Theatre in Relationships

Theatre in Relationships

Paul Mathew

People who do a play together usually get very closely bonded, beyond gender, beyond age, and beyond experience. So much so, that a typical theatre greeting when meeting after a long spell is a warm unselfconscious hug. The reason for this lasting bonding is that during the process of doing a play we get the opportunity to see each other without our masks, in a state of high vulnerability, insecurity, and uncertainty, where there is no room for anything other than a raw honesty. We can only do so much. The stage lays us bare and naked.

From this state of vulnerability, we work into our characters with their hierarchy and conflict. In fact, the essence of a play is 2 or more opposing viewpoints which polarise into a deadly conflict where they cannot coexist and only one can survive, and the final unravelling of the plot where one wins and the others are defeated or destroyed or all (that would be a very tragic play) lose. By virtue of being ‘characters’ there is a very clear and inviolable hierarchy, like King and Slave, and intense conflict like assassin and victim. On stage the hierarchy and conflict are intense and sacred. Backstage there is no hierarchy or conflict. It is not uncommon to see the King helping the slave with the costume or the victim dabbing make up on the assassin. And there is of course the final hug in the semi-darkness of the backstage where all cast and crew hug and reassure each other before the audience walks in.

Corporates and other organisations invest a great deal of time and resources in ‘team bonding’. They take employees out for picnics and trekking, for adventure sports, and throw parties so that people who need to work together can mingle and bond. Very often these initiatives fail to achieve the bonding that happens almost by default in theatre groups because the functional hierarchy is carried outside the workplace manifesting a clearly palpable human hierarchy. Here are a couple of examples of reinforcing hierarchy outside the workplace that I have personally experienced.

I was workshopping with a high-profile organisation which had a well laid out, well set up township. There were spacious quarters, bungalows for the senior management, vast grounds and walking paths, movie theatres, shopping centres, a school, spa, etc. One evening the security team organised a demonstration of their agility and fitness. Chairs were laid out for the entire community, workers, officers, and families. The security team in commando uniforms had fallen in and were waiting to start the demo for which they had warmed up and rehearsed for a couple of hours. They waited and waited, but the top couple of families had not yet reached the venue. Children, as usual started playing around on the grounds and some of them sat in the chairs in the front row. Finally, after a long wait, the senior couples arrived and the children were shooed away from the chairs in the front row to make room for the big bosses to sit. Moreover, as the commandos were going through their performance, the senior families kept chatting among themselves, hardly looking at the security team’s performance.

Another instance of reinforcing hierarchy was the officers dining room of another big industrial house. While the standard practice was self service at the well laid out buffet, the senior management had a couple of tables ‘reserved’ exclusively for them where they were specially served by the catering staff.

Both these cases struck me as stark examples of carrying functional hierarchy outside the workplace. The character continued to mask the actor even off stage. And characters cannot bond. With this character mindset where people are acutely conscious of their seniority and designation, any investment in treks or picnics or parties where the hierarchy is manifest and reinforced, will not serve to create bonding or integration. That can happen only at the level of the actor.

Experiencing each other at the level of the actor also helps to build fulfilling relationships. For instance, many of us expect our spouse to primarily play the role of our spouse. When we realise that the actor who plays the role of our spouse also has to play the role of a daughter to her parents, sister to her siblings, and friend to her friends, we open up freedom in the relationship allowing each other a deeper sense of fulfilment. So also, in the workplace, the actor playing your subordinate on one stage may be playing the role of boss on another stage, a parent at home, a president in her community.

One of the reasons for conflict in the workplace is when people work in silos with more loyalty and commitment to their functional goals rather than the overall team goal. When interdependent functions within a team are defined, experienced, appraised, and rewarded as teams, conflict arises. In a play, when the assassin lunges to stab the victim, both are conscious that their movement should look real to the audience and at the same time ensure that neither is hurt. This comes from the awareness that unless all actors and supporting functions (costumes, sets, props, light and sound) perform well the play does not succeed. Everyone takes ownership of the play primarily, their own roles, as well as each other’s roles. Similarly, in the workplace when I know that unless the quality auditor confronts my process and identifies mistakes or areas of improvement neither of us can win, confrontation does not become conflict. This collective ownership also empowers acceptance of critical feedback and non-possessive communication where differences in perspectives open up more options instead of creating conflict.

Theatre is powerful metaphor for fulfilling relationship be it at the workplace or at home.