5 Ways Producing Theatre is Like Facilitating

Facilitating an ­impactful meeting is a lot like producing entertaining live theatre.

Until a few years ago, I spent most of my career playing various roles in producing live entertainment. Those experiences – preparing for a Super Bowl half-time show, producing Broadway and off-Broadway theatre, helping bring a new musical to life, and the many roles big and small in between – are huge sources of inspiration and technique I now use to design and facilitate leadership development programs.

Here are five theatre-inspired tips I use to create Tony-worthy meetings, keynotes, and workshops:

1. The Story is Everything

Hamilton, The Lion King, Book of Mormon, Wicked.  Spectacular productions all (nope, I did not have a hand in those, but have studied theme extensively). Even if you strip away the inventive songwriting, magical puppets, great special effects and more than a little hype, they’d still be huge hits. All of these shows are well past their launch and still running strong because each spectacular production is built around a compelling, well-written story that taps into core human emotions.

Whether Broadway super show, or 90-minute keynote, it starts and ends with the story you are trying to tell – what it is you want to say that you hope will have an impact on people. Playwrights build a story on plot points. Speakers and facilitators call them anchor points: the scene-by-scene, program-by-program steps towards the bigger message. Whatever the venue, framing or delivery, what people will latch on to is the story.

Don’t get me wrong, production values are essential! Hamilton’s hip-hop delivery and The Lion King puppets enhance the experience in big ways.  An entertaining presentation is going to help create emotional connections needed for real learning. The quality of the presentation and delivery adds to credibility. And, a few venue and hospitality tweaks can cut down distractions and barriers to learning.

But, your program must start with – and continually return to – a few clear anchor points, strung together as a strong, easy-to-follow, building narrative. 

In the interest of being compelling and creating impact, sometimes the story can get a little lost.  Think about all the time you spent putting together your last presentation, proposal, or meeting plan? How much time did you spend finding all the perfect pictures and graphics for your presentation? How much did you worry about the venue, ambiance and hospitality?

No matter how great your PowerPoint is or how smooth your delivery comes out, it all hinges on the anchor points. What do you want the audience to learn? How compelling is your core message? Have you clearly named the anchor points and found several ways to let your audience interpret and make meaning of the story for themselves?

2. Without the Audience, There is No Art

Any writer – for stage, screen, meeting, or training session – has an agenda. We have an impactful message in our heads that we know people want (and need!) to hear. To truly have impact, means we need to tell the story to a other people – in a way they want to hear it. We need audience members and participants to be our partners.

Consider that each of the examples I gave above are the juggernauts they are because they are both great art (good stories, well and innovatively told) and perceived by a lot of people as highly entertaining (memorable and emotionally compelling to a large, diverse group).

Great marketing? Maybe. But, I don’t believe millions of people are going to spend hundreds of dollars to see a show based only on hype. These stories found a way to emotionally connect with lots of different people. If the story only appealed to Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton) and his buddies, I don’t believe people would still be paying huge sums, months in advance, to participate in the experience. Something more magical is connecting between creator and audiences.

The message of Hamilton is augmented by the use of modern music style, hip-hop, they appealed to new audiences. For all of its irreverence (and foul language), Book of Mormon is a classically structured musical that explores the eternal beauty and conflict of religion. The synthesis of style and story with the South Park sensibility created an opening for new audiences to explore themes people have been talking about…well…since people have been talking in groups.

There is research backing up this point in neuroscience. Our brains process new information when we have a personal, emotional connection. Most of us can easily recall the words of a favorite song from when we were in college; but, how many people can recall the worked from a lecture? One key to things we remember best is that they included shared experience, upping the emotional connection that build memories.

Interacting with your audience – with humor, creativity, hospitality, and intentional personal connection – is what turns a message from one person’s idea into something many people can use.

3. And, No Two Audiences Are The Same.

“Same show, different experience” is what I loved most about producing theatre (and for a time in my 20s, performing in a worldwide tour of a musical production). The script, sets, and actors may be the same night after night, but the energy from each audience varies, setting the tone. It’s not just the performers who feel it. Next time you are in an audience, notice the non-verbal energy moving around the room. That silent hush during an emotional scene it the most obvious. Listen for a minute when the audience is really engaged – laughing maybe. You can almost feel the vibrations.

On the presentation/workshop stage, you get even more adaptive freedom. Two to three times a month, I get the opportunity to facilitate (with a partner; even in training we love a good ensemble performance!), a program to managers of the world’s largest airline. Each two-day program means adapting the same story and anchor points to a very different audience of 40 people from different teams, departments, backgrounds and desire to be participating in a two-day leadership workshop.

At a recent program (my 15th), we had to adapt to a new venue and speed up one section because participants kept asking about a “plot point” coming later in the run-down. This particular group was not big and full group discussion; so, my partner and I extend small group activities, where the energy level noticeably rose. Playing to our audience made for a more engaging experience for us and the participants.

4. The Creators and Performers Make It; The Stage Manager Makes It Work

Think about the last touring production you saw. Maybe, it was a concert making its way around the world. If it was a play or musical, it started at a regional theatre, made its way to Broadway, and then out on national tour. Whatever the show, someone created the story, a director and creative team provided the framing and staging, the performers created their delivery – and after the development, rehearsal and preview period, a show was born.

But, after opening night, a rarely recognized person sitting at the back of theatre each night plays a role vital to the experience the audience and performers have. Anything with performers, lights and sounds has a Stage Manager who oversees preparations, calls cues, reports on how things are going, flags events that are becoming repeat problems, puts in replacements, and makes sure everyone – audience and company -gets the best possible experience. This is how a new play entertains audiences eight nights a week, whether in the home theatre or on the road.

If you are producing a program that needs to be repeated over and over, how are you maintaining quality, adapting needed changes, and ensuring everyone involved gets the most out of the experience? The Stage Manager model is a great way to be intentional about continuous quality and improvement of a finished training product.

5. Leadership is Creativity

Add to the above, the huge amount i learned from people like Andy, Renee, Jack, Edie and Lynn and their mastery for bringing live entertainment to life. Each (who include an Emmy winning actor, Tony winning director, four-time Super Bowl half-time creator, and two over-achieving millennials), taught me the leadership values of (respectively) inventiveness, boldness, powerful pauses, humbleness and infinite possibility in everyone who shows up. Every day and on every facilitating gig, I use what I’ve learned working with and for these incredible artists.

Producing live entertainment prepared me to help people improve their leadership game. Brokering the creative tension of a writer, musician and director during rehearsal taught me patience, problem solving, and emotional regulation techniques that translate to anyone that needs to help teams of different talents and temperaments work together. The constraints of producing non-profit theatre at professional quality taught me how to maximize resources. But some of the greatest impact my prior life has had on this new calling are the tips, tools and philosophies for creating great meeting and learning environments.


John Alexander is a facilitator and finds deep satisfaction with connecting people and ideas together. In 2018, John is taking a deep dive into the neuroscience behind social interactions to get a better understanding how we are wired and how that can help us have better, more fulfilling interactions. If you’d like to follow up with John, his email is john.alexander@bwli.com.