Telling stories that matter in Art and Business



Two events in St Petersburg this week really got me thinking about how we tell our stories – or rather – how we engage.

My ‘main job’ as a theatre director is in many ways about creating and telling stories. Not stories that are necessarily fairy tales or epic adventures.. but rather experiences and performances that create vivid images and use powerful text to challenge thinking whilst exciting and provoking the audience.

The Theatre Director and writer Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment UK) wrote a ‘play’  for us (Menagerie) once way back (in 2002?), it wasn’t a typical three act drama with a prologue followed by some conflict and nice resolution – it was a series of challenges to “form and thought” .The presentation was  three actors speaking statements that were or were not funny. The decision of the level of humour is of course in the control of each audience member.

“ A Painter that is allergic to Paint”

Is that funny or not funny? The list builds…

“A boy writing his name in pee in the snow”

“A girl writing her name in pee in the snow”

“Tying your shoelaces whilst drunk”

“Cancer of the throat”

“Testicular Cancer”

A world emerges of cruelty, love, anger and beauty, the audience’s reactions build the stories. Each experience is pondered, contextualised (“well it would be funny if I was 15 and had been drinking beer “). What Tim  did was create non-linear stories by building up a jigsaw or mosaic of experiences that frustrated, touched , endeared  or angered the audience.

What were their reactions based on? On their mood? Their age? Background? Cultural reference points? As the list grew so did our (the audience’s) capacity to think, to absorb and to imagine… What if…

What was great about Tim’s piece (called MFI by the way) was that it had a universality. A hypnotic quality. Although the three actors who recited each statement appeared to be randomly selecting their comments, we started to build up a picture of each of them according to what they found funny about their own comments and about each other’s.

And isn’t that the point? Create something that people can react to, that they can visualise, personalise– feel  something about. Of course for many this isn’t storytelling – its “Performance Art”

Yes this piece was challenging, but it was also mesmerizing and human. Too often we hear the same things over and over again. In business, as in art we should look to create a reaction – a response to what we think, feel and say.

My two classes in St Petersburg on storytelling in the business context were certainly more traditional than Tim’s work…

For the Creative Agency BC Communications my “lists or statements” were transposed into  Challenges  or games – for each member of staff to respond to – to really think about their own story – what makes them laugh? Scared? To want to take a risk? To want to focus on? Each exercise was its only little “statement” – how do you feel ? – is this Funny? Is this thought-provoking?

At ITMO University I challenged business students to think about their framing of stories in terms of how they and others see the world. The simplest framing  being The World as it Was, as it Is and as it Can Be… the statements are built – challenges set.

Is it funny?, that doesn’t matter – is it going to get a reaction? THAT matters, because then someone cares about what you’re saying…


Below is a description of Tim’s work …

Across the range of my work I use strong, simple, sometimes comical means to get to serious ideas.

My practice shifts from performance to visual art and fiction and concerns itself with questions of contemporary identity and urban experience, our relation to fiction and the media, as well as with the limits of representation, especially in respect of language.  Working across different media and contexts opens up new possibilities and allows me to approach the ideas that interest me by different routes, shifting my perspective on the themes and experiences I want to investigate.

I have created a body of work exploring contradictory aspects of language in playful and poetic ways. I’m drawn both to the speed, clarity and vividness with which language communicates narrative, image and ideas, and at the same time to its amazing propensity to create a rich field of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Infiltrating galleries, street corners, shop windows, rooftops and other locations the neon sign and LED works I have made spell out simple-but-intriguing phrases, messages and instructions. Appearing to address the viewer directly through these works, I’m interested to create moments of thoughtfulness and playful encounter in a public setting;  the work is public but private at the same time, trying to draw each person that encounters it into a space of intimate reflection.


Arts and Business Battle Blog: Interview… Moi?

23rd October, Cambridge

I am just back from Poland where I have been in Wroclaw via Warsaw and the week before that Prague and Kaiserslautern- lots to report on Arts and Business development in Prague, a new script in development in Germany, and a double dose of Audience Development in Poland…

So, all being gathered and will be shared over the next couple of days…

Meanwhile I have a couple of archive blogs- this one is from an Interview in St Petersburg in May 2014 with a PR agency for various Russian Publications..

I had completed Judging a ” Theatre Battle” ;a kind of Russian X-Factor for serious Theatre!. The questions are from the Journalist and the answers… are moi!

Q: You are not only a theatre director but also a trainer, a business consultant and a coach.  Once you said that whatever the topic of your training session is, eventually you teach communications. Why so? What is the reason behind it?

A: Communication is the greatest tool we have as humans. The ability to challenge people, to teach them or to let know we love or loath them.

The core of our human behaviour is articulated instinctively in our bodies and minds through our physical and psychological actions and words.

Wrapped up in this is instinct supported by the dynamic of knowledge and experience. In other words communication is what we say or show and how we say or show it!

These thoughts and actions are prevalent in great theatre, shaped and articulated by playwrights as reflections on our lives; how we live, love and fight together and what our value systems are. So when I ‘teach’ communication or theatre I am not really teaching, I am exploring…our mindsets, our cultures, prejudices and attitudes. This is a value system common to both theatre and business.

I have directed over 100 plays in 25 years. What I have learnt is that you can be profound and clear as long as you understand the stakes involved and what you are prepared to risk to get what you want for yourself and for others. In theatre this is shaped by a playwright articulated by an actor.

In business we are acting too. Articulating our thoughts and feelings and shaping them to suit our audience

When I teach theatre or business communication I am essentially doing the same thing… shaping clarity of message, creating a desired reaction from those we communicate with. Action and Reaction.

A reaction caused by what we say and how we say it.

Clarity of voice

Clarity of content

Clarity of body

I explore “What if..” Seeing communication not as a task but as an opportunity.

So what if… we say this or that… now or later… or not at all..?

In theatre these questions are explored on stage. In life they are explored for real. In everything we say and do in is how we think and how those thoughts are articulated and with what energy and purpose..

So in life I explore the collision of Art and Business and enjoy the cross-overs and contradictions that exist in both worlds.

 Q: Recently you came to St.Petersburg to take part in  the Theatre Battle. It was the second time you arrived to work in the jury of this competition. What is special about this project for you that makes you undertake the long journey..


I support it for the same reasons you do. Theatre is an exciting, dynamic experience that reflects our lives, engages our senses and challenges our thinking. It inspires and provokes us, it makes us laugh and cry.

So to see young actors inspired to undertake theatre a as public sport is fun, engaging and vital.

There is nothing like this in the UK so to see actors pitted against each other in non-mortal combat is inspiring whether it is in the UK or in Russia.

This battle happens to be in Russia. I am interested and intrigued by Russian Culture and theatre. I studied Russian Theatre at school and so have a sense of what Russian theatre stands for.

So as I sit and watch and absorb the Theatre Battle I feel I am part of an experience which is my destiny but also enjoyable, engaging and one where I can learn a lot as well as contribute ideas.


– What do you think of such events?

The theatre battle is fun, inspiring, frustrating and glorious all in one night! All because of the mystery and possibility of improvisation. Having to work together to engage with the material, the audience and the judges. A challenging, but ultimately rewarding experience for all.


And what is your attitude to creative activity of the youth in general?

Well done to the young people.! They take it seriously and gracious in defeat and victory. It is like watching a sport as they clearly have tactics, training and insights into difficult challenges.

These young people are inspiring, as they battle in a friendly but serious way. We see their energies positively used and that has to be good.


The last Theatre Battle you attended was called The King of Improvisation. What are the improvisations meant for? Are they needed on the stage, in everyday life, in business?

Yes of course. Quick thinking. Rapid response. Instinct and content combined. These are often the key to successfully negotiating challenging situations. Meetings, negotiations, sales… all require a structure that can be altered.. a framework that is flexible.

Improvisation is like a conversation that flows… you accept and build upon the previous moment. Or if you can’t accept, then you challenge and build upon that new moment. You need to be truthful, specific and clear. But also you are looking to move situations forward with an authentic style supported by dynamics such as humour or serious intent. 

– Do you teach improvisation?

Yes..! no .. I am improvising now… YES!


Q: You teach communications. You come to the Theatre Battle at invitation of BC Communications agency… Is the key word “communications” a mere coincidence here? Can you give three definitions characterizing our agency?

There are no mere coincidences. One of my favourite words is serendipity.

It is often mis-understood as being lucky. Actually it is more akin to being in the right place with the right people with the right tools to be lucky. So therefore making your own luck. Improvisation requires serendipity so I would describe BC Communications (who run Theatre Battle) as a company of serendipity – they create luck by working hard and creating the environment where great things happen. You sponsor or support a theatre festival and good things happen, exciting things with exciting people.

Another definition or characterization for BC Communications comes from Shakespeare –

All the world’s a stage ..

I think of the organization as having a global outlook with a dynamic approach to performance – performance in life and in work that is focused on effective communication.

And so lets do one more Shakespeare..

To be or not to be…

that is what communicating is all about – who do you want to be or not want to be – destiny is in your hands and BC Communications help that destiny happen!!!


 – When interviewing our employees and friends the last question we always ask is about the person’s motto or a quotation which encourages him or her for success, gives an energy boost or simply supports in an hour of need. Now it’s your turn to share it with us.

Ok How about …


 When asked why he would not cut funding for the Arts in favour of the war effort, he simply replied … “then what are we fighting for?”

– Paul, we wish you great success in everything and look forward to seeing you  in St.Petersburg soon.