Morven Pringle's design narrative: Using Forum theatre to reduce conflict
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2 April 2013
I was invited to deliver some staff development to an F.E. college that was trying to introduce annual performance reviews. There was an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion from college staff in relation to these reviews as there were a number of fears associated with performance review per se. This opportunity had arisen through the staff development director of the college in question who was looking for an innovative way to engage the staff in a dialogue.
The staff development took place in a large carpeted room and was delivered to a good cross section of the college staff in a couple of sessions. The staff comprised both teachers and management from part time temporary lecturers to the Principal. This Forum theatre approach was introduced as there had been a great deal of resistence to the concept of annual review from both teaching staff and various layers of management. There were three of us delivering the theatre workshop. One person was the facilitator and the other two were actors. The advantage we had over all other outside organisations delivering this type of training was that we already worked in different colleges and knew exactly what all the problems and issues would be so there was a real authenticity in the acting of the various situations. Forum theatre works by taking scenarios that are directly related to the problems the audience are facing and enacting them. The situations go badly with the protagonist unable to have their 'voice' listened to by those who are in power. The scenarios are repeated and replayed exactly the same as the first time around and the audience are invited to take the place of the protagonist if they have a solution to the problem. The idea is that a dialogue is created and that people have the chance to explore other possibilities. It is important that the facilitatator leads the process and that all of the participants are treated with respect and equality.
The task was to explore some of the difficult issues surrounding the performance review and to engage all of the staff in a productive dialogue. From our perspective we had access to the evaluation feedback forms that the staff completed and we could see that the response was completely positive from all of the participants. We knew from the response to the activities that the training session had been very well received as everyone was very engaged with it during the whole process but the additional evaluation forms confirmed this.
Before we planned anything we got a clear idea of the problems and issues from the staff development director and the steps that the college had already taken in terms of training and work around this issue. After gathering information about the likely participants and the outcomes that were desired we carefully planned the activities between us and brainstormed all of the possible scenarios. When the staff were gathered there was an initial mixed atmosphere from various individuals on a scale from very hostile to very receptive. Our facilitator who is very experienced in using this technique very quickly won round the audience and as soon as the first scenario was enacted the audience became completely engaged. The senior management were surprised by the level of engagement, openness and honesty and reported later that they had found the whole session very useful.
We met our objectives and our college was paid a fee which we used towards our commercial target. The evidence was in the participation of the staff and the feedback. In terms of the introduction of the performance review it enabled the management to make some adjustments to the proposed documentation to allow staff to engage with it.
This experience reaffirmed to me the power of theatre to engage with people and the value of Forum theatre in changing from a monologue to a dialogue