To Paul Mathew, theatre is an effective management tool that can promote holistic thinking

It's a furniture-free space. A man in his late 50s appears in a pair of Bermuda shorts, his torso and legs splattered with mud. Accompanying him is a woman and a man in his 30s, who plays the role of a kid. The three busy themselves to portray a stone-age family. They are about to be “discovered” by a group of miners and how the two groups interact is the theme of the workshop. Watching the play from a corner is Paul Mathew, corporate theatre guru. “Yes, we play silly games on the floor,” Paul grins. “The corporate people get comfortable in their new roles, there's bonding beyond designation. The exercise opens up mindsets, lets them cross conventional boundaries and unleashes possibilities.”

Paul has conducted around 1,700 workshops with 35,000 participants across India and abroad since 2002. Once in, they shed inhibitions, playact in groups and have fun. “Bookings are full for months,” says Paul. There are no lectures, presentations, notes or handouts. “You have to go through the workshop to feel its impact.”

Paul brings 44 years of theatre experience to his workshops. During his army days his vacations went into doing plays with civilian directors. Stage lights beckoned and he left the army only to find that experimental theatre doesn't provide for a life of comfort. “I went to Avery India and then worked with Godrej for 21 years.”

Godrej encouraged his “lateral” pursuits, he says. They saw how theatre helped in thinking holistically. “Theatre brings in people of all backgrounds, from a hot-shot lawyer to a home-maker. In my corporate team too I saw a variety of behaviours.” Paul did workshops for his team and as the buzz went around, he got invited to an HR biennial meet. During the audience reaction session, he sent a note saying he wanted to speak on Theatre as a Management Tool. That launched his career as a Corporate Theatre Facilitator. In three years he went full time.

“Theatre tools put participants in touch with what they can do as individuals and as teams,” says Paul. No formal experience, resources or time, only a randomly formed team and they put up excellent performances. They redefine concepts such as teamwork, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation, pressure vs. stress — all ingredients of high performance teams in the corporate world.

It's a compare-contrast exercise. Actors, like deadline-pushing teams, are completely in the here and now. They get the heebie-jeebies before curtain-up. There is creativity in the spontaneous response and improvisation on stage. There is time management — actors fall sick, move out, but others manage. The difference is in grasping the primary object — the play. If the play doesn't win, you don't win. Every function, every goal is aligned to the performance. Upstage others, and you are out. Theatre techniques get employees to drop their personalities. You are just Othello, not X and Othello. In the 30-minutes time that Paul allows, teams come up with unbelievable costumes and performances. As they do the “silly” acts, seniority and hierarchy vanish. It is replaced by functional hierarchy, as one actor is king and another, slave. No one feels inferior or superior in those roles.

“Competition doesn't vanish in theatre,” Paul is quick to point out. “Groups do compete, but there's no blamestorming.” They applaud each other, decide who's best and they learn one team's success does not depend on another's failure. If I am good, fine, others learn from me. Actors see the need to be generous to survive. Corporates create egos through the reward/appraisal system. It cannot make a team.

Paul says that his workshop experience spans all industries, nationalities, hierarchies… and he would love to see committed teachers teach their subjects through theatre. Every class can be a project dealing with resources, time management and creativity. “Leave conventional teaching behind,” he says.

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