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Theater Notes: how to improve business dramatically

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Hal the deliveryman wasn't having one of his better days. Like everyone else at Moszinski's Department Store, he'd been through the training course on "putting the customer first." So when he delivered a new chair, he took some time to help Mrs. Miller position it--and then his boss yelled at him for falling behind schedule: "We're not interior decorators. Get to the next place. We got deliveries stacked up." When he hustled through his next delivery, the customer snapped at him.

Hal is a minor character in Karolus Yvo Smejda's farce Customer First, and his dilemma is about as mundane as they come. But, according to Smejda, it is the stuff of business--the collision of two company policies, each of which by itself sounds good--and it's the stuff of theater, too. "Theater is about decisions, actions, and consequences. And so is business." Consultant/playwright Smejda has been trying to bring the two together since 1979, when he founded what some might consider an oxymoronic enterprise, the LaSalle Street Management Theatre.

Originally written for Carson's in 1985, Customer First is one of six half-hour scripts LaSalle Street offers on various business themes. Since the Clarence Thomas hearings the most popular has been Costly Attraction by Melanie Villines, on sexual harassment in the office. The plays rarely stand alone; at most sessions they're followed by discussion and role-playing with Smejda and the actors. LaSalle Street clients have included Harris Bank, Navistar, the American Dental Association, Helene Curtis, and the National Family Business Council; the company gives a performance about every ten days to two weeks.

But 13 years ago the idea that theater could be a business training tool was brand-new. In its first three years the LaSalle Street company gave just four or five performances. "It was unheard-of," says Smejda, who doubts he could have sold the idea at all if he hadn't already earned a reputation as a management consultant. "We'd say, 'We'll do theater,' and they'd say, 'What?' If you had told me ten years ago that we'd be training 4,000 people with 20 actors, I would have laughed."

Although Smejda loves to use theater as a tool, he doesn't claim it can teach everything. "I've said to some clients, you don't want a play. If you need to give the same message over and over, and if it involves a lot of content and data, then you want a video. Each medium has its own power.

"A friend of mine says that we're bringing theater back to what it once was," says Smejda--"performance, not real estate. Think about the players in Hamlet. They traveled from place to place. The castle didn't go to the theater, the theater came to it." Performing with minimal props, in a variety of nontheater spaces, for audiences largely unfamiliar with live theater, does put LaSalle Street actors on their mettle, but the client companies ask only that their people get the message--and they do. Lake Forest Hospital brought in LaSalle Street's Squeeze Play for a management-development program seven years ago. Compensation manager Ruth Gilman says people still remark, "That's just like in Squeeze Play."

Perhaps because he has a foot in both worlds, Smejda can't resist taking shots at both. "The problem I see in the corporate world is follow-through on programs. They don't address problems like Hal's. In my plays I like to show the inconsistencies organizations have in putting programs through." On the other hand, "Regular theater gets very deeply into personal issues, almost neurotically so. And it has a kind of anti-business bias. It doesn't honor the work people do.

"The content of our plays is very much the daily world of the people in the audience--everyday people resolving everyday problems. So when people say, 'I see my boss up there,' or 'Since I saw your play I haven't been able to yell at anyone,' for me that's what it's all about."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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