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January 23, 2012

Theater troupe helps supervisors resolve dicey workplace issues

photo/Tim Greenway Tom Nash, executive director of Marti Stevens Interactive Improvisational Theater, strikes claves to start a scenario as actors Patricia Mew, left, Rob Wood and Kate Huntress stand ready

A typical script written by Marti Stevens Interactive Improvisational Theater for its corporate clients goes something like this:

A group of employees congregates in a warehouse to talk about the impact of the Legislature's new distracted-driving law that bans texting while operating a motor vehicle.

The younger, more eager-to-please employees with clean driving records talk about how cautious they are when using the cellphones on the job, saying they pull off to the side of the road whenever they get a call or text message.

One employee pushes back. A veteran sales person, he fears the new law will make it more difficult for him to do his job. The company expects drivers to answer their cell phones, he contends, and there's just no time to pull over — not when employees are expected to work quickly.

An office assistant then enters the warehouse, telling the group that one of the company's employees has been in an accident. He was responding to a text message while driving a flat-bed truck and struck a minivan, severely injuring its passengers. One employee says, "Hell, we're all gonna lose our phones now!"

Fortunately, this is not a real-life incident but rather an interactive theatrical training session for company managers put on by Marti Stevens Interactive Improvisational Theater. The nonprofit, based in Falmouth, provides services to a wide range of companies looking for innovative ways to instruct supervisors on workplace safety issues to prevent injuries and loss and create healthier work environments.

Worst-case scenarios

MSIIT, named for the actress and educator who founded the nonprofit in 1985, started out as a literacy training group. It has transitioned in recent years to helping companies train managers grappling with workplace issues such as discrimination, harassment, injuries and violence.

The troupe presents a scenario involving a specific issue, then stops the action on stage to throw questions to an audience of corporate supervisors to assess problems and devise solutions so that what happens on stage never happens in their workplaces.

"We kickoff the conversation," says Thomas Nash, MSIIT's executive director. "And when [the supervisors] leave, they continue the conversation. It's not a one-shot deal."

Nash, a 49-year-old Falmouth resident, says he works with a client's human resources specialist to tailor each training session to workplace issues. MSIIT actors are then briefed about specific corporate and legal policy positions the company wants to convey to its employees. Scripts are outlined and scenarios are drafted and approved by the client before each training session.

Nash says actors are given the "worst-case scenarios" shortly before the performance and conduct only a few practice runs in the tradition of improv theater.

"We don't have a script — we have an outline and a structure to it … so then we're fresh," he says. "If it doesn't happen exactly how we practiced, we're fine with that, as long as we've gotten the certain points out."

A moderator sets the stage, explaining the backgrounds of the characters and their situation. After a five- to 10-minute skit, the action is stopped at a crisis point. Although the performance stops, the actors remain in character. Nash says the moderator, often himself, will interact with the characters, then pose questions to the audience, who are asked to describe the problem laid out in the skit and potential resolutions.

"We don't present the solution during the scenario," says Nash. "We play it to the height of a conflict. Then we stop at that conflict, stay in character and let the audience solve the problem. Usually, it's a facilitated discussion."

Defusing tension

Kathy Buxton, the human resources manager at Portland-based Lucas Tree Experts, says the company's 35 supervisors, who each manage as many as 25 workers, attended an MSIIT training session last year as part of a daylong safety training.

Although slips, trips and falls are significant hazards on the job, Buxton says workplace violence — whether involving a disgruntled employee or a homeowner upset about having a tree trimmed or cut down — is a growing area of concern for the company.

"[Workplace violence] only recently has been something people have begun to talk about," says Buxton. "I think people are trying to pay more attention to it. We have a long way to go."

MSIIT's improv-theater approach resonated with the Lucas supervisors, who remained engaged throughout the two-hour training, says Buxton.

"For my guys — they're tree guys — they're used to being outside all day," says Buxton. "It really helps to have live people, where you can have an open dialog and they can actually participate in what's going on."

Nash says the Lucas training session included a skit called, "I know what kind of truck you drive!" The skit involved an angry customer showing up at a loading dock demanding immediate delivery of his delayed order and a discount. The employees, who before the customer's arrival were discussing their frustration about falling behind on the order, don't empathize with the man. A supervisor appears, but doesn't do or say much to defuse the situation. The scene ends when the irate customer threatens the supervisor.

Buxton says the skit began a discussion about how to defuse tense situations.

Making training pay

Lucas Tree was among a group of seven self-insured companies that participated in last spring's training conference, organized by The Willis Group of Northern New England. Oakhurst Dairy, The Jackson Laboratory, CN Brown, Atlantic Great Dane, Hutchins Trucking and Keiser are also part of the group, known as the Greater Portland V Self-Insured Workers Comp Trust.

The Willis Group of Northern New England does underwriting, coordination and loss prevention for the Greater Portland V, setting insurance rates and premiums for the group. Jeff Lewis, vice president of Willis NNE's Alternative Markets Department, says the group retains the risk and cost of work-related injuries instead of buying a policy and transferring that risk to a carrier. That results in fewer workplace injuries and more employee satisfaction, both of which can have tangible and intangible benefits for a company, he says.

"If we do well on safety, we can reduce our rates below the commercial market," Lewis writes in an email. "Sometimes we can give refunds if we collect too much in premiums and end up with fewer claims than expected."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks work-related injuries in three categories: cases involving missed work; transfers to "light duty" or other types of jobs; or injuries that required medical attention beyond first aid but did not involve missed work or transfer.

According to the most recent BLS numbers available, 2010 rates in Maine for forestry and logging injuries were as high as four per 100 full-time-equivalent employees and 7.1 per 100 FTE in the trucking industry. Warehousing and storage industries were as high as 11.2 for every 100 FTE.

Accident rates per 100 FTEs were highest among construction workers (as high as 21.3), transportation equipment manufacturing (as high as 15.7), nursing and residential care facilities (as high as 17.7), social assistance (as high as 12.1) and recreation/gambling industries (as high as 10.4).

Sue Daignault, a Harpswell-based workplace safety consultant, was hired by the Willis Group of Northern New England to organize annual training for the Greater Portland V. She says she works closely with the companies' loss control officers to ensure that the annual training — whether it's theater-based or more traditional methods — covers appropriate topics.

Past training has come in many forms, including videos, PowerPoint presentations, panelists and group exercises. Last year, she chose the improv group as change of pace and worked closely with the troupe to ensure it covered the most relevant workplace issues.

"[Greater Portland V] wanted me to do something different," she says. "Safety training can be a little dry sometimes, so we wanted to make it more interesting."

Daignault says the theater group was recommended by The Jackson Laboratory. Mae Landesman, senior director of human resources, health and safety at Jackson Lab, says the troupe has been asked in the past to concentrate on issues such as sexual harassment, hostile environment, valuing diversity, workplace violence, domestic violence and employee assistance programs.

Diversity is a key issue at the Bar Harbor-based Jackson Lab, which employs 1,368 people with 25 nationalities. About 9% of its employees identify themselves other than white, compared with the state average of 4.7%, according to spokeswoman Joyce Peterson.

On a state level, issues of discrimination, whether sexual, age-related or racial, are growing. The Maine Human Rights Commission received 772 charges of discrimination in 2011, up from 666 in 2010. Eighty percent, or 618, of the 2011 complaints were employment related, representing a nearly 26% increase over the 492 allegations filed in 2010.

Although benefits from the improv training are not easily measured in dollars, Landesman says the program is valuable in terms of prevention.

"We approached this more from a risk management perspective by having more enlightened supervisors, making them aware of the resources available to them in dealing with difficult situations, and equally important, what not to do," she says. "It was a fun way of providing more engaged training and also have supervisors learn from one another by sharing their own experiences."

Comparing costs

Nash, the troupe's director, says his group charges $750 to $1,000 to conduct training for other nonprofits and $1,250 to $1,500 to train for-profit companies. The fees depend on the length and breadth of services and scenarios requested, he says, and cover the design, development, delivery and evaluation of the performance/training.

Consultant Daignault says those rates are in line with bringing in a high-level consultant to provide training. But considering the number of people involved, typically four or five, and the time spent on the training, the cost seems to be "on par" with other training options.

Before the recession, the troupe typically averaged six to 10 training sessions annually, says Nash. That number has dropped as companies have scaled back training as part of general belt-tightening. In response, Nash is looking increasingly toward grants and private fundraising to offset costs.

"We're going to be sending out a letter of appeal" to former clients, business groups, civic organizations and others, he says. "If that generates even a little bit of income, that helps." Past clients include Maine Eye Care Associates, the Kennebec Valley Human Resource Association, Mid-Coast Maine Community Action Program, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor, among others.

In the near term, the troupe is finalizing an agreement to conduct training for Mount Desert Island Hospital, Nash says.

The group also hopes to capitalize on the recent attention Gov. Paul LePage has paid to the topic of domestic violence and offer its services to companies and organizations concerned with addressing the issue from a workplace perspective.

"We are trying to make Maine a better place to live," Nash says. "We believe in this process. And we believe strongly in helping others deal with the issues that are addressed in our scenarios."

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