Forum Theatre Blog

How forum theatre and role play can support leadership development

Judy Ditchfield, CEO/Creative Director Performance Role Play Training, Facilitator, Business Role Player, Actor

May 25, 2022

How forum theatre and role play can support leadership development…


PotentialSquared has been working with actors for many years to develop immersive role-play scenarios to allow participants in leadership development programs to try different ways of having conversations. This was the start of the forum theatre concept.


Colin Hunter, CEO of PotentialSquared, explores the origins of this concept in his fascinating video: Creating leadership playgrounds using forum theatres.



Judy Ditchfield, a P2 role player, and facilitator takes up the story in her own words:


In 2003 I was approached by a fellow actor to see if I wanted to try out for business role play. I was a bit horrified at the time. First, because I was a trained actor, and had only ever played a role but never done “role play”. And second, I knew so little at the time about business.


In response to my attempts to avoid doing this, they informed me that it required many of the skills I was trained to do. I needed to be a good observer of behavior – well that came naturally to most actors. I also had to be an excellent listener. I knew I could do that because acting is all about listening and then responding. Finally, it required huge preparation. We actors are good at that. We have to prepare, or we wouldn’t be able to perform.


It was also about understanding the context in which you were playing out the role. I could do that too. And then it was about research. You couldn’t act being unprepared, and research gave you context and understanding and the depth you needed to be better in your role. And finally, it was about rehearsal and being prepared in the moment. That was perfect, actors work hard and are generally highly disciplined, skilled, and know how to be present and read their audience. No problem. That made it more manageable.


I agreed to give it a try. Little did I know, that these were the skills I needed to be a good role player and they were the foundations of being a good business leader. The acting was about connecting, building trust and relationships, listening, giving, and above all trying until you got it right and it became muscle memory. It was also about staying present in the moment and being prepared for your spontaneity session. You could feel when you just hadn’t got it right, but it was okay, because the next time you knew you could try harder and it would be better.


Little did I know at the time how powerful this could be in the business environment. The more I did role play, the more I realized that the very qualities I needed as an actor were the foundations of being a good role player but also a good leader. It gave me the tools to give powerful and effective feedback, and also gave me the ability to pass on those skills to the very leaders I was role-playing with.


Most of the leaders had earned their positions because of knowledge, high skill set, and ability to think fast, and get things done. Well, actors did that too. But the difference was actors couldn’t do it alone, and neither could leaders.


The more I role-played with all forms of leadership from executive level to anyone with a direct report, the more I often witnessed a lack of ability to connect, build rapport, listen, and ask questions. There was a strong tendency to drive personal agendas and tell people what to do. What this was resulting in, was staff who did what they were told to do, lacked accountability, and took limited ownership to grow themselves. It also resulted in a lack of buy-in and loyalty to the business.


In the process of practicing courageous conversations in the role play, leaders were able to truly understand their intention versus their impact.


In one of the processes called forum theatre, the facilitator stops the role-play to allow the participant to get feedback and to understand how they are coming across. This is such a powerful tool. So seldom do leaders get to hear how they are impacting others and how they are being received. The actors, who don’t know the participants, are given the opportunity to be mind tapped as to how they are being impacted by the participant they are speaking to. They can then give feedback as to how the participant is making them feel.


How seldom do we truly know how we are impacting the person we are speaking to? This is a profound tool for leaders to start tapping into their impact, especially when it is coming from a neutral party with no personal agenda, other than to assist the participant. This is usually followed by the participant acknowledging that is completely opposite to the intention, and here the shift can occur. Once they understand how they are landing, they can be guided to change their behavior (not their personality mind you) in order to get a different response.


During the feedback, we often talk about the fact that one can’t change another person’s behavior, but what you can do, is change yours to get a different response.


Now that is powerful! Now that is immersive leadership development.


Find out more about our immersive learning, and speak to the team.