and retain, the learnings.*

It also gives delegates a unique opportunity to try out various communication strategies and behaviours, practising different approaches in a safe environment.

And, perhaps most importantly, it can be great fun! This shouldn’t be underestimated as a benefit – when people are more at ease they are more open to learning.

* Research repeatedly demonstrates a link between our five senses and memory, such as Jay Gottfried’s research into memory retrieval through smell or Hutmacher and Kuhbandners findings that touch generates complex and long-lasting memories.

How does theatre based training work?

“The catalyst for learning is not the play itself, but the conversations it provokes.”

Chris Stagg, theatre based learning director and scriptwriter

The basic premise of theatre based learning is that professional actors recreate conversations, meetings or interactions which are comparable to (though not carbon-copies of) those commonly encountered in the organisation.

The delegates then engage with the actors to discuss and develop the scenes.

Theatre based learning is most often conducted in groups, however individual sessions can also be beneficial, for example as part of executive coaching. These can provide a good opportunity to prepare for particular situations the individual has coming up.

We use three different tools within our theatre based learning, employing one or more of them for each session.

Catalyst scenes

These are short scenes performed by professional actors with the aim of provoking thoughts and discussion. Delegates talk about what happened in the scene and relate it back to their own experiences and behaviour.

We usually use catalyst scenes at the start of the day because they’re a handy way to focus delegates on the topics of the training.

Forum theatre

These are longer performances which are scripted to mirror the reality within the organisation we’re working with.

The delegates watch the performance and discuss what they experienced, often with the actors, who remain in character. They consider how a better outcome could have been achieved, redirecting the actors or even participating in the scene themselves, to try out different strategies.

Role play

Role play gives the delegates an opportunity to interact with the professional actors, either in a pre-scripted scene or one which participants develop spontaneously.

The delegates receive facilitated feedback from the actor and their peers, helping them to develop their personal skills and confidence. We often use role play later in the day, once the trainees have got used to working with the actors and feel more comfortable in their presence.

What topics is theatre based learning good for?

“Theatre based learning allows people to foresee potential problems, then develop and practice strategies to overcome them.”

Chris Stagg, theatre based learning director and scriptwriter

Any topics which involve human interactions are ideal for theatre based learning. These are some that we are most commonly asked to incorporate:

  • Leading individuals and teams.
  • Situational leadership.
  • Influencing skills.
  • Managing disagreements and conflict – with colleagues or clients.
  • Sales approaches, particularly closing techniques.
  • Client management.
  • Recruitment and interviewing skills.

Preparation for theatre based training

Developing the scripts

Ideally the organisation should be involved from the start in developing the scripts for theatre based training.

Your facilitator will probably want to chat to key people in your organisation to explore the topic for the training, including any issues or challenges which they commonly encounter.

Your facilitator will then share their ideas about how to dramatize these subjects. The aim is to create a performance which is analogous to your organisation, but without replicating it too closely.

Selecting the actors

Where at all possible your facilitator should select actors who broadly mirror the people within your organisation, for example in terms of the balance of genders, ethnicities and age.

This won’t necessarily be straight forward, because the priority is always to find the most skilled actors for your training, but ideally they should broadly reflect your organisation’s people.

Venue for the training

We find that theatre based learning works best face to face. All you need to provide is a reasonably sized meeting room with chairs and tables which can be rearranged to create space for the performance.

For larger groups or conferences it might be more suitable for the actors to perform on stage.

Theatre based training can also be conducted remotely using video conferencing. You do still achieve a lot of the benefits, however our recommendation is always to do it ‘in the room’ where at all possible.

What if delegates are shy or nervous?

A good facilitator will be careful to structure your theatre based learning so no-one feels uncomfortable or under pressure to ‘perform’.

Generally the session will start with the focus on the professional actors. As the delegates become more engaged with the session, your facilitator will give people the opportunity to get more involved – they’re experts at reading the room and will quickly spot the people who are keen to get up and those who would prefer to observe.

When we do role play, the delegates are never asked to perform a particular role, just to be themselves. Often those who are the shyest find this the most beneficial – because it gives them an opportunity to practice the conversations they find most difficult, in a safe, supportive way. This gives them the preparation and confidence for when they come to hold those conversations in the real world.

A real life example of theatre based training

One of our most memorable moments was when working with an international manufacturer. They had organised a three day event to boost levels of collaboration among their workforce.

We had the “graveyard shift”, performing at the very end of the three days. When we arrived, the delegates’ suitcases were all packed and lined up ready to depart. A couple of people asked how long the session would take. It didn’t bode well.

With a feeling of mild trepidation our actors started to perform the scenes. A hush descended on the room. People started to lean forward and pay attention.

At the end of the performance our facilitator stepped forward. He began to explain that the scenes they’d just seen were analogous, not intended as depictions of what actually happens at the company.

The room instantly erupted in laughter! The delegates fed back that this was rubbish – the scenes showed exactly what was happening in their company!

Clearly, we’d really hit the spot with our scripts. Having got the attention and engagement of everyone in the room, we knew we had an opportunity to do good work and support this organisation and its people in implementing the change they needed.

As a result of our work that day, the theatre based training was rolled out across the organisation.

Discover how theatre based learning could support your objectives

Call us on 01444 702 701 or email, to discuss your organisation’s learning needs and how theatre based training could support your targets.

Book a free 15 minute consultation call with one of our experts

Learn more about our bespoke people development services

Book now