by Joyce St. George, Sally Schwager and Frank Canavan

Reprinted from: Employment Relations Today, Winter 1999, Vo. 25, No. 8.
© John Wiley & Sons.

Drama Based TrainingAn employee confides in his manager that his coworkers are sending him offensive E-mails. A sales representative, the first African-American to work in an all-white sales force, tells her manager that she wants to file an EEO complaint. Delicate situations such as these are daily challenges in today’s corporate environment. As skill in handling such hot topics as workforce diversity, sexual harassment, and violence in the workplace rises to the forefront of leadership success, “people skills” are gaining the credibility and respect they deserve. If a strategic rather than reactive paradigm of human dynamics is to transform our thinking, then a new paradigm for training must usher in the change.

Today’s training must be so compelling as to absorb participants in its realism in a way that engages more than the intellect. It must be practical so that participants may actively use it. It must be relevant to the complexities of the work life of participants, and most importantly, it must provide a memorable, lasting experience. Finding that lectures, role plays, and other traditional instructional techniques are falling short of the challenge, corporations are turning to drama.

Drama, with its fluidity, spontaneity, and open-endedness, is a tool for presenting information that entertains, addresses controversial workplace topics, reduces the potential for litigation, and transforms organizational cultures. Mirroring the human dynamics that influence decisions made in boardrooms, on manufacturing floors, and at store counters, drama helps people examine the intricacies of human behavior and their influence on corporate culture and business results. Companies are also finding that applications for drama provide a “contextual training model,” that includes lifelike simulations for participants to practice managing complex human interactions in a safe and controlled learning environment.

Hundreds of corporations, including Kraft Foods, Monsanto, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, and Hoffman-LaRoche, currently use drama-based training to educate and train employees and managers. Yet, with today’s limited training resources, budgets, and time, can companies trust that drama-based programs will effectively deliver valuable learning opportunities? The answer is yes and no, depending on the type of drama-based training selected and the logistics of the training experience.

This article serves as a consumer’s guide to drama in corporate training. The different uses and levels of effectiveness of drama-based training are examined, and recommendations are made to help HR identify when and how to optimally use it. Warnings about possible dangers inherent in such a powerful method of training are also discussed.


As a vehicle for entertainment, drama has always had the ability to thrill, move and inspire, audiences. From the hands of Euripides to Shakespeare to Scorcese, it is the crafting of emotional intensity that allows drama to focus attention, heighten awareness, and dynamically convey ideas.

Using drama as a teaching aid is not new. From ancient Greek and Roman philosophers to contemporary playwrights, drama has been used as an exciting way to mirror and explore the human condition. Plato encouraged children to learn through improvisation and dance. Hrosvitha, a tenth-century Saxon nun, wrote plays to educate congregations on moral issues. Itinerant actors of the commedia dell’arte produced dramas to confront social issues for Italians of the late middle ages.

The idea of harnessing drama for educational purposes was not fully developed until the twentieth century, however. Prominent U.S. educator John Dewey advocated “learning by doing” through the use of drama and applied his theories in elementary schools during the 1920s. Using Dewey’s work as a foundation, educators in England and the United States created theater in education techniques for schools to help children develop self-awareness and improve social skills.

Applying drama to adult learning was introduced during the 1920s by psychologist Jacob L. Moreno, founder of psychodrama. Moreno demonstrated that constructive behavioral changes in individuals and groups could occur through various methods of dramatic enactment. Over time, he expanded his ideas into business training as well. In fact, in 1933 he conducted training workshops for R.H. Macy on employee relations – the first of its kind.

Moreno’s pioneering applications of drama as a training tool became the foundation of the many activities developed for management training in the 1940s and ’50s. Role-playing, interactive games, and a host of other activities emerged in an attempt to replicate the excitement and interaction that drama brings to audiences. The ease and simplicity of these techniques gave training opportunities for creative awareness-building, but often lacked the realism, depth and emotional intensity natural to drama.

During the 1960s, the civil rights and women’s movements spurred a need for more intensive skills-based training. Police, medical personnel, educators, and social workers required training that provided real-life simulations to enhance their intervention skills in race relations, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other social concerns. As a result, trainers began experimenting with different forms of drama as vehicles through which people could gain awareness and hone their skills.

Innovative corporate trainers brought these techniques into their leadership and employee relations programs during the 1970s. However, as affirmative action, sexual harassment, and the diversity movement caught the consciousness of U.S. businesses, popularity of drama-based training exploded.


Experts in training and education indicate that the goal for any training is to provide learning that can be transferred from the training room to the workplace. To achieve transfer of learning in people-skills training, instructional methods must be real, relevant, practical, and lasting. Training must be real in that it reflects the specific job and context of participants; relevant in that it focuses on their particular needs and interests; practical in that it provides achievable, pragmatic answers to their interests; and lasting in that participants will remember their learning experience far beyond the end of the training session.

Drama-based training is held to the same standards as other forms of training. Its effectiveness must be judged according to its ability to assist in the transfer of learning from the training room to the workplace. As with any other training approach, effectiveness depends on the design, specific methodology, instructor team, and follow-up methods.

Because there is an abundance of drama-based methods and styles, there may be confusion about selecting a specific type of drama-based training. In fact, there are several levels of impact in drama-based training, from passive observation of a performance to highly active skills-building and structured training exercises. We look at these levels in terms of “low-impact,” “moderate-impact,” and “high-impact” with respect to the ability of these methods to transfer learning. Which type of drama-based training a company chooses depends on the goal of the training. Following is a description of the various levels of drama-based training with examples of actual training situations.


Successful low impact training leads to increased awareness through illustration and possibly role modeling. The focus of such presentations is to introduce a topic of discussion to a wide audience that may not be intimately familiar with the subject matter. The primary goal of this level of drama-based training is to enhance awareness of the general topic. Companies benefit from this approach in that they can offer the presentation to large numbers of managers and employees in a short amount of time in order to generate thought and discussion.
This type of drama-based training is best suited for large audience presentations and involves the presentation of scripted scenes or vignettes to support training content. The scenes, which may or may not be customized for the client, are performed by actors over the course of one to two hours. A facilitator oversees the presentation, introducing the performance and guiding a question and answer session with the audience to reflect major topic points.

In a low-impact training presentation on conflict management, a group of actors might enact a conflict that could typically be seen in the workplace. It could be based on an in-house assessment and designed to reflect some of the actual issues pertinent to that workplace, or it could be more universal and designed to reflect the dynamics of conflict in general. Participants would observe a scenario and identify to greater or lesser degrees with what they observed. This can stimulate thought and discussion and provide new awareness of what conflict actually looks like from the outside.

In an actual low-impact training session, participants watched a mismanaged conflict played out between fictional colleagues. Afterward they were asked to report what they saw. “There’s no communication,” one participant responded, and others agreed. The facilitator probed into this idea. “Is it possible to have no communication?” she asked. “What kind of communication are you seeing? What is the message these two are communicating to each other?” This gave the participants pause, and they went on to dissect in more detail what was really going on in the human dynamic they had seen. In addition to content (what was being said), they became aware of the impact of body language, tone of voice, eye contact, word choice, even breathing (how it was being said). They realized in a deeper way that there is no such thing as no communication between people.

As learners we can stand outside a scenario and intellectually debate the challenges and opportunities we see in it, and this is the main thrust of low-impact training. However, as much as it helps stimulate thought and discussion around an issue, it can also encourage joining with negative biases and stereotypes. Managers from the same corporation watched a scene reflecting some of the problems they face in their workplace. They commented, “We have an environment that encourages and rewards that kind of behavior and there’s nothing we can do about it.” The facilitator’s skill in challenging this kind of response is essential to allowing discovery to lead to greater awareness. In addition, because of its broad-based nature, low-impact presentations may inadvertently entertain more than teach.


Like low-impact, moderate-impact training also concentrates on general awareness of a topic. However, it includes participative activities requiring audience members to more deeply examine the motivations and behaviors of the characters. Audience members are more involved in a moderate-impact presentation in that they are invited to “ask questions” of the actors, who remain in character, following a performance. Through the interactions between the audience and the “characters,” the characters’ inner motivations are explored and discussed with the help of a facilitator. Additional activities may also include dividing audience members to do small-group work, such as having each group collaborate with an actor to influence their character’s actions and the story being dramatized.
A trainee going through a moderate-impact program found one character in a conflict scene extremely unlikable. He jokingly proposed firing the man as the only viable alternative. He was clearly proud of his tough take on the situation. He admitted to being somewhat close-minded but was unaware of the extent of his close-mindedness until he was encouraged to ask the character some questions about his behavior. He was truly surprised by some of the facts of the character’s life experience, and his resistance to acknowledging the multidimensionality of another person visibly started to melt. The trainee was not completely transformed, but by interviewing the character and learning something about the complexity of the character’s life, the trainee learned something about his own tendency to make quick assumptions.


This level of drama-based training creates the highest impact on learning in that it moves beyond a generic performance model to provide a contextual skills-based training model. In other words, the focus of awareness-building is linked directly to the work life and everyday concerns, activities and skills of trainees. This model involves customizing every aspect of the training for the audience and immersing participants in a type of human dynamics “flight simulator.” The content of the training is delivered in a facilitative rather than lecture style, and a series of drama-based training exercises, called structured improvisations™,? are integrated throughout the training. Staged by trainers and not actors, these exercises provide structure, control, and safety as well as accuracy within the simulated work situation. Leaders or workers enter these scenarios as themselves in order to practice managing sensitive and complex interactions. High-impact drama-based training focuses on skills development and is contextual in that it specifically reflects participants’ work experience and learning needs. Learning is directed toward participants gaining understanding of their own motivation and actions. In addition, these exercises create a safe and comfortable learning environment and are challenging to audience members because of the active level of involvement.
In high-impact training, participants strive for an even deeper examination and expression of the dimensions of their growth and development. In this kind of learning the trainee becomes actively involved in the conflict, not as a role-play but in his or her professional capacity, participating directly as a factfinder and potential agent of change.

High-impact training adds the element of human differences directly into the learning at hand. By getting involved in a one-on-one structured improvisation™ with a character, participants have an opportunity to take a look at their own reactions – conscious and unconscious – to conflict.

In one training session, a participant sat down with a character in order to help him out vis-à-vis a power struggle he was having with another character. After encouraging the character to be honest and open, she went on to lecture him about everything he was doing wrong. The trainer portraying the worker slowly crossed his arms and looked down at the floor, nodding intermittently as the participant spoke. The trainer asked her if she was angry at him, cueing the participant to assess the impact of her actions. The participant paused, and seemed nonplused at the character’s question.

A great advantage of this kind of training is that “reality” can be stopped or frozen at any point in order for the dynamics to be looked at and inquired into more slowly and precisely. The facilitator stopped the scene at this moment and asked the participant how she thought she was doing. “I think it was going well,” was the response, “but I don’t know why he asked if I was angry.”

The facilitator slowed the participant down and asked her to report what she saw in the character’s face, posture and energy. The audience was also engaged to help her see that the character was, in actuality, shutting down and defensive. And yet the participant’s goal was just the opposite – to open the man up so that they could talk frankly about the heart of the conflict and take some steps from there. It became apparent to the participant that although one of her objectives was to put the man at ease her tactics were having just the opposite effect. “But I’m telling him these things so that he’ll know what he’s doing,” she claimed.

The exercise had revealed to the participant that it was not what she was saying but how she was delivering the message that was making all the difference. This time the participant slowed her breathing and allowed the character to discuss his concerns. Guided inside the exercise by the trainer, the participant continued to modify her communication skills in a way that brought her closer to her goals. It was an enlightening moment for the trainee to see the direct consequence of a different approach.


Inasmuch as drama has the potential to create poignant and highly successful learning opportunities, it may also have the capacity to manipulate, distort, and compromise training goals and participant integrity. It is critical that trainers are well-skilled in designing, developing, and facilitating drama-based training, especially when used to cover controversial topics, such as diversity. Scripts should be written to avoid stereotyping of groups or compromising of ethics. Trainers and actors should be knowledgeable of training topics and respectful of audience members. Trainees should never feel forced to participate in something they do not feel comfortable or safe doing, nor should they be subjected to inappropriate behavior by trainers or actors. No one should ever feel humiliated by anyone present, and no one should ever feel frightened, exceedingly nervous, or set up for failure. Drama is a tremendously powerful medium. This means that its goal must be very clear, and its techniques articulated with great respect, understanding, and care.

Those using drama-based training have an ethical imperative to ensure its appropriate application. Here are some tips to consider before using drama-based training:

    • Determine the level of impact you want for your training audience before contracting with a drama-based group.
    • Make sure that the drama-based training group making the presentation is knowledgeable in both the topic area and training techniques.
    • Ask the drama-based training organization for a demo or demo tape to assess the group’s expertise, style and level of impact.
    • Ask for references and reviews of previous presentations that were conducted by a prospective drama-based training organization.
    • Determine how drama-based training will satisfy specific needs and goals for the presentation or training program.
    • Establish evaluative measures as well as follow-up activities to support the presentation or program.
    • Discuss with the drama-based training organization the portrayal of characters to prevent stereotyping or labeling any particular group.
    • Review scripts and exercises to assess their impact and integrity.
    • Look over the entire presentation, including facilitation questions, to ensure it fosters cohesion and not divisiveness among audience members represented in the drama.
    • Support a presentation that encourages risk taking, but never one that is hurtful, overbearing or distressing.
    • Be sure actors never embarrass, ridicule, or intimidate members of the training audience.
    • Never use actors who are familiar with their scripts only and not knowledgeable about the training topics or techniques.
    • Be cautious during audience interactions with actors who give only opinions and not expertise.
    • Discourage activities that force participants to represent their membership in a particular race, gender, or age group.
    • Clarify expectations of participant involvement in exercises to prevent potential manipulation and ensure integrity.


The most ambitious goal of training is to facilitate a process of changing awareness and behavior, and drama is an exciting vehicle for achieving this objective. It allows for a creative and present-centered process, one that transforms one thing into another, that is, a problem into an insight, a habit into a new set of behaviors, a plan into a corporate action.

The intent of corporate training is to provide opportunities for employees to learn and grow, but most training focuses primarily on intellectual theory and technical knowledge. Today’s leaders and employees require not only intellect, but also “emotional intelligence,” or the ability to balance the head and the heart. Drama-based training is one tool to help people strike such a balance within the complexities of today’s workplace.