What Studying Theatre Taught Me About Innovation (and it wasn't innovation theatre)
In a time before smart phones or even the internet 😨 I was a drama student. It was a big shift for me and one my single mom wasn’t entirely behind. “How’re you going to eat?” she pragmatically asked.
But I was determined…I cancelled my plans to become a journalist (ironically a relatively “safe” albeit still competitive occupation in those days) to pursue theatre.
Well, big news…I didn’t become a legendary director or actor. However, and this is a big “however,” it did prepare me for life in the 2022 and for a career in #innovation, #business and #designthinking. Here’s how:
“Yes and…” is both golden rule of improv and innovation. If you want a scene to go anywhere, you need to always approach an idea with openness and be PREPARED TO CONSTRUCT A VISION with your improv partner or team. The same goes for innovation! Over the years I’ve learned the best solutions are shared, iterated upon and improved by another person’s “yes and…”
I learned to walk and stop in the space. Let me explain. I had the good fortune to study stage movement with Fiona Griffiths who was somehow both a rugby player and clown (a literal clown, not just a figurative one). She introduced my class to kinetics, described on her website as, “a sensory experience of weight and tension developed through personal observation of proprioceptive and kinaesthetic processes.”
Yah…it seemed a little “out there” to us students too.
One of the processes we repeated in almost every class was the act of “walking and stopping in space.” When we first started this most of the class was perplexed. What the hell did this have to do with acting?
Over time though the act of walking, stopping and taking in our surroundings started to make sense. We did it religiously in every class. Repetition, observation, awareness, feedback, ensemble, nuanced tweaks…you could actually perceive a group rhythm in the room. Independently we were all moving separately around the room, but together we were some sort of abstract machine--interwoven, complex and yet harmonious. In hindsight, these are the fantastic building blocks for a number of things:
Creating a test and learn culture—the backbone of any good corporate innovation program--and how good systems run both independently and, when they work well, connect together like lego to build something more intricate and co-ordinated (I think the trendy term is interoperability 😏).
It prepared me to fall on my face publicly. Yes, it’s true, no one enjoys f&*%ing up in front of a bunch of people.
But no risk, no reward.
Putting yourself out there—whether it’s with an original take on a theatrical character or a fresh take on a product or service--requires a certain level of resilience and emotional fortitude. Leaders, like actors, become stale if they’re never prepared to try something different. And the number one reason leaders don’t step out of their comfort zone? The fear of failing/looking foolish.
Failing foward is a challenging skill to acquire but one that the brilliant Ashley Good has built her entire business around. And for good reason: showing vulnerability, as Brené Brown often notes in her talks, elevates connection and trust with your employees. And if you ever hope for your team to buy in to any new creation you're hoping to bring to fruition, you're going to need a bucketful of trust to accomplish this!
It taught me how important storytelling is. I learned from master playwright, Judith Thompson, the art of weaving a compelling story and how it piques interest, lures people in and creates a transformative impression they won’t soon forget. Imagery—whether staged or spoken can transform an everyday act—laundry, driving, you name it—into something with deeper messaging and meaning.
You just have to attend one pitch competition or watch an episode of Dragon’s Den to realize how important developing a story is to gaining traction, buy in and acceptance to any innovation (and yes, there needs to be more than just a good hook).
It goes beyond that though—good storytelling is also great for extracting those super-juicy “nuggets” that propel you into action—the pain points or friction you customer, client or staff are experiencing. Storytelling helps innovators build a case—for change, for funding and for action.
Who knew in the 90s that my theatre degree would teach me such incredibly valuable skills that are entirely applicable to social media marketing, business and innovation in 2022? Though my mom was an incredibly wise woman, it’s the one time I’m glad I didn’t listen to her. 😉
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