It was the talk of the boat at last summer's Catering Forum. A role-play demonstration at the floating hospitality conference almost turned nasty when a member of the audience jumped up to tackle an "angry chef" who had stormed into the meeting to remonstrate with an equally fake "restaurant manager".
An embarrassment? Or palpable evidence of just how powerful this kind of training can be?
Later in the year Erica Harley, who was hosting the session, brought her convincing actors to The Publican Conference for an equally effective workshop on improving relationships between pub tenants and area managers. There was no sign of a fight breaking out on that occasion, but it certainly prompted the audience to debate the issue.
The form of training Erica specialises in, through her company Erica Harley Associates (EHA), is called forum theatre. She believes it's particularly appropriate in industries where people relationships are crucial to success - in the pub industry for instance.
Facilitator helps find solutions
One of the appealing things about forum theatre is that it's not as terrifying as the kind of role-play in which members of staff get up and pretend to be their boss or a customer. In forum theatre it's professional actors who take the roles, playing out a scene that should be familiar to the audience who are then invited to criticise what they have seen and direct the actors to play it differently. The debate is managed by a neutral "facilitator", in EHA's case Erica herself.
There are several ways of organising all this. The audience can split up into workshops following the initial performance, for instance, and discuss what changes they would make to behaviour. They might then put each actor in the "hot seat" and ask them about their motivations before the scene is played again. Or they may interrupt the action and make suggestions as it goes along.
The key thing is that the people in the audience start to think about their own behaviour at work, how it affects those they deal with and how changing their behaviour might help them improve relationships and the way the business works. For the psychologists out there, the underpinning theory is transactional analysis.
"In the pub industry we might tackle business relationships and customer service, including the way a pubco might deal with its 'internal customers'," explains Erica. "It could cover how to give appraisals, how staff can be developed to their full potential or a manager's leadership of a pub team. It can be tailored to every level in an organisation and to any client's needs."
Considering that forum theatre is now being used by top companies in the UK such as the Hilton Group and contract caterer Compass, it might come as a surprise that its roots lie in what was then called "the theatre of the oppressed" devised by Brazilian director August Boal in the 1950s. The idea was, as Erica explains, to help ordinary people find their own political voice by acting out a situation and getting them to participate in it and change it.
"The performance taps into real experiences, which makes it memorable for people and helps the audience suspend their disbelief and get involved in the story." And as the Catering Forum episode showed, it certainly works on that score.