Two Australian theatre practitioners, a Japanese teacher and a Chinese Human Resources Manager walk into a bar. No joke.
A few hours later I walk out with a Chinese name. My new name translates roughly as ‘Unique Visitor’. I’m a guest speaker at TEFO’s Drama Theatre and Education Conference in Hong Kong and it’s the second night of the conference. Tonight, we four merry travellers have participated in a workshop led by Sean Shun-pui Kwan.
In it he shared one of the many ways he incorporates theatre exercises into his corporate workshops. The conference has been full of great keynotes, panels and workshops like this one and we’re inspired to continue the conversation over a beer.
On the first day I joined Mr Kwan, Jonathan Neelands and Yong-wen Peng to speak in a plenary session on corporate learning and development. In my presentation I spoke about Melbourne Playback Theatre’s work supporting organisational culture programs with our performances and training.
I made grand statements like; ‘Theatre is a change agent and community builder’, ‘Storytelling helps people understand and shape organisational culture’ and ‘Playback theatre is transformative’.
Like most of the applied theatre practitioners, teachers, social workers and corporate facilitators at the conference, I’m interested in the pro-social benefits of theatre. This is our shared interest and despite the diversity of practical application, diverse cultures and varied experience, it connects us. Just as theatre helps connect the people we work with.
Jokes that start with three characters of different nationalities walking into bars strike me as culturally insensitive and inappropriate. Sometimes they are downright racist. They are a form of storytelling that people use to make sense of cultural differences. But because they use stereotype and make fun of those differences I think they often serve to divide us. At the bar tonight, we spend a lot of time sharing stories and learning about our cultural differences.
We grew up with different families in different countries at different times. But each of us has a personal story that make us unique. And through hearing each other’s stories we also discover similarities.
Qian’s English name is Michelle. In her first English lesson the teacher offered her a choice of two names, Michelle or Stephanie, after characters from an American TV show. ‘Was that Full House?!’ ‘Yes!’ A bad 80’s sitcom we both loved as kids isn’t the only similarity we find tonight, but it’s a funny one!
In my presentation at the conference I cited this Harvard Business Review article and its list of mechanisms that business leaders can use to shape organisational culture.
Our playback theatre performances and the theatre-infused experiential workshops that we deliver contribute to most of the informal mechanisms listed. These techniques build connections between people, just as the workshops at the TEFO conference bridged massive language and cultural barriers to build relationships.
But there’s also a lot to be said for ad hoc social gatherings like this drink at the pub.
Mike McEvoy delivered his presentation ‘Theatre Leading Organisational Change’ at the TEFO Conference in Hong Kong on 1st May 2015.
By Karen Berger
It seems a cliché that travel broadens the mind, but studies have shown that a journey really can make us wiser. In an article for The Guardian, Jonah Lehrer, stated that ‘seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world’.
The sense of perspective given by travelling can lead to better problem solving.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to run a two day Playback Masterclass (particularly its applications to corporate training) with Andrew Gray as part of the Hong Kong TEFO Conference on Drama Education. Being at this conference not only gave me new perspectives, but also opened my mind to subjects I’d never even thought of before. The following are brief notes on some of the things that stood out for me over the 5 days I was in Hong Kong.
In our Masterclass we played a ‘get to know you game’ where the participants stand in a circle, and one person steps forward and states something that is true about themselves. Others for whom that is true will also step forward.
Attempting to liven things up a bit, I stepped forward saying, ‘I vote left wing.’ Andrew immediately stepped forward and there was rather confused discussion among the participants.
I was surprised to realise ‘vote’ and ‘left wing’ were being explained. No one else stepped forward. At the end of the second day of the workshop, a lively participant from Ghangzhou in mainland China told a ‘moment’ about her experience of my revelation. Once she understood what I meant, she initially struggled with deep regret that she had never experienced voting, but then she thought, ‘Whatever! I should just get on with my life.’ I have never been made so aware of a right that I don’t properly value, so much do I take it for granted…
Carmel O’Sullivan, Director of the Arts Education Research Group at Trinity College, Dublin, spoke about how it’s her problem if colleagues have trouble describing what it is she does, and her responsibility to explain it to them. Her ten year research project running weekly drama groups with autistic children has been assessed by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Unit to gauge its impact. It’s the kind of qualitative and quantative research our own Melbourne Playback’s Artistic Director, Mike McEvoy would love to demonstrate the value of our work with various corporate organisations.
At the end of Mike’s plenary session on ‘Corporate Learning and Development’, an audience member asked the speakers if they had any qualms using their theatre expertise in the aid of business.
Mike related that at his interview to join Melbourne Playback he was asked his attitude to doing gigs for big business. Seated in the audience, Andrew Gray smirked – he’d been the one to ask the question. I listened with interest, having not heard that question asked of any Playbacker. Mike had responded by saying that he felt that as an artist, his role as an agent for positive change in any setting was a privileged one. Also on the panel was Jonothan Neelands, Professor of Creative Education at the Warwick Business School. In response to the question, he asserted that we need to broaden our definition of business: a freelance artist or a person selling food on the street are actually business people. Both business and art can be good or bad. There should be no value judgement on ‘business’ as such.
In his keynote address, Neelands spoke with great passion about the recent Warwick Commission Report on the Future of Cultural Value of which he was a Director of Study.
This study used irrefutable statistics to argue for the strong relationship between creativity and economic growth
and the need to change England’s poor arts education standards for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
A powerful image of the relationship between the arts and economy for him was a scene from the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony where the UK health care system was proudly displayed – the sports stadium filled with performers playing doctors and nurses surrounding a beautiful giant baby. Having started watching the opening ceremony with his fingers over his eyes (the cringe factor could be high!) he ended up feeling proud – the ceremony seemed to him a defining moment of national identity.
Neelands finished his speech by talking about what he felt might be a defining moment for Hong Kong’s identity – the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. He highlighted the neat areas for students to study with post it notes from demonstrating teachers offering tutoring and their phone numbers; the wishes for Hong Kong’s future printed prettily and decorated with yellow ribbons; the overall politeness and care symbolised by busy thoroughfares taken over by people carrying delicate umbrellas.
I had had a visceral taste of what it might have been like to be part of the Occupy Central Protest two days before during a conference workshop run by four young people from a Hong Kong NGO, entitled ‘The Process of Empowerment between Calm and Passion: Exploring Our Position in Civil Disobedience Movement through Process Drama’. In a shortened form, participants were taken through a workshop they had run to help potential protestors clarify their intentions and the possible ramifications of their participation, including on their family and friends. I found the opportunity to play a member of the rally (with other workshop participants playing the roles of police, media, etc) and to play a relative of someone about to join the march, a surprisingly powerful and direct way of experiencing many dimensions of this experience that was so important to many Hong Kong residents.
The impact of politics on people’s daily lives was also brought movingly to the fore during the conference’s final session: a Playback performance from the local Encounter Playback Theatre. The final story told and enacted by the team was from a man from mainland China who had been very moved by a performance on the first night of the conference, PsychoSEE, which skillfully staged a theatrical intersection between the Occupy Central Movement, Antigone, and a personal story about powerlessness in the face of rape. This performance had brought up very strong memories for the storyteller of Tiananmen Square and the interdiction on commemorating that event in China now. Witnessing his tears while telling his story and the moving playing back by Encounter Theatre provided me with a deeply personal perspective on an important world event from someone who was sharing his story in a public forum. That’s something Playback can do wherever it is seen – like travel it can allow us to gain the kind of wide perspective so important for creativity and problem solving. We can go on a journey from the comfort of our theatre seat.
We’re writing to ask for your voice of support.
What is happening?
Senator Brandis recently announced a plan to shift $104 million dollars from the arms-length Australia Council for the Arts to a ministerial controlled ‘National Programme for Excellence’ which will administer the funds directly from the minister’s office.
Below are some links with more information about the changes and the uncertainty it has created in the arts community.
What is concerning about the change?
The principal of arms-length funding and the rigorous peer-review process for arts funding is an important feature of Australian Arts Funding because it ensures excellence, innovation and diversity in the sector and it removes the possibility for political interference in deciding what artwork is created and supported
The move to bring funds under ministerial control is akin to allowing the sports minister to pick the Australian cricket team, rather than the expert selection panel best placed to make that difficult decision.
It is also evident that some of the worst hit by the change will be the thriving independent and small-to-medium sector which is the breeding ground of new talent and innovative new Australian work, in the same way that the VFL and grassroots football clubs feed the AFL.
What is Melbourne Playback’s position?
Melbourne Playback is a not-for-profit organisation which operates as a social enterprise so we do not directly rely on Federal Government funding to survive. However, some of our community projects are made possible through state and local government grants that will feel a knock-on effect from the changes.
And critically, our company’s success relies on the independent artists who form the ensemble. The health of our company is directly related to the health of the arts sector in Australia.
Like any ecosystem, all the different organisations, individuals and artworks are connected and dependent on each other to ensure a thriving arts sector. The artists who work for Melbourne Playback also work on independent projects and on projects with major performing arts organisations. Our work on those projects influences the quality and style of our work with Melbourne Playback and make it possible for us to have sustainable careers.
A number of our partner organisations, cultural festivals and the venues we rehearse and perform in are under direct threat because of the proposed funding changes; La Mama, St Martin’s Youth Arts, Dancehouse, Multicultural Arts Victoria, Footscray Community Arts Centre and many more.
What can you do?
Write a submission to the recently launched senate enquiry (closes 17 July, 2015)
Join the Facebook group #freethearts where up-to-date news and action is being shared
Write to your local MP and Senator and tell them why the arts are important to you
Sign the petition
Share this post using the links below
Richard Watts Arts Hub article ‘Mobilising audiences to oppose Australia Council Budget cuts’
ABC Radio ‘Arts industry converges on Canberra to protest Government cuts’
The Age article ‘George Brandis turns arts into ‘political football’
The Guardian article ‘I’m an artist and I’ve received grants, want to know what I do with all that money?’
The Australian article ‘Sector adjusts to funding revamp’
Whether its presenting, auditioning, interviewing or leading a team, all of us get nervous. Here are some hot tips to keep you cool and calm under pressure.
1. Focus on the Breath
An oldie but still a goodie. We all hear this one a lot. But breathing is still the first thing we forget to do when we are under stress. And its the best remedy to calm a brain reeling from overwhelm, nerves or stage fright. Breathing deeply sends much needed oxygen to our brain which helps us to think more clearly and calms our nervous system. The best thing to do just before you present is your favourite deep breathing practise.
Try this: Before you walk into the room or onto the stage, put your hands on your belly and take a few deep breaths into your hands.
2. Power Pose (in the bathroom)
In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy reveals her research that our bodies can change our minds. By holding a power pose for two minutes we can significantly increase risk tolerance, increase testosterone by 20%, decrease the stress hormone cortisol by 25% and feel more assertive, confident and comfortable: the best way to feel when facing a group of people.
Try this: arrive early and hold one of these power poses in the bathroom (or a private space) for two minutes before you enter the presenting space. Sounds strange, but it works.
3. Dress well
Sounds shallow, but it can save a lot of stress. Take time the day before to plan out what you’re going to wear. Choose clothing that is appropriate to the occasion, but also make sure its comfortable. Make sure you’ve worn it before. If you sweat, make sure it’s dark or loose enough that it won’t show. Make sure you can move your arms and sit down comfortably. Take the time to make sure everything is clean and (if necessary) ironed.
Planning in this way will make your preparation smooth (no panicked running around the house or last minute changes) and will make sure you feel confident and comfortable on the day.
4. Tell a story
If you’re presenting, open and close with a story. Throw a story in the middle of your talk. Stories grab listeners attention like nothing else. Stories are memorable and connect the listener to your content instantly. If you feel people have stopped listening, you haven’t included enough stories. Turn boring content around with an interesting anecdote.
If you’re interviewing or auditioning: connect with the decision maker with a story that will interest them. Even better – make them laugh.
5. Practise precision: no waffling or waving
If you can say it in less, do. There’s nothing better than a presentation that gets to the point, tells a few entertaining stories and sprinkles humour throughout.
If you know you wave your arms about or feel uncomfortable standing in front of people, put something in your hand. A pen, a whiteboard marker, a presentation clicker or something related to your situation. It will ground you and give those flapping arms something to hold on to.
What’s your tried and true tip for staying calm under pressure? The more tips the better! Share them with us in the comments below.
Good luck out there! Stay cool.
Let’s not mess around…let’s get ‘Down Under‘ with a very special one-off performance that will be held on Friday 22 May at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
We want you in the audience for this exciting show so comment below and be in the draw to win tickets.
We have two double passes to give away.
Our theme is a big topic. Reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a loaded word. Some champion it, some see it as a distraction from treaty and constitutional recognition. The definition of the word means: ‘to bring together again; regain; win over again, conciliate‘
What does reconciliation mean to you? If not reconciliation, what word would you use? What is your wish for First Nations and non-Indigenous Australia?
Many wonderful people are coming from far and wide to take part in this very special performance. We can’t wait to hear the stories that will be shared and the connections that will be made.
A playback show is a conversation, and we want to start this conversation now.
What does reconciliation mean to you?
Let us know in the comment section below. Two comment-eers will win a double pass each to the show!
So, let us know, what does reconciliation mean to you? Comment below to win!
We will draw the winners on Wednesday 20th May. Winners will be notified by email.
Or, if you just want to book some tickets, you can do that HERE
When did you last sing?
Today we want to share with you one of our favourite songs. We sing together every rehearsal, every training, every warm up. We sing together to warm up to each other, to open up to the space, our voices and our hearts. We sing to let go of our day so far and arrive in this moment with these people.
We sing because it feels good.
Somagwaza was taught to us by Jo Salas when her and Jonathan Fox (co-founders of playback theatre) visited Australia in 2013. Somagwaza is a song from South Africa where choral singing plays a major role in traditional Bantu music. This song is sung when young men are initiated into manhood.
Where’s your favourite place to sing, shake it off and feel good? Let us know in the comments below.
This stirring song has been popular in our workshops, and we’ve recorded it just for you. Its in three parts which are on separate tracks and the final track puts all the parts together.
You can download it free from Sound Cloud and use it in your own workshop, dinner party, warm up, family reunion or any group of people wanting to feel good.
Hint: when putting the three parts together, make sure all three parts say the word ‘Somagwaza’ at the same time. Therin lieth the harmony.
So come on over, listen and sing:
Did you see the article in The Age recently titled “The rise of soft skills: Why top marks no longer get the best jobs”? The journalist John Elder described how leading companies from Australia and the UK are valuing more than ever ‘soft skills’ in their workforce.
So what exactly are soft skills?
They are skills that build personal connection. Have you noticed how things are more likely to go our way when we are able to make a genuine connection with someone? Soft skills help us do that. They are skills in emotional intelligence, communication, conflict resolution and using collaboration (rather than compromise) to solve problems. Its something we can all relate to.
Soft skills really can be a game changer.
Associate Professor Jennifer George is director of a new masters program at Melbourne Business School that is offering business training that includes a soft skills program complete with actors from Melbourne Playback.
We join the participants for sessions in voice projection, posture and presentation skills. Later on we do ‘real-play’ sessions where our actors play scenarios with such as the boss who the participants have to break bad news to.
For skills that are inter-personal, there is no substitute for trying it out in a safe place, with an actor who isn’t actually your boss.
The ability to have a go, get feedback and have another go is invaluable as a way to learn these skills. They can’t be mastered by theory alone.
What soft skills do you want to master? You elevator pitch? Listening? Collaboration? Share them in the comments below.
And try this: ask a friend to have a go with you. Make up a scenario based on your target soft-skill, play it out together, talk about how it went and try again. Give yourself permission to do it really badly. Make it fun. You’ll be amazed how easy it becomes.
Read the full article from The Age here
by Karen Berger
Each year, Melbourne Playback Theatre is honoured to be invited to perform at a number of gatherings for refugees and recent immigrants. In 2014 these included:
- performances and workshops organised through SEAAC (Southern Ethnic Advisory and Advocacy Council)
- a performance at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre
- a performance for Whittlesea Interfaith Network
- a Refugee Week performance at Footscray Community Arts Centre organised through the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria.
We started wondering: ‘How well are we serving the refugee and immigrant community through these shows?’ There are a number of company members who are immigrants to Australia, and two whose parents were refugees, but still we felt there was a lot more for us to learn. For example: What is the best way for a conductor/facilitator to invite people to share their stories in this situation?
As a result, on July 28th 2014, we organized a special rehearsal where people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds were invited to our North Fitzroy rehearsal space to share their stories and to then give us feedback on how we were doing. We were extremely lucky that these 8 generous and engaging people (children and adults from Afghanistan, Iran, South Sudan and Ethiopia) donated their time and knowledge to help us improve our work.
These are some of the thoughts that came up:
- Why do we all wear black in performances? In many cultures wearing black is associated with mourning. (In Vietnam white is worn at a funeral.)
- What are the other ways we could explain how a Playback show works before starting?
- Can the company develop more expertise in ethnic dance and music (and food etc)?
- Refugees and immigrants want to be first seen as people before they’re categorised by where they’re from. It’s important to hear funny as well as sad stories – and stories about everyday life.
Overall it was a very moving evening. A Sudanese guest related that she had thought that after years of living in refugee camps, she would be inured to the pathos of another ‘refugee story’. However she found the details and playing back of specific stories to make them emotionally engaging.
There was acknowledgement of the healing, dignifying and hope-building power of telling a story, and that Playback can offer a wonderful service to people from challenging backgrounds.
We are continuing to develop our expertise in this area and are currently organising to meet with the manager of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture to learn more about how Melbourne Playback can best serve storytellers with traumatic stories.
Melbourne Playback rehearsal exploring our approach to the ‘refugee story’.
Melbourne Playback’s Karen Berger with the Aminullah brothers.
Tesfaye G/Hana and Mustafa Aminullah
Melbourne Playback rehearsal exploring our approach to the ‘refugee story’.
by Alex Sangster.
“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling”
Once upon a time there was a leader who wanted to share a vision……
Once upon a time there was a pioneer who wanted to take her people out into wild new wonderlands…
Once upon a time there was an exhausted company manager who really wanted to find a way to get his people on board with the new branding…
Telling stories matters and telling stories well isn’t something that just happens. Melbourne Playback is all about opening people up to their untapped potential as storytellers so that the message of their brand or the vision of their company, can be fully actualised.
In her recent book ‘Gossip from the Forest’ looking at how telling stories are one of our earliest cultural forms, Sarah Maitland argues that;
“The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats ‘narrative loss’- the inability to construct a story of one’s own life – as a loss of identity or ‘personhood,’
it is not natural but an art form — you have to learn to tell stories.
The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like ‘What did you do today?’ (to which the answer is usually a muttered ‘nothing’ – but the ‘nothing’ is cover for ‘I don’t know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events’). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell.’
Melbourne Playback opens up space for people to hear stories – to really hear them. We also create a space where people begin to learn, not only that they do have powerful stories within them but also how to tell these stories to a community.
We know that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems — that children learn about the world through listening to what happens, once upon a time, to wild wolves and brave girls. We also know that the ability to hold our personal story in the context of our culture’s meta narrative is profoundly empowering.
Jonathon Gottscall in his book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology to reveal to us what it means to be a storytelling animal. And he argues that ‘the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior. So if you are equipped to tell your story or the story of your organization and its vision well, then you are more likely to be able to initiate behavior and culture change’.
We also now know that our brains become more active when we tell stories.
And that we feel much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.
He writes of how, rather than struggling with getting people on board with your projects and ideas, you should simply tell them a story. Research shows us that storytelling is the most effective way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.
Melbourne Playback has a proven track record in working with organizations to help them learn how to articulate their own story and to then dynamically share that story with the wider world.
Ian David Melbourne Playback facilitator working with Qantas on presenting skills
Presenting to any sized audience can be daunting and fill you with anxiety. You are the focus. All eyes are on you. Expectations are high. Everything you say, everything you do, your appearance, your tone of voice, your gestures and the content of your presentation play a part in the efficacy of your delivery. Knowing what you want to say is only part of the whole equation. You want your presentation to have an impact and for the audience to remember the information.
Know your audience
Whether you need to persuade or just inform, you need to understand a number of things about your audience. Who are they? Why are they there? How experienced are they? This helps you frame your content in a way that resonates most strongly with your audience.
Be an expert
No one likes to be told things that they already know. Know more than your audience. This means doing your homework and having evidence for your assertions. Be clear about how you arrived at your opinion.
Prepare your speech
This might feel like an obvious one. But so often, people have not written down what they are going to say. They have a few notes scribbled down on a bit of paper and suddenly in front of hundreds of people they can’t read their notes or understand what they were thinking in the first place. Writing down what you want to say before hand, even if you don’t read it while your up there, helps consolidate your thoughts and ideas. It can provide you with a structure about how you might approach your material.
Rehearse alone, in front of people, film it, record it – do it again and again and again. You need to know what is coming next. You need to know it inside out and back to front. You want it to be second nature. Once you think you cannot possibly do it again – do it again! Keep refining. Keep asking yourself; Is this clear? Does my presentation logically flow? Am I presenting in an engaging way? Am I waffling on? Remember; less is more.
Anecdotes are your friend
Inserting a personal story or a story that acts as an example is an excellent way of connecting with your audience. It makes complex concepts comprehensible. It does this by allowing the audience to use the imaginative side of their brain and understand the point of your presentation from a humanistic perspective. This increases their understanding about why your presentation is important.
You may have written and rehearsed the most exciting speech in history, but if you present it monotone, your audience will disengage. When we are speaking casually to our colleagues, friends or family we use lots of dynamic tones to emphasise a point or to help articulate the story we are telling. Sometimes this exciting dynamic voice disappears when we present. Nerves are usually the culprit. The first step to ensure that we speak with dynamic vocal tone is to be aware of our tendency to flatten tone. A good friend can help with this when they listen to you rehearse! Are you too loud? Too soft? Too monotone?
We subconsciously read so much into the way people physically hold themselves. The best way to present is to make sure you are standing tall and relaxed – confident and open. Leave your arms on the podium or down by your sides when you are not using them to make gestures. Make sure your gestures are natural and spontaneous. Maintain eye contact. Make sure the clothes you choose to wear facilitate easy movement and do not distract from the incredible amount of work that you’ve put into this presentation.