“The idea of storytelling as currency is now widespread in this field,” Chris Moses said. “John Lithgow reinforced that, as a trained master storyteller. Now there is a lot of talk around social leadership and what that means.”

Elliott Masie’s Learning 2017 is one of the largest gatherings of corporate learning executives in the country. It takes place each autumn at Disney World in Orlando, and brings together nearly two thousand executives from mostly Fortune 500 companies to explore new developments in learning approaches, design and delivery. In recent years, the role of technology to both train and engage, sometimes through gamification strategies, the use of Artificial Intelligence, and other cutting edge innovations, has held special interest for attendees.

Two of the conferences in recent years, including the one that just ended, featured Alliance@work, the professional development wing of Theatre Forward member theatre Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. Rather than technology, automation or gaming, Alliance@work comes to Masie’s Learning conferences to share one on one and group training techniques drawn from what we call the “actor’s toolkit,” i.e., drawing on the professional actor training to enhance focus, speech, presence, storytelling, audience engagement. Their presentations were among the ten most well-received events of the three-day conference this year.

As Alliance’s Christopher Moses, Dan Reardon, Director of Education & Associate Artistic Director, and J. Noble, Manager, explain, Alliance@work came out of a theatre-wide rethinking motivated by the financial crisis of 2008. Their education wing had used these training tools for teachers for some time, but Alliance had begun to get inquiries from some larger Atlanta-based companies about helping with their talent development.

What started as a focus on presence and group training for public speaking purposes has evolved into additional learning strategies: one-on-one coaching, team building, and an especially fascinating process testing and simulation. Alliance@work works closely with a national retail chain using theater to create simulated environments as laboratories to test customer engagement strategies. In this customer experience design space, J. Noble guides customer focus groups through these simulations using the vocabulary and frameworks of rehearsal to “heighten the resolution” of the experience allowing customers to provide meaningful responses that generate useful, qualitative data that feeds the chain’s innovation process. Alliance@work uses theater to put research on its feet.

Elliott Masie, the impresario who plans and presents Learning, is himself a theatre producer with a deep respect for the art form. Learning 2017 featured John Lithgow discussing storytelling, as well as other improv-based groups.

J. and Chris have been able to leverage the presentations at Learning into business connections, such as a relationship with Grant Thornton, the national accounting firm.

Julian Malnak, Director of Leadership and Talent at Grant Thornton, encountered J. and his team at Learning 2014, and he has engaged them ever since. He explains, “We are a professional services firm of accountants, auditors and consultants, and besides their technical skill sets, what differentiates us from our is the ability of our professionals to connect with people, to have emotional intelligence, to express themselves, and to be comfortable with themselves. These are skills an actor uses, and I have seen the impact of the Alliance@work training over the past three years.”

By coincidence, J. and Chris encountered Laetitia Butler, a former Alliance theatre education student, now a talent developer with a New York-based startup, Training Orchestra. As the name implies, her firm uses themes from the arts in how it works, and she speaks from her own experience with the arts in how valuable the workforce skills she gained there have been. “Theatre has taught me everything I apply to my work environment,” she said, “collaboration, improvising, listening, getting feedback and not take it personally but for benefit of the work—it all comes from theatre.”

“Elliott Masie has a theatre brain, and you can really tell it from how he runs the sessions,” she said. She attended the Alliance@work session on storytelling and found useful examples to incorporate in her marketing work.

“The idea of storytelling as currency is now widespread in this field,” Chris Moses said. “John Lithgow reinforced that, as a trained master storyteller. Now there is a lot of talk around social leadership and what that means.”

Moses pointed out another aspect of the theatre’s work in institutional talent development: Alliance@work is a profit center within the theatre, and those profits go to the theatre’s education work, which involves primarily low income K-12 students. So companies that work with a nonprofit community arts institution achieve a sort of triple bottom line: Excellent hands-on training services from a strong brand; higher employee engagement and improved talent thanks to theatre-assisted training; and finally, the wider community impact of reaching younger students with the same skills your organization will later need when they join the work force.

Alliance@work events at Learning 2017, as well as in past conferences, achieved high marks among participants. Their stories of careers advanced through coaching and development, of customer processes modeled and improved, and the higher engagement of staff who participate in those programs are a strong argument for seeking qualified arts institutions as talent partners.

Corporate outreach to a local organization at the beginning stages provides strong impetus to get the program started. Theatres need to know the areas where training is needed, and they need the risk capital to start the enterprise. But as Alliance@work now enters its tenth year, it has proven to be a win-win for its corporate customers, for Alliance Theatre, and by expanding the theatre’s education offerings, the entire Atlanta community.

Alliance@work is not the only learning resource among our network of theatres. Actors Theatre in Louisville, KY, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT and Trinity Rep in Providence, RI also offer professional training services based on theatre skills. Client companies across the US include ADP, Anadarko Petroleum, Charles Schwab, Cisco, the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, IMA Financial, Morgan Stanley and the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing.

These programs, like those at Alliance Theatre, benefit companies, employees and communities through the applied skills of actors, directors and designers. The metaphors of “all the world’s a stage” and “putting on a show” come to life every day as theatres and companies partner to share these important life skills.

Do you have training needs that conventional means aren’t meeting? Here are some helpful links from this story: