Between Brecht and the Bauhaus

Mike Press
Jan 13, 2020 · 11 min read

Exploring the territory between theatre and design

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“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

If you want to find out what theatre can bring to design, then Germany is perhaps the best place to do that. Alongside its rich tradition of radical creativity in both fields, there are pioneering initiatives like the Global Service Jam and Global GovJam that has introduced the value of playful (if not strictly dramatic) practices to the world of service design.

I was one of ten participants in an experimental design lab — Theatrical Methods for service design and customer experience — delivered by the Co-Creation School in Nuremberg. The lab is led by Adam St John Lawrence — co-creator of the global jams — and Anna-Lena Kühner who is a highly experienced theatre director and workshop facilitator. It was described in these terms:

This workshop for experienced facilitators will give an in-depth look at theatrical methods and their use in service design / design thinking and customer experience projects.

My fellow participants were from across Europe — France, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and two of us from the UK. We had varied levels of experience in theatre, and represented a variety of organisations — some freelancers, some (including myself) in small companies, and others in large corporations.

Day One — The Prologue

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We were all very honest at the outset about our expectations. We wanted it to be very much hands-on, learning things we can apply in our own work, and were generally OK about being outside our comfort zones which many of us (myself included) were open about having some trepidation about. Actually I had quite a lot of trepidation. To achieve that we agreed for the need to accept imperfections while giving honest feedback, to be supportive and mutually respectful. In defining what we expected from Adam and Anna-Lena — we wanted them to push, but in a kind way, to set a framework for what we do and to give feedback. One group described this in terms of being loving parents. So no pressure there.

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We discussed what these two domains have in common, and to some extent where they diverge. In service design we make use of some of theatre’s terminology (front stage/back stage), and we both have a focus on audiences/users — often as active participants in the process. We returned to this discussion periodically as we sought to pull out the practical implications and potential uses of techniques that were introduced to us.

Here are my takeaways from Day One.

One of the rather remarkable things is how a group of people who had largely never met before worked together so closely and supportively so quickly — and at times intimately. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged a man I’ve not met before at a workshop which I did on the first day, as he responded emotionally to my role play of his story. Anna-Lena and Adam had used very active physical warm ups to get us to not only interact in different ways, but to draw out different insights about each other (from shoe size to favourite food) and along the way to get us to think about how we see the world. These came in at different points during the day and really helped us to bond very quickly.

We were introduced to this theatre technique as a means of defining a character’s characteristics which, of course, relates directly to the persona process. We of course explored this in terms of Hamlet. I think I’d like to try it again before figuring out how we can use it.

One great aspect of the day was the rhythm of our work, and the well considered collective reflection built into it — so we would do something very active which was followed by a reflection and discussion that pulled back to our own practices. In the case of role on the wall Anna-Lena helped us to talk about how it could help us to give definition the variety of personas that one individual can construct for themselves.

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

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Playback Theatre involved participants telling stories then seeing them acted out by others. What was particularly impressive was how Anna-Lena and Adam got us to the point we could do that via the tree exercise, shark island tableaux, story structuring and other activities that gave us a collective confidence in acting and physical storytelling. In my view it could be used to validate our understanding of user research (in the discovery phase) and in prototyping. But it requires very careful consideration of how to empower and encourage a group of people to do it meaningfully.

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Chiara Nocco and myself doing Playback Theatre. In this segment of our very short three act play, I was acting the role of an academic dean. As you can imagine this was fiendishly difficult for me in terms of getting into character.

Day Two — A Power Play

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”

Shakespeare could easily have been writing about the service experience. Our task in day two was to untangle this yarn through theatre — to share stories, to enact them, to disentangle them and reconstruct them. We did this through a process of investigative rehearsal, which has in one day changed my view of how we engage with and empower the people we work with and for.

When I penned the title of this post, on day one, I had the idea that of all the things that theatre and design have in common, perhaps the most important is politics — an idea that practice should be used explicitly to challenge and redesign power relationships. I was not aware then that the key method we would use is rooted in theatre for radical social change.

When Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal died in 2009, The Guardian’s obituary described how he “spent his life proving that you didn’t have to wait until ‘after the revolution’ for worthwhile social improvements — you could use theatre to make radical changes in the here and now.” His Theatre of the Oppressed involved inviting his audience for alternative endings to plays about oppression. Adam Lawrence took this approach and adapted it to service design — how do we use theatre as a participative process to act out service experience and collaboratively demonstrate alternatives to that experience? I’ve been echoing their mantra of doing not talking for some years now. I’ve now finally understood what it means.

These are my take-aways from day two.

After some great warm up and preparatory exercises, we built on the theatrical storytelling of the day before. In small groups we shared stories of a bad customer experience in just one minute each — then in one minute chose one to work on. Then we had three minutes to agree how to perform it — then then perform it in not more than three minutes. This fast pace worked really well in making us more intuitive, more determined to reach agreement quickly, and more prepared to deliver a shitty first prototype. We ended up with two stories that were acted out. For some inexplicable reason I ended up in a lead role again. But what was interesting was how the rest of the process worked with the emphasis being — not on the performers at all — but the story that they were enacting.

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Two ‘performers’ are prototyping an online file upload system

So we acted it once, then again, and from then on the other folk could pause the performance and suggest alternatives that would improve the story. Often this involved people replacing an actor to demonstrate a different way of interacting. I was fascinated by the team we were watching which was acting out the interaction between a train ticket purchaser and the online service they were using. In getting a person to act as the ‘app’ took paper prototyping to a whole new level. Concierge prototyping or genie in a bottle triggers emotional stuff that you simply don’t get with journey maps or anything else that is paper-based. It raised profound issues about online services and how they are delivered.

This approach to prototyping works brilliantly well precisely for the reason that Adam explained — every app on our phone used to be a person — a travel agent, a bank clerk, a hotel receptionist, etc. So it makes sense to design online services as if they were human interactions.

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The end of the day (well, nearly the end of the day to be honest) was a storyboarding exercise to get us to see the structure and its meaning. In itself a useful technique to close the day. This opened up a brief but very engaging introduction to story structure that involved James Bond, Disneyland and every rock concert you’d ever been too.

Day Three — What’s the story?

“Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

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Our final day focussed on two main issues — exploring how dramatic structure can be applied in service design, and being given silly things to do with a serious intent. Both pulled the whole lab into focus providing both context and confidence in using a range of theatrical methods. So, what were the take aways?

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The emphasis on dramatic structure provided us with frameworks for understanding experience, and for designing experiences that have meaning and impact. The introduction to different dramatic structures on the previous day (007 vs Frodo Baggins, for example) were very helpful in this. Key areas of potential application are: (i) analysing user journeys in the context of service design, (ii) being more mindful of experience endings, (iii) designing workshops and training sessions.

The trepidation I had before the lab was by day three replaced with an enthusiasm for being put on the spot with a variety of ‘performative challenges’. I was actually rather proud of my fairy godmother performance. Anna-Lena and Adam took us through a sequence of activities. These included ‘yes but / yes and’ (which we already use), ball of what?, different choice, status alley, etc. These were high energy activities, so by the time we got to the final ninety minutes of the day — which had been set aside for us to address our own project work — we were down to the fag end of our energies.

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It’s fair to say that we threw ourselves into the activities. By this point we were all confident in doing them, and most importantly, we felt confident and trusting in each other. Peter and Colin were participants who brought their own specialist experience in theatre and storytelling and encouraged those of us who were very new to it. There was one particular moment at the end of one exercise where we all beamed at each other with a sense of total pride in what we had collectively achieved. That was a rather magical moment to be honest.

That moment highlighted for me the one critical objective we have running workshops — it’s about creating a community. That community may only last for half a day, or in our case three days, but a group of people who trust each other, who can support and hold up each other, who have a common goal — whether that is to learn or understand something — are capable of achieving a huge amount. Anna-Lena and Adam sequenced things in such a way that our community was robust and supportive enough to throw ourselves into these activities.

So my key takeaway here is that in making use of these methods we have to be very mindful of where in the process we use them, so that they contribute to community building. The early use of techniques that ‘spotlight’ individuals could have the opposite effect.

Some in the room were familiar with applied improvisation, and some of us less so. Adam explained how improvisation is evident in practices such as theatre, jazz, dance, surgery and sports (slightly related to this, Lou Downe’s recent book includes a section on the relevance of total football to service design). Applied improvisation uses the behaviours, mindsets and some methods in non-traditional contexts. As he described it, applied improvisation provides a “toolbox for dealing with uncertainty”. Moving from linear to non-linear ways of working is very challenging. It requires us to help them become more reactive, and to notice more. The activities we had worked through on day three very much enables this. The opportunity here is not just to use these methods to help people limber up in a training context — but to integrate them within their design processes.

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I’m finishing this write up on the bus back to Dundee from Edinburgh Airport, thinking back over the last three days and what I have learned. I have tried to distill my key learnings above, but there are some even more fundamental things. I’ve probably learned a new confidence in letting go — in trusting my ability to deal with uncertainty and shift from my tendency to try and plan every single element of a project in advance. I need to think of other activities I can do to exercise my improvisational abilities. Probably not surgery.

So personally it was very liberating. It was also hugely liberating to have two seasoned professionals say at the start “this workshop is a prototype, some parts may not work and other parts we haven’t really planned”. So the whole thing was an exercise in improvisation. And it was an exercise that worked, that our collective energies and improvisations contributed to.

It was a bit like going to a Miles Davis concert.

Maybe that was why Anna-Lena called me Miles for the first two days.

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Photo by Peter Sloth Madsen

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