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ATD Blog

How to Collaborate With Actors for Online Engagement

Tuesday, March 9, 2021
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Do you want to deepen learners’ engagement with content and each other? Here’s a tip: Bring in live actors for your courses. Highly effective for in-person events, this method is also easy to implement with online learning.

Is this technique effective for learning initiatives? Actors Jason Heil and Veronica Murphy joined me at an ATD Forum roundtable during which the Forum’s senior learning professionals interacted with the actors in excerpts from our online workshop Leading Within Uncertainty. At the end of the Zoom session, many attendees commented, “Awesome session,” which echoed learner reactions to the actual workshops. Combining actors with careful instructional design can support nearly every type of learning outcome.

Numerous forms of actor-learner interaction can strengthen engagement and learning, and five are consistently useful. Scripted performance tends to be thought of as theater, while the remaining four use structured improvisation and natural interactions. Often multiple techniques combine, such as following a scripted performance with learners having dialog with characters and eventually directing the actors to behave differently.

Scripted Performance
Although this can be a full production with memorized lines, costumes, and props, the simpler form is readers theater, which is a dramatic style in which actors perform their roles by reading from scripts with minimal props and costumes. You can write an original script, but you don’t have to. Here are some alternatives we’ve used:

  • Excerpts from autobiographies, histories, and stories that demonstrate, move, and inspire
  • Case study dialogues. For example, during a case-study based business program, our small segment surprised learners with actors performing in character the dialogue from a previously analyzed case. Suddenly the human elements came to light.
  • Excerpts from real interviews. For example, a change management presentation for university staff included a performance created from interviews with change agents, a form of “verbatim theater” like Come from Away or The Laramie Project. Similarly, to bring anonymous organizational surveys to life, you can perform a selection of written comments.

Problem-Centered Performance
More improvisational than a scripted performance, problem-centered performance portrays a realistic situation to demonstrate the problem or model possible solutions. It’s a short scene with a predetermined outline and characters but flexible dialog. Sources for creating these structured improvisations might be learner interviews, surveys, or other organizational data.

Dialogue With Characters
We seldom ask people what they are feeling and thinking, which leads them to behave certain ways. With dialog, learners can ask characters such personal questions and explore what a colleague like that character may need from them.

Learners as Directors
The above interactions are useful for observation and diagnosis. Application begins when learners develop recommendations for character action within the challenge and direct the actors on how to implement their instructions. The actors perform as directed, allowing participants to hear and see their recommendations in action. Debriefing often uses dialog with characters after the scene, as each character/actor answers facilitated and participant questions about the effects of the directed actions.

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Professional Techniques
We can learn much from theater and its professionals. How do they give feedback? How do they stay centered when something goes wrong on stage? What gestures best convey support? Whether the questions are predetermined to fit the workshop topic or are spontaneously asked by learners, actors’ answers give new perspectives on work challenges.

To create and deliver interactions such as the five above, use these five basic guidelines:

1. Work with professional actors. Professional actors are necessary for certain specialized performances, such as impersonating former president Abraham Lincoln. But even simple scenes drawn from everyday work gain power from professionals. To portray two managers (Stacey and Barry) having a difficult online meeting, actors Veronica and Jason developed a powerful opening. Stacey, sighing and tapping her nails, waits for Barry to come online. He appears, apologetic but in pajamas and sitting on an unmade bed with children calling in the background. From that moment on, learners are hooked. Professional actors grab our attention and emotions with the characters they create. Veronica, Jason, and their colleagues always make my ideas better. They also make me a better presenter.

2. Make it memorable. Select and vary the types of interactions. Avoid repetition. Build good instructional design into the course and consider where actors can best enhance engagement, understanding, application, and retention. Think in terms of the actor-learner experience and not just performance.

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3. Prepare and lay the groundwork. Give the actors outcomes, context, and structure to work with. Help them understand the learners’ challenges and how the course will create success. Show how you intend the instructional design to function. Before you meet, create likely storylines and find promising dramatic materials.

4. Partner with the actors to develop the interactions. Ask for their ideas, listen to them, and experiment together. The result will be far richer than you imagined.

5. Embrace the unexpected. Stay open for what may happen in a specific performance and be prepared to facilitate learning from unanticipated actions. As Michael Bloom wrote in Thinking Like a Director, use your ability to “discover what delights an audience.” Then go with that specific audience’s delight to find deeper learning.

Incorporating actors into experiences has become even easier with so many common meeting technologies. Live interactions in differing locations no longer require travel costs or recruiting unfamiliar actors. Veronica and Jason joined me three times in four weeks, interacting online with groups in Seattle, Denver, and Washington, DC, from their San Diego homes.

I hope you’re eager to try this approach. And, of course, break a leg!

About the Author

Deborah Brooks Pettry, Ph.D., is partner and co-founder of LearningZenith, a firm that helps Talent Development and Human Resource professionals create and deliver experiential workshops that are as memorable and effective online as they are in person. Deb and her partner Rich Mayhew have devoted much of their careers to experiential development for leaders and teams. When Covid threw face-to-face experiential development off its foundations, Deb and Rich committed themselves to developing powerful online learning that can be delivered by their clients or by themselves without extra software, equipment or expense. You can see their growing line of options at LearningZenith.com.

Two additional projects take her time right now. The first is a series of interviews with people whose workplaces were impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The interviews focus on how people coped with the aftermath of the attacks as they returned to greatly changed workplaces, with lessons for returning to our post-COVID work. The second project is writing up the results and implications of a survey to research what competencies are important for effective remote leadership, from the perspective of the people who are being led.

Deb also provides executive coaching, leadership workshops, and strategic facilitation through her own separate business Executive Rehearsal and as on-call faculty for Center for Creative Leadership. For several years she was a “Friend of the Forum” for ATD. An Indiana native (IU and Purdue grad), she was a long-time San Diego resident, where she was Board Chair for award-winning Cygnet Theatre. Today she lives in Corrales, New Mexico.

2 Comments
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I really enjoyed this article. As an actor myself, I've seen law firms & medical schools use actors for years to practice diagnoses, cross examination, etc. At my current company, not only have I incorporated actors into my programs, but have been the 'actor' for certain trainings as well. I would also add to reach out to co-workers to see if anyone has a flair for acting or is looking to stretch their skills (speaking in large groups) and allow them to shine!
Thank you for the comment, David. Yes, great to provide opportunity for co-workers. Given your experience as an actor, likely you are able to help them develop additional skills for performance. Another good source for actors, as you would know, is a local college drama department.
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