MBAs Acting Out

Theater classes are a growing trend in business schools, as students learn "soft skills" by taking to the stage

MIT Sloan first-year student Taariq Lewis grasps his long-handled sword as he strides across the stage of the business school's auditorium, draped in regal robes and with a crown on his head. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead…" proclaims Lewis, reciting the lines from Shakespeare's Henry V.

Is this really business school? Increasingly, yes, as a small but growing number of programs launch acting classes to teach a variety of "soft skills" to students.

Lewis, who performed in the condensed version of Henry V this fall, said the heightened drama, sword fights, and costumes of the week-long acting class were an interesting departure from the usual routine of business school. "When I got into the class, I didn't know what to expect, but then I got this awesome surprise," said Lewis, 34, who plans to pursue a career as an entrepreneur in high-performance technologies and finance after school. "I actually had permission to be really expressive."

A New Kind of Learning

While acting is not a class that typically appears on a business student's schedule of finance-oriented coursework, a few business schools are integrating acting and improvisation work into the MBA curriculum as a way to boost students' communication and presentation skills.

Among the schools offering classes are the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, which offers an acting elective where students are asked to write and perform their own plays; Babson College, which has a class titled Acting Skills for Success in Business; and Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business. Sloan gives its class each fall during its innovation period, a week each semester in which MBAs are encouraged to hone their soft skills through experiential classes.

"This type of training is still very new. There's an edgy quality to it because it's a little risky in nature," said Lau Lapides, a speech coach with Boston's Speech Improvement Co. who teaches Babson's six-week acting class. "It's not like sitting in a lecture class. It really takes students out of their comfort zone."

Honing Interviewing Skills

At Carnegie Mellon, where acting classes were first given about 50 years ago, the classes are extremely popular. Tepper is offering nine sections of its Business Acting elective this year and—in response to student demand—recently added a more advanced-level acting class.

Proponents say acting lessons can be a valuable tool in teaching students how to master the non-academic qualities that recruiters and employers seek in potential managers—namely teamwork, leadership, and strong interpersonal skills. According to a 2007 Graduate Management Admission Council corporate survey, companies that recruit and hire MBA students said they primarily focus on the candidate's interpersonal skills during the interview process, with 63% rating interpersonal skills as "very important."

Indeed, the aim of these classes is not to prepare students for acting careers, but rather to transform them into insightful leaders sensitive to the needs of those around them, said Christine Kelly, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan who teaches management communication and offers a Shakespeare acting class each fall. For example, in Henry V—the play she stages each year—the English king assumes a number of vastly different leadership roles, from a wily negotiator to a general inspiring his army to go into battle. In this context, acting becomes the "perfect metaphor" for leadership, she said.

Birth of a Businessman

"Essentially, what they are learning is how to work with each other and support each other onstage," Kelly said. "To be a good leader, you have to listen to everyone, and to be a good actor, you have to listen to and support everyone onstage as much as yourself."

Geoffrey Hitch, who had been teaching in Carnegie Mellon's acting program, has been teaching Tepper's class for 14 years. He begins by giving students simple improvisation exercises, eventually building them up to the point where they can perform scenes from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and All My Sons in front of their classmates. The plays, with their business themes, tend to resonate with students, he said.

"It's not Shakespeare and it's not something that requires a leap of faith," Hitch said. "These are plays students can jump right into, and their job is to make it worth watching."

The class has been such a success that he and Michael Prietula, a professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School who recruited Hitch to teach the acting class when Prietula taught at Carnegie Mellon, are writing a book explaining how executives and business students can use acting as a tool to help them achieve business success.

Dress Rehearsal for Leadership

Some business school acting classes push students to go further than mere performance by requiring them to write, direct, and produce their own play. The University of Virginia's business school offers an elective titled Leadership, Ethics, and Theatre, where students do just that, performing their creation in front of the entire Darden community.

Students have written plays ranging from a comedy about a guy who loses his wedding ring to dramas that deal with racial tension and religious strife, said Ed Freeman, Olsson Professor of Business Administration, who designed the class five years ago with Randy Strawderman, a theater director. This semester, students are working on a play consisting of scenes from business life interspersed with blues songs.

The class helps people get past their fear of performing in public, but more important, it leaves them with a valuable lesson they can carry with them throughout their careers, Freeman said. "Leadership is about performance—it is about working together to make sure all the little things are done by the time the curtain goes up."

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