Corporate Roleplay: An Actor’s Perspective – 4 October 2016

This month Justine Marriott’s take on the benefits and perils of corporate roleplay work.

It’s the mid 1990s, Tony Blair is in Downing Street and I still had a young person’s rail card. These were the days when show reels were sent by post, temping in-between acting jobs really was possible and trade newspapers and casting sheets were the main source of information for jobbing actors.

It was around this time that I answered an ad in the back of ‘The Stage’. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like; ‘Midlands based actors wanted for insurance role play work’. Interesting I thought, I know a bit about insurance (I have a car and rent a flat so that qualifies me doesn’t it?), and what does it matter that I live in Berkshire, I’m born and bred in Warwickshire and my home base is still in the Midlands.

I dutifully typed my submission letter, enclosing a CV and 10×8 photo (remember when we all used to do that?) and as my general routine went back then, I popped it in the post box and forgot about it. What a lovely surprise when I was contacted some days later, and after a long chat on the phone, was asked if I would like a day’s role play work. My role would be Mrs. Thomas the schoolteacher, a young woman newly qualified who was just starting her career and family and was looking for life insurance. Career? Family? Life insurance?!!?

As actors working in the corporate world we regularly get asked to play characters that are outside our realms of experience. Mrs. Thomas the school teacher was a relatively gentle way in for a young actor approaching their first role play, but there are a plethora of corporate job titles out there, all varying in degrees of complexity, and it’s our job as actors to get our head round it.

Corporate role-players often pretend to be people who have routine, and as actors we have none.

We need to play people who have consistency of employment, and many of us have never experienced it ourselves. We need to inhabit an alternate reality where the rehearsal room becomes the boardroom, the stage becomes the office and the company van becomes the company car. Add to that the fact we don’t get three weeks rehearsal, never have a director and a lot of the people we portray will be earning five times what we do, and you’ve got a sense of how it all works.

Acting in a role-play is nothing like acting on stage (it’s about them, not us), but as actors we have a range of transferable skills that are extremely valuable to businesses. Every professional actor needs to be able to learn lines, improvise, understand and role model effective communication, work in a team and use emotions to express themselves. These are exactly the type of skills that the corporate world needs. Some role play jobs require more preparation that others and I have found myself doing a mixture of script learning, improvisation around a brief and bespoke role play (where actors take character and scenario details from participants in the moment).

The level of detail and complexity will of course vary from job to job, but our job as a role player is to deliver appropriate behaviors and reactions in order to give the participants the challenge or practice that they need. We are not there to entertain, we are there to provide human interaction to help people learn and develop in situations such as interviews, meetings and general conversations. Organizational training and development requires high levels of interpersonal skills, and with the increasing appreciation of drama based learning, actors really are able to bring a lot to the party. On a transactional level this means that workforces get objective learning input from communication experts, and freelance actors get a decent days pay, expenses and a free lunch. Anybody who has ever worked in small scale touring theatre or independent film will appreciate the value of this.

The world of corporate role-play has changed a lot since I started doing it in the 90’s and the good news for actors is there are more opportunities out there than ever. Yes, the competition is fierce, fees are always being squeezed and you need to be very resilient, but if you are open to exploring drama as a learning tool, there are many organizations now using role play, forum theatre and business simulation. Corporate acting is not for everybody, but if you have the ability to adapt and the desire to learn, it’s worth considering. See how it feels to don a business suit for the day. It’s just a costume like any other and if you use it solely for business use you can claim it against tax too.

Justine Marriott

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