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All the B-world’s a stage

How’s a dose of real time theatre for those who wish to dominate boardroom dramas in future? Could acting out the role of St Joan shape you into a better leader? It certainly could, say business schools. They are now falling over themselves to include drama lessons in their curricula. Give a student some lines, let him act and emote and, hey presto, before you know it, you will soon have a crack manager in your hands.

Whether it is the Indian Institutes of Management in Calcutta and Lucknow, or the Management Development Institute (MDI) in Gurgaon or the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Mumbai, theatre and its techniques are being incorporated in the course matter. And students are not complaining.

Well, most are not, at any rate. Take Manoj Kumar, a second-year student at the National Thermal Power Corporation-run Power Management Institute (PMI) at Noida in Uttar Pradesh. He was a quivering bundle of nerves when, as part of the drama capsule of his management training programme, he was asked to play an old man’s role on stage. “The only thing that accompanied me on stage was a piece of paper containing the lines I was supposed to speak,” he recalls. What made it worse for him was the fact that he knew there were faculty members of the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, in the audience. “I could barely utter a sentence, and I came running down even before I completed my lines,” he confesses.

Though Kumar is still battling stage fright, he admits that the drama course has been helpful. “It has had a profound impact on the way I interact with others and react to things happening around me. Simply put, I am a changed person,” asserts Kumar.

Heartened by the response from students, B-schools are now roping in some of India’s most well known theatre groups such as the Nandikar in Calcutta or the NSD in Delhi to give lessons in dramatics. Theatre personalities like M.K. Raina in Delhi, and the Mumbai-based Vijaya Mehta and Atul Kumar are also helping institutes shape tomorrow’s managers.

“Theatre in IIM-C was limited to the students’ dramatics cell. But when they were exposed to a workshop conducted by Nandikar, the enthusiasm was amazing,” exclaims Biswatosh Saha, a member of the faculty of strategic management at IIM-C. Now the institute is planning to introduce a subject on dramatics.

MDI, which has a paper on “Effective Business Communication through Theatre Techniques” as part of its MBA programme, is another B-school that’s happy with the experiment. “The introduction of theatre techniques has been very successful, and we are making it a regular course from a mere elective subject,” says Dr Bhimaraya A. Metri, chairman, postgraduate programme in management, MDI.

So what is the secret of theatre’s success in instilling winning ways of management in students? “Theatre processes are closer to the managerial skills of ‘team building’, collaboration, synergy, self-development, interpersonal skills and understanding the subtext in any written and spoken communication,” says Uma Narain, professor at SPJIMR. “Workshops that use theatre exercises help students understand team-building processes instinctively.”

Agrees Rudraprasad Sengupta, doyen of Bengali group theatre and director of the Nandikar group, “Theatre is a human value-based activity and unlike other activities it is about togetherness and team work. Our workshops emphasise humane management of people, and when we work on the course we will emphasise these principles.”

Sengupta, who has conducted workshops at companies too, says that theatre-based activities help managers “discover” themselves. “Participants have often told us that the workshops helped them understand aspects of their personality that they themselves didn’t know. We hope to do this at IIM-C,” he explains.

PMI’s theatre course co-ordinator Keshav Kumar too has no doubt that theatre can be therapeutic for students. “Students who had attended the course underwent a change in their body language. We have also noticed that students who do well in the theatre workshops also do well in other areas too,” he says.

Institutes where theatre-based activities are part of the curriculum put students through a number of activities. For instance, the NSD programme at PMI lasts for around 15 days and consists of movement and mime, voice and speech, improvisation, theatre games and acting exercises. The course culminates with a short, 45-minute production by the students themselves.

As for Nandikar, it works on the theme of “World and I” in its workshops. “Here we give each individual an opportunity to relate himself or herself to his or her society and the environment. Some of the modules we work on include emotion, intuition, imagination and concentration,” reveals Sengupta.

Theatre professionals also try to inculcate a ‘cultural sense’ in students through their workshops. “The teaching methods at B-schools are too regimented and mostly based on western techniques. Hence, they lack a cultural sense. This is where theatre can contribute,” says Raina, who is a guest lecturer at MDI.

But though these B-schools swear by the effectiveness of this new course, critics point out that this may be nothing but a gimmick. “I think this is a case of playing to the gallery. I would be excited if IIM-C and others were to introduce new courses related to hard core management rather than resorting to such gimmicks,” says Amit Sengupta, director, Eastern Institute of Management, Calcutta.

But no matter what the critics say, many B-schools are already planning to beef up the dramatic part of their curriculum. For instance, SPJIMR is now toying with the idea of using plays as case studies — St Joan by Bernard Shaw for learning leadership skills and Hamlet by Shakespeare for getting an insight into how moral dilemmas can cause fatal delays. “The concept of ‘live the case’ before you analyse it happens faster and better this way,” says Narain.

Potential recruiters too think that if a spot of theatre can help young people become better managers, the move should be welcomed. “I think it’s a good idea to have such programmes at business schools and even in corporate houses if they help in the all-round development of individuals,” says Sridhar Rao, CEO, Vodafone-Essar East.

For students, though, dabbling in dramatics can also be pure fun and a break from the monotony of studies. “This is one class where we do not worry about marks and grades. We just enjoy ourselves,” says Rajat Gupta, a student at MDI.

So get set, Corporate India, for the advent of the drama kings and queens!

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