Theater dramatizes issues of respect

It’s official University policy that everyone deserves respect in the workplace.
But making sure that happens isn’t so much a matter of administrators handing down decrees as it is one of colleagues letting each other know where the boundaries are.

To help its faculty and staff understand how to negotiate those boundaries, the School of Engineering and Applied Science brought the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble (CITE) to campus last month for some educational drama.

CITE’s approach to raising awareness of workplace issues involves short skits in which ensemble members dramatize a potentially troublesome situation. Then, still in character, the actors answer audience questions about what they did and why. Finally, a facilitator asks the audience members to step into the shoes of each character and describe his or her feelings and motivations.

“This kind of interactive theater is a powerful educational medium in the workplace,” said Valerie Hayes, director of the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, who learned about CITE while employed at Cornell.

It also can help keep workplace problems from turning into administrative matters. For example, if an employee is offended by an off-color ethnic joke, but does not deal with the problem directly with the offender, “you get a rumor mill going; then a race complaint lands on my desk,” Hayes said, adding that a culture of workplace respect cannot be built on rumors.

As it turned out, one of the CITE sketches involved an employee who tells an ethnic joke that offends a co-worker, who responds by leaving the room. Audience members were quick to ask why the offended employee didn’t express her displeasure directly and to point out that the offender — who explained that he had not meant to give offense — could restore harmony simply by apologizing.

In the discussion that followed, the roughly 35 people in attendance justified the actions of all the characters involved while also suggesting ways they could have acted differently to defuse the situation, from the modest (an apology or a statement of feeling offended) to the drastic (“Don’t ever talk to anyone,” one audience member suggested).

SEAS Dean Eduardo Glandt invited CITE to campus last spring for a workshop attended by SEAS and Medical School affiliates. Positive feedback from participants led him to invite them back this year.

Glandt said that attention to issues of respect in the workplace is important because people spend roughly one-third of their life there. “There is a famous line that says we are each other’s hell,” he said. “If we work at it, we can be each other’s heaven.”

Schools or departments interested in learning more about CITE can call Hayes in the Office of Affirmative Action at 215-898-6993.


Originally published on February 15, 2001