Management lecturer Dr Margot Edwards workshops her play with theatre studies lecturer Dr Rand Hazou and students Amanda Bennett, Sarah Hamilton-Hibbard and Jessie Henderson.

Theatre to help firms deal with workplace bullying

Feelings and emotions are often marginalised in the rational world of business, but Massey University’s expressive arts and business programmes hope to change all that with the development of a play about workplace bullying.

Dr Margot Edwards, a senior lecturer with the School of Management, wanted to create an effective intervention for dealing with bullying at work. Instead of producing the usual seminar, she decided to write a play.

“I wanted to actually create something interactive to get people thinking in a different way about how bullying makes people feel and what the reasons behind it might be,” Dr Edwards says.

“A play allows people to have a discussion about the characters and their behaviour, without accusing a colleague. It also allows you to reflect on your own experiences and how they made you feel. We all remember those scenes in our head when the boss came in and shouted at us, for example, and we think ‘I wished I’d said this’ – you can use those experiences to effect change.”

Now Dr Edwards has teamed up with the university’s theatre studies programme to get her play, titled ‘In the Red Corner’, ready for performance. Students from the Massey University Theatre Society workshoped it through an open reading in the Albany campus’ state-of-the-art Theatre Lab today.

School of English and Media Studies lecturer Dr Rand Hazou says the project has been a great opportunity for the business and expressive arts programmes to collaborate.

“The reading was great for the students’ creative development and we’ve hopefully brought some clarity to Margot’s ideas and what she’s trying to achieve,” he says. “Plays always sound different when they are read out loud so we have helped Margot to see and hear how her words come alive and given insights into how it can be redrafted and improved.”

Dr Hazou says the play fits well within the tradition of applied theatre, which he has a particular interest in.

“We introduced a new Applied Theatre paper here at Massey last semester – it looks at theatre applied outside conventional performance spaces as a way of bringing about social change.

“When Margot told me she had written a play about bullying and she wanted to develop it so it could be presented in workplaces to spark discussion, I thought, ‘Great, this is exactly what I’m interested in – theatre with a real-life application that tries to bring about change in the way we see things.’”

‘In the Red Corner’ is set in the fictional Blackrock General Hospital and shows the interaction between a bullying director of nursing and a nurse union representative. The content is inspired by the research findings of one of Dr Edwards’ PhD students whose thesis looks at workplace bullying in nursing.

“The researcher, Kate Blackwood, interviewed both nurses and management in hospitals and they are all really desperate for research that can lead to effective interventions,” Dr Edwards says. “Hospitals are high pressure workplaces so the impact of bullying on a person’s mental state in that environment can lead to serious mistakes.”

Dr Edwards says she first began to think about writing plays after using role play when teaching leadership skills.

“Role-playing can bring an idea alive – it might put students on the spot and make them feel awkward, but that’s what life is like. We’re always looking for ways to flip the classroom – I mean, who wants their lecturer to put up a slide that says here’s five things you should know about leadership?” 

Dr Hazou agrees: “The expressive arts afford different ways of knowing. If you stage something like a play, it opens up different types of spaces in which people can engage and discuss, which is what you need if you want to bring about cultural change.” 

There are already plans to perform ‘In the Red Corner’ at a harassment workshop later in the year and Dr Edwards hopes customised versions of the play will be taken into workplaces where bullying is known to occur. She says her hope is that workers “walk out of the room as different people to when they walked in.” 

Down the track, both Dr Edwards and Dr Hazou would like to see Massey offer the services of an acting troupe to businesses, with theatre students being paid to perform thought-provoking plays in workplaces around the country.

“If there’s a gap there and Massey can play a role in filling it, fantastic,” Dr Hazou says.

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