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Use of Theatre in the Classroom: Conversation with an Organization Behavior Faculty

Dr. Divya Singhal in conversation with Dr. Padhmanabhan Vijayaraghavan

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GIM Theatre group “Aarambh” members in action: performing a skit on equality  

Divya: What is your opinion about Art and Change ?

Paddy: Art could be used as one of medium to teach, to develop perspectives and create change in the mind of students.  It is a powerful tool that could be used to explore without a debate and allow oneself to learning at a comfortable pace.  I have been using theatre and story-telling as a pedagogy to help the students experience and enable their learnings.

Divya: That is very interesting that you use performing art – theatre as a pedagogical tool. Could you please explain your experience about how you integrate theatre into your courses.

Paddy:   My experiment with theatre started a decade back while observing a theatre performance by kids playing roles in a street theatre. I wondered at their immediate transformation into their roles.   Those roles that the kids got into were a simple ones which they would have observed in their day to day life situations. After observing them, I felt that their performance would not been possible without they could develop a perspective and empathy.    This gave me an insight about why not theatre could be introduced as part of Organizational behavior courses?!  I teach individual behavior, interpersonal and group dynamics in organizations for the Post graduate management students. The course introduces students on topics such as understanding self, motivation, personality, values, power, conflict, team work, leadership to help them to build perspectives.

I use various pedagogical methods e.g. cases and games to deliver the learning and create understanding on the contents.  Using a theatre is a pedagogical innovation for me which began with clear objectives such as to help students to explore their creative self, understand their power of expression through voice and body movement, exploring their withdrawn self in a safe space, and to develop an insight in approaching attitudinal shift by witnessing one’s own performance in a theatre setting.

Divya: Please share more about the planning part of it from instructor’s point of view and any interesting insights during the sessions where you used theatre.

Paddy: While I could understand and create objectives for the sessions, I realized that a support of theatre professional was needed to structure, design and deliver the content.  The sessions were co-created with a professional support to meet the goal of the sessions. We created  many layers of context to  explore self, interpersonal self (one to one), self and group ( one to many), exploring self with an empty space, exploring self with an inanimate objects too.  In every layer, it was observed that students could experience challenges with respect to breaking their mental blocks.  Theatre sessions were held in a mini indoor auditorium which could seat near to 700 people and normally, a batch of 60 students participate in our theatre session. While doing “exploring self” in the empty spaces, a couple of interesting patterns were observed in the behaviour.  For instance, it was observed that many students  were limiting their movement and space exploration boundary not beyond 10 or 15 ft circumference which became their “zone of comfort”.  Secondly, doing same action in large group, it was noted that many were following the crowd that resulted in creating a large circular movement while random movements were encouraged in that activity.

These observed data became a feedback to facilitate and reflect upon their limiting beliefs that has created boundary.  The students were encouraged to think about what could be those self-created boundary meant to them? and what it would be like to break those boundaries?.  When the students explored it again, they shared that they experienced a feeling of autonomy and freedom. 

Similarly, in another session, students were given an assignment to explore their power or identity in that through inanimate objects.  Each one need to explore by adding one more object to the existing structure that was left behind by another participant.  It was encouraging to find how the activity created a space for them to think through and create a representation of their identity.  At the end of each addition, it appeared as if a creation of dynamic sculpture has been in progress.  The structure was continuously evolving until last student completed his or her addition to it.  The activity further evolved to express their identity in a large group where each student defined herself/ himself by a posture and claimed a  space   in a statue like state. It could be observed that entire process changed the way of their normal posture and it enabled their expression  without inhibition and displayed confidence.

Divya: How theatre or any other art form can be used to bring social change?

Paddy: I  witnessed that theatre created space to do deeper intervention not only on the participants behaviour but also on the audience thoughts.  For instance, as a part of conflict management course, students were encouraged to think and arrive at conflict theatres which revolves around various issues in organization.  Students groups surprisingly introduced many social and diversity issues as a subject matter of their skit.  .  One of the group created a script which focussed on an organization team members reactions when they discover a colleague in their team was a gay. The play depicted the gay character’s difficulty and group members’ challenges in accepting that individual. The play ended with members learning to empathize and treating the gay person respectfully.

At the end of the play, one of the student from the audience side commented that “it was nice seeing in a theatre form; but in reality, we never knew how to interact with a gay person..!”. he added,  “we don’t know how to react, if we have a gay with us?” There was moment of silence in the hall, after the comment.  The theatre professional who was invited during my session  responded to him, “how different will be your reality, if you know that you are sitting next to a gay person (pointing at himself) in this hall?!.. after leaving some moments of silence, he again asked in a soft tone, “will this information would change the way you would interact with me from now on or will it alter the reality of your interaction during the past couple of hours with me ?!

It was  a powerful intervention not only on that student but also on the entire group who were present in that space. I trust, there would have learning created at level beyond cognition.

Use of theatre had been transforming sessions in terms of building class relationship and even acts as an avenue to release the emotional stress.  During many instances, students reported that theatre helped them to break ice in the class in developing relationship with their peers.  Intense group work in theatre helped them to break their inhibition in the class, start appreciating one another, express and identify new friendship.  It was also noticed that bonding was created among the class members.  It has even resulted in creating a theatre club where our students actively practice and create plays on social issues and perform it as street theatres in public spaces to create awareness.

Divya: Thank you for this wonderful conversation. GIM has always promoted various art forms and it is good to know that faculty is also using such art forms as part of their pedagogy. Would you like to share any concluding remarks?

Paddy: To conclude, my experience with theatre is that they are influential medium to create change in the young minds.  It not only creates learning through one’s own experience  but also by observing and listening to other’s experience.