Author: Cecilia Stenbom (Lead author) and Ben Young (Co-author)
Published: June 2023
A descriptive transcript can be accessed here.
Bad News (2023) is a 13-minute non-scripted short film set at a fictional corporate management training course. The film is based on documentation of a staged training session led by a professional actor-facilitator realised as a long-form performance with three participating actors. The project redeployed applied theatre techniques, used in drama-based training, as a creative experiment to:
1. Convey the experience of role-play and simulations of complex and high-pressure workplace situations to explore the use of applied theatre techniques in drama-based training.
2. Explore the non-scripted approach of a training session as means to generate dramatic stakes in fiction filmmaking, foster internal and external conflict, and push the interpersonal dissonance and alienation of ostensibly polite office environments to awkward (and relatively honest) behavioural extremes.
Drama-based training for the workplace context is the bread and butter for many professional actors as few can sustain a living from performing in theatre, television, and film alone (Feltham, 2012). Similar training techniques are used in educational, therapeutic and community setting under the umbrella term applied theatre, defined as drama and arts practices outside of conventional theatre (Goode & Neelands, 2015).
Learning professional skills using role-play and simulation can be traced as far back as 3000 BC through early forms of war-gaming (Mentz, 1999). In the early 1900s Jacob L. Moreno developed Psychodrama; a form of therapy that sees participants re-enact real-life experiences to gain insights instead of talking about them (Blatner, 2000). Moreno expanded his training techniques to cover management training in the workplace context in the 1940s and 1950s (George, Schwager & Canavan, 1999). Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal used interactive drama methods to challenge the dominance of the privileged few in community-oriented Theatre of the Oppressed (1979). His approach stems from the idea that psychological oppression is not due to external pressure, but instead the product of an internalised mechanism of limitation that theatrical interventions can dissolve (Meisiek. 2004).
Role-play and simulation are applied theatre techniques frequently used in drama-based training. These training methods are used for an array of professional purposes relating to the development of management-preferred personal and professional qualities, habits, and ideologies, e.g., customer service, health and safety compliance, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. Role-play offers an accelerated acquisition of skills and knowledge through active participation and sensitisation to new roles and behaviours—in contrast to traditional training methods, such as lectures and seminars, where memorisation is key (Sogunro, 2004). Role-play asks the participant to either image themselves or another person in a particular situation. A simulation provides the group with a simplified version of a real or imaginary world (Attard, 2003).
The impetus for this research project was an encounter with drama-based training designed to develop skills for tasks that employees might be unwilling or reluctant to perform. Foremost among these are instances where it may be necessary to supress one’s innate sense of compassion in order to implement management decisions, or high-pressure situations whereby a conflict between individual and ‘company line’ may arise. One such exercise is ’delivering bad news’, an exercise used in training to develop skills for managers to cope with a redundancy scenario.
It was this paradoxical relationship, between the use of applied theatre techniques – designed to help individuals, groups or communities to grow – and the implementation of less benevolent objectives in a workplace context, that provided the narrative stakes and nuance for a film, and ground for developing a practice-based methodology to reach insights into participant experiences of drama-based training.
This project utilised non-scripted improvisational techniques, simulation and observational film practice. This practice-based research methodology uses the process of generating screenworks to perform the research findings, i.e., the screenwork is a result of the research (Batty & Kerrigan, 2018). The reason to stage and document a session rather than pursue a conventional documentary approach was grounded in a pair of broad preliminary observations. First, the world of drama-based training, in the corporate context, is guarded. Drama-based training is usually customised for each client’s particular training needs, which in turn, could reveal structures and practices an organisation might not be keen to share. Second, even with access to a drama-based training session in a professional setting, it is difficult to capture unaffected participation on screen with groups who are not accustomed to being in the presence of cameras.
Casting our drama-based training provider—the film’s primary consultant and lead onscreen role—from within that guarded world of professional actor-facilitators proved to be a notably challenging part of the process. A number of actor-facilitators were concerned about creative ‘ambush’, whereby their methods and industry would be portrayed in a nuance-free condemnatory light: in other words, actors who have betrayed their craft for the sake of corporate lucre. The actor-facilitator whom we selected for collaboration was not possessed by those fears. She was candid about the ethical nuances of her profession, interested in exploring them, and excited by the challenge the project presented to her as an actor.
The training session developed in consultation with our actor-facilitator consisted of an outline that detailed a schedule of role-play and simulation exercises: a script-equivalent document that mimicked the agenda of management training days explored earlier in the research process. Our actor-facilitator was able to tweak the outline to fit her style of delivery, further ensuring that it hewed as closely as possible to the planning and experience of an actual training session. A similar rationale was applied to the selection of participants, who were all professional stage and screen actors with experience of drama-based training. As it was important to generate authentic responses to the session as it was unfolding, the participating actors were briefed on the aim of the project but did not glimpse the detailed training outline or meet the actor-facilitator in advance. The actors were asked to assume a character who was an employee within an organisation. They were free to mould their character however they liked, including background, experience, and name. They were instructed to arrive and remain in character throughout the session.
The session was documented by a three-camera set-up. Two camera operators and one sound recordist were present in the space. The rest of the team were placed in a back room with monitors and headphones, able to observe and communicate with the camera and sound departments without interfering the participants or actor-facilitator. Although the training session was a construction, the way it was captured, by an unobtrusive camera without interaction from the filmmaker, contained elements of an observational documentary approach (Nichols, 2017). The camera team and sound recordist were recruited in no small part for their capacity to unobtrusively work within the core set’s restricted-access, low-headcount environment. This tightly controlled milieu then gave way to a relatively liberal and expansive postproduction phase, wherein the director co-edited the piece across picture cut, early tracklay, and colour grading, shaping the original live experience into a series of scenes designed to convey a sense of punctuated observational continuity.
The aim of that postproduction process was to generate an engaging narrative short film that would convey the experience of drama-based training. To do so, it did not need to faithfully reproduce the entire session. The filming lasted 5 hours, while the final film landed on 13 minutes in duration. For better narrative cohesion the film focused proportionally more attention on one of the three participants. Subtle sound design, including underscore and added foley, served to present the audience with a route into the participants’ inner turmoil, such as the faint sound of an implosion as the exercise is explained to the group, or strings alluding to emotional response during the role-play.
Bad News is a fictional film in the sense that it is a staged training session performed by actors, who assumed characters as employees. Yet the film’s ultimate narrative contours were extracted from a long form improvised performance—one guided by a real-life actor-facilitator who adhered to an agenda very similar to those used in actual drama-based management trainings—which was then reshaped in postproduction. Therefore, Bad News is a hybrid film that employs both fiction and documentary methods in its making.
The starting point for this project was to convey the experience of role-play and simulations of high-pressure workplace situations by writing, staging and documenting a training session. The resulting film, Bad News was an ensemble performance and not the real thing; it was a simulation of a simulation, delivered by an experienced actor-facilitator and professional actors as participants. Although the session was staged and the ensemble all assumed roles, the enaction of and reaction to the unfolding scenarios were real. It was through the unscripted and unexpected moments that the experience of drama-based training was best conveyed. For example, nearly three minutes into the film, one participant asks if there is a ‘safety word’ if they wanted to stop the simulation. The actor-facilitator retorts that they will play the scenario out to its conclusion. Each participant displayed some form of apprehension before they began their ‘sacking scenario’ role-play, with one participant even muttering ‘oh dear me, dear me’ in the moment before the simulation began. At the end of the session, when the participants were given certificates, one of the participants ironically joked ‘let’s go out and sack everybody’ – as if the session had given them licence to deliver bad news to just about anyone – to which the group burst out in laughter.
Bad News is an unscripted fiction film. In lieu of a screenplay, the outline for the training session functioned as the blueprint for the project. The outline, with its structured role-play and simulation exercises, scaffolded the improvised performances, from which the characters and relationships could grow in nuance and complexity across the day. The use of improvisation to create or discover new creative outcomes is extensively used within the arts, including theatre and performance. Whilst mainstream narrative filmmaking relies on script development, independent filmmakers have often incorporated improvisation—for example, John Cassavetes using rehearsal process to develop characters, or Joe Swanberg asking performers to play versions of themselves rather than set roles. Within experimental cinema, filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol have experimented with principles of Morenos’ psychodrama (Murphy, 2019). In Bad News, the actors were free from immediate (e.g., between takes, as would conventionally be the case) directorial input, and free to improvise within the confines of the session. The outline for that session carved out targeted space for the actors’ improvisations to make the characters, stakes, and subtextual nuances of the film come alive. The result was an accurate simulation of the peculiar blend of actual and performative compassion (and lack thereof) so often deployed at moments of moral and ethical complexity and/or transgression in corporate settings. In future iterations of this process, we may consider more aggressive theatrical interventions in the vein of Boal and Moreno that intermittently stray from strict corporate verisimilitude, providing even more vivid—yet still narratively and contextually credible—opportunities to puncture and demystify the internalised psychological oppression of white-collar work environments.
This non-scripted approach to filmmaking could be applied to other forms of structured interactions, whereby participants are expected to conform to set roles, such as work meetings, ceremonies, or procedural events. If dramatic stakes are inherent within the setup itself, it has the potential to produce engaging narratives. This approach is similar to the reality television format, although its intended purpose and audience response are entirely different. It nevertheless generates a similarly reliable template that could, if more widely adopted, provide a financing-friendly creative model for integrating targeted improvisation into film development and execution from the earliest conceptual stages onward.
Bad News was developed out of a larger body of practice research titled InterPlay, which was funded through an Arts Council England Develop Your Creative Practice grant awarded in 2021. Bad News had its premiere at London Short Film Festival in January 2023 ahead of A/SVOD distribution, principally in the United Kingdom and United States. Other practice outcomes of InterPlay are installation-based works, these have been exhibited in the UK at Workplace Foundation in 2021 and Manchester Contemporary in 2022. Those works expanded upon the core filmic realisation of Bad News, extracting and repurposing key moments of conflict, contemplation, and awkwardness from the film. This creative practice research has led to the early development of a feature-length fiction film that is structured around a drama-based training course. As such, Bad News is used as a schema to justify hybrid and non-scripted filmmaking to film commissioners and funders.
This project was led by Cecilia Stenbom, who researched and developed the original concept as well as wrote and directed the film. Bad News was produced by Ben Young.
Attard, P. (2003). Drama-based training in the workplace. In: G. Baldacchino, A. Caruana, & M. Grixti (Eds.) Managing people in Malta: case studies in local human resource management practice. Malta: Agenda, pp. 287-311.
Batty, C. and Kerrigan, S. (2018) Introduction Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp 1-28
Blatner, A. (2000) Foundations of Psychodrama. 4th edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Boal, A (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group
Feltham, R. M. (2012) Theatre at Work – The Characteristics, Efficacy and Impact of Participatory Actor-Based Applied Theatre in the Workplace. PhD thesis. University of Exeter. Available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10036/3573 (Accessed: 7 January 2023)
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Murphy, J. J. (2019) Rewriting Indie Cinema Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay. New York: Columbia University Press.
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St. George, J., Schwager, S. and Canavan, F. (1999) ‘A guide to drama-based training’. National productivity review. 19(4), pp. 15–19.
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
I found myself laughing out loud as I watched Bad News. That nervous laugh when the thing you are seeing is so embarrassing or horrific. Like in one of Stanley Milgram’s experiments, Cecilia Stenbom and Ben Young’s managers find themselves turning the dial up despite the signs of discomfort and even pain. By the end they are joking that they are ready to “go out and sack everybody.” This fantastic experiment really captures the banality of middle-management evil: “Obviously due to the sensitivity of your role, you are not now able to return to your computer terminal or to take anything out of the building. I hope you understand. Please let me finish.”
Stenbom and Young’s goals in making the film and writing the accompanying paper were to provide the narrative stakes and nuance for a film, and ground for developing a practice-based methodology to reach insights into participant experiences of drama-based training. They succeed in both.
There is a risk that using actors might mean that they are “projecting” rather than “being” the manager they portray. In other words, that the language and tone they use are actor-y improv cliches of how managers behave, rather than how they, the actor themselves, would behave as a manager. But even in Milgram’s famous “Behavioral Study of Obedience”, in which participants administered electric shocks of apparently increasing intensity, his subjects were asked to play the role of a teacher. Stenbom and Young’s method reveals a great deal of truth about drama-based workplace training, despite being a simulation of a simulation. It reveals how effective it is as a training method. After five hours, three mild-mannered managers emerge as axe-wielding corporate killers. It also reveals how easily we submit to capitalism’s hierarchical frameworks. I wanted at least one of them to say, “Yeah, it’s bullshit. Senior management are arseholes and I’m probably next!”
The team behind this are now working on a feature-length production because they did manage to prove that this method provides the stakes and nuance for a dramatic film. And despite its unusual method of generating performances, it is quite conventional narratively in the post-production: Spending more time on shots of one character so that we invest in her narrative journey, use of music at points of tension. But I wonder if one more experiment is needed first. The rationale of using actors is that they are more used to the camera and have fewer anxieties about how they are portrayed. But the TV show First Dates doesn’t use actors, nor does Saving Lives at Sea. If the aim really is to use the film-making process as a way of reaching insights into participant experiences of drama-based training, then there is no question it would be better to use real people. In terms of the feature film, that too would be massively more memorable made with real people. The revolutionary act, 50 years after Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, is to use this method to allow ordinary people to become liberated to perform.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
Bad News aims to explore role-play and simulations of high-pressure workplace situations to evaluate the use of applied theatre techniques in drama-based training. An unscripted, improvisational approach is taken in the practice component resulting in a narrative short film that ventures from the structure of a training session, and combines fiction and documentary methods, involving a professional actor-facilitator and three professional actors.
The film’s production values are impressive. The ‘sacking scenario’ role-play successfully evokes the reality of the corporate workplace. The irony and emotional heft of such role-play in the face of somebody’s concern for their livelihood, is highlighted in the filmic realization, especially the (improvised) acting, realist mise-en-scene, editing and sound design. Rather than employing polemic, the porous line between being in employment and not is communicated primarily through a subtext of character observation, group dynamics and a focus on body language.
As for its contribution to practice-based research the project offers some fresh and thought-provoking insights into the area of drama-based training in the workplace in relation to ‘actual and performative compassion […] deployed at moments of moral and ethical complexity’. The film includes three ‘sacking scenarios’, one of which includes an appraisal of the sacking employee’s performance. It is here that the irony is particularly palpable, amplified by the psychological jargon employed. The employee’s appraisal, both by the facilitator and her peer group, is extremely favourable. The feedback reflects in her body language. She seems pleased with herself, and relieved, ‘safe for now’. The scene calls into question the significance of empathy when it is perceived as an assessable skill within a corporate system that, regardless of some employees’ genuine empathetic nature, is by its design unempathetic.
The accompanying statement is well-written and structured. The research and theoretical context are sound, the references to Moreno’s Psychodrama and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed especially relevant. One point of criticism would be that in the final film (edited from 5 hours of footage, the real time duration of the training session) they could have been made more of. The aim of Boal’s and Moreno’s work is to empower the ‘powerless’ and to demystify psychological oppression as ‘the product of an internalised mechanism of limitation that theatrical interventions can dissolve’. It could be said that dynamics of power and limitation are particularly unpredictable in corporate settings. The statement declares that the ‘paradoxical relationship […] between the use of applied theatre techniques – designed to help individuals, groups or communities to grow – and the implementation of less benevolent objectives […] provided the narrative stakes and nuance’ for an ‘engaging narrative short film’. To this reviewer, however, the benefit of the applied theatre techniques manifests itself more clearly in the subtext of the filmic realization (see above), and not so much in the actual ‘narrative’, which was constructed post-recording, and seems relatively bland in comparison with script-based films that take a different approach to the ‘narrative stakes’ of conflict, dramatic tension and dénouement. In the statement’s conclusion it is recommended that the project’s research objectives are evaluated a little more rigorously in relation to the capacity of the ‘engaging narrative short film’ format to do them justice. A larger body of practice research, which Bad News is part of, is also mentioned, and it is recommended to detail the short film’s position among the other project components.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to the above