The business of plays

Mar 28, 2012, 12:02 IST | By: Ayesha Nair

Theatre is no longer a niche form of entertainment. It is gradually gaining centrestage, with corporate houses using it as a tool to train their employees in communication skills, teamwork and confidence building


Hard-hitting performances, realistic settings and the adrenaline rush of watching a live act are the hallmarks of a perfect theatre experience. But despite being one of the oldest forms of performing arts, theatre has often been branded as a niche form of entertainment. Of late though, it has found an impetus in corporate culture, with multi-national companies using it as a means to reach out to their employees and customers. 
First act
Corporate houses initially turned to theatre as a Human Resources initiative. They roped in actors and theatre companies to train their employees in communication skills, teamwork and confidence building. Explaining how this trend took off, actor Jaswinder Singh, who has worked with Thomas Cook, Loop Mobile and Development Bank of Singapore, says, "The trend started when corporates realised that their employees were just learning everything by rote during classroom training.
They wanted them to venture outside and develop their overall personality. So they encouraged them to take up adventure sports. This practice continued for eight-10 years, but employers soon found out that though employees were having fun, these activities were not translating into increased productivity. Around this time theatre practitioners wanted to break into the corporate sector. So it proved to be conducive for both parties."
How does it work?
Once theatre companies are given a brief by their corporate clients, the scripting process begins. The emphasis is on delivering the message in a fun and entertaining fashion. After the script is approved, theatre groups start rehearsing. Directors rope in actors with whom they have worked earlier due to the comfort factor. Since deadlines are tight, troupes perform these skits of 15-20 minutes duration after rehearsing for around a week. Singh says, "Using theatre attracts people's attention and helps us to spread the message in a fun way. However, it's important to use the right costumes and props and design the play in such a way that it has good recall value for the employees."
Craft meets corporate
As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) every year, Aviva Life Insurance undertakes a book donation drive called Great Wall of Education where it appeals to people to donate books for underprivileged children. Last November it roped in AllMyTea Theatre Productions, co-founded by film and theatre actor Amol Parashar, to perform a 20-minute skit at a suburban mall about the importance of books and the need to share them.
Likewise, Tata Motors chose theatre to educate its employees about the importance of safety measures during the National Safety Week this year. Mumbai-based Yavnika Theatre run by Dinesh Singh along with Genie Eventz and co-founded by Dr Manu Menon put up a short performance in the first week of March at three of the company's offices. Instead of giving a staid lecture on the dos and don'ts of safety, Singh along with his writer and actors devised a comedy that portrayed superstar Rajinikanth as a doctor.
Menon says, "Since people have short attention spans, plays are the perfect medium to spread a message as they are not only entertaining but also stay with the audience for a greater duration, long after the performance is over." According to Biswajit Dash, manager HR communications and social media, Tata Motors, employees who saw the performance are now more aware of safety measures and seem to be playing an active role in making the work environment safer. Explaining why he chose theatre to educate his employees, he says, "Being exposed to posters or mailers would not have been as impactful as watching a live performance. We have employees from different cultural backgrounds, age and gender groups with different levels of experience, and theatre speaks to all of them."
Singh, whose group Alchymy did a short performance at two Mumbai malls for Internet solutions company NetGenie says that theatre has become the preferred medium for corporate houses as other forms of media are saturated. He says, "With so much happening in media there is a constant barrage of information and a sense of fatigue has crept in. Audiences have become blas © and so to create enthusiasm about their brand, companies are using more glitz and glamour. However, companies have budget restrictions. So they turn to theatre to create a personal experience for their employees without shelling out loads of money."
Corporate speak
Apart from being economically viable, corporate houses are happy with the way these theatrical initiatives have served their purpose. Pooja Khan, vice president, corporate communications, Aviva, says, "On the first day of the book donation drive, people saw the troupe performing at the mall out of sheer curiosity. However, we were happy when the following day, they actually bought books to donate."
Ruchi Ajmera, manager in corporate safety, health and environment, elaborates that though Tata Motors has had safety briefings earlier, this year was the first time it employed the services of a theatre group to create an awareness among its workers about the significance of safety. She explains, "My aim was to practically show the hazards of neglecting safety measures instead of talking about it or taking the employees around the office. The reaction to the skit was positive and long after the performance was over, they couldn't stop discussing it."
Advantage theatre
It's a known fact that relying solely on theatre as means of livelihood is a tough life. However this association with corporates seems to be working in favour of theatre companies. As opposed to rehearsing for a play for over a month, actors have to rehearse for less than a week for a 15-minute performance. Most of the scripts are easy to enact and don't call for huge investment of craft. The remuneration is also more than that for a full-length play. Parashar says, "It's more commercially viable. It's also a different audience.
From experience I know that they are here to be entertained so I will not show them something that is highly experimental. Creativity is required nonetheless." It's this creativity that sometimes has to be compromised to fulfil the clients' wishes, as Singh can attest to. He says, "We had gone with a very different script but they asked for the scenario to be changed and we had to comply with their suggestions." The fact that these are professional actors who have previously worked with the director ensures that more is achieved in less time. However all agree the stage is the backbone of their creativity and it's something they will never give up.
For the love of the craft
Performances like these not only get the message across but also introduce theatre to audiences. Many who have not watched a play before or did not know the workings of theatre suddenly gain interest in it.
"A lot of them have hidden talents. They showcase it in my workshops because they are allowed to do so. Many want to watch my plays. There are a few senior managers who wish to be a part of the group even if it means bringing chai for the actors," Singh signs off on a light note.

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