The Peter Pan and Tinkerbell cut-outs that grace the office walls seem odd. That is, until you learn that this Buffalo consulting company was born in the Magic Kingdom.
An oversized check from Walt Disney World hangs on another wall, a replica of the first payment that Dramatic Solutions received from its first client.
But what motivates a troupe of local actors and actresses to use their theatrical talents to provide workplace consulting to corporate America? In Peter Pan parlance, "it was time to grow up," chuckled one of the managing partners.
Dramatic Solutions is somewhat of a misnomer, according Richard Satterwhite, one of the partners.
"We're really more like a road map for businesses. We don't hand them solutions," he said. "Instead, we use interactive theater to help them find the answers for themselves."
And so, when Disney wanted to put some of its Magic Kingdom employees through diversity training last year, it hired Dramatic Solutions. The performers will return to Orlando, Fla., next week to do a program for National Hispanic Heritage Month.
But most of the company's clients are closer to home. Next month, the performers will put on a custom-tailored program on sexual harassment awareness for volunteer firefighters in the Town of Tonawanda. They've been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes prep work, shadowing firefighters, learning station lingo and even dressing in firefighting attire.
"Those boots and uniforms are so heavy. I don't know how they even move," said Gail Golden-McHugh.
The performers use live interactive theater to help produce more harmonious and productive workplaces. They create scenarios based on the specific goals of the clients. They'll be doing a program for auto bureau employees on handling difficult cus
tomers. They'll also be doing a seminar for union stewards, hoping to enhance their skills in dealing with members and management.
Other training sessions involve fostering leadership skills, team-building and grappling with entitlement issues at job sites.
What makes it click, according to managing partner TimWhite, is that the characters on stage are alarmingly real.
"These are not caricatures or soap opera characters. These are people that you and I know and deal with every day," said White.
It's like holding up a mirror to executives, supervisors and employees. Partner Brian Hayes, who relishes playing some of the more despicable characters, said the training is sprinkled with humor. "It's key to retention. People tend to remember things they enjoy."
One of the unique aspects of the program is a question-and-answer period that follows each skit. The performers stay in character as they interact with the audience. It's not unusual for the dialogue to become lively as people engage in verbal duels with the head-strong characters.
"One woman came up to me after it was all over and said 'I know you're an actor, but I'm still having a very hard time trying not to hate you, " Hayes recalled.
The training fees depend on the program and size of the audience, but most companies can hire Dramatic Solutions for the price they would pay to have a keynote speaker at a function. Satterwhite said a growing number of human resources managers are recognizing the importance of preventing workplace problems like sexual harassment before they occur.
"It's a lot cheaper to bring us in than to get slapped with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit," he said. "There are some bottom-line benefits to being proactive."
Randall Rider, commissioner of the Sheridan Park Fire District, decided to hire Dramatic Solutions to do sexual harassment awareness training for Tonawanda firefighters next month. He experienced their interactive training session at a state conference in Albany four months ago.
Rider admitted that he was initially skeptical that theatrical skits could help to improve work environments.
"But they opened quite a few eyes during that program," Rider recalled. "When they stayed in character during the question-and-answer period, it raised the hair on the backs of many people's necks. Sometimes, the truth hurts."
In a couple weeks, Dramatic Solutions will provide conflict resolution training to union stewards representing the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local One, an organization that represents 25,000 regional employees in grocery stores, nursing homes and other work settings. President Frank DeRiso was impressed with the group's innovative training proposal and instructed Andrea Goldberger, the union's education coordinator, to stage a seminar.
"I think it's a lot easier for many people to deal with work place issues in a theater setting," Ms. Goldberger said. "It certainly gets the message across without trivializing the issue. Yet it's done in a less threatening way."
The other managing partners of Dramatic Solutions are Susan Slack, Maureen Porter and Peter Hertsgaard. Ms. Golden-McHugh said there are few theatrical groups that offer this type of work place consulting. Another Buffalo group is Theater for Change, an entity that has carved its niche in providing a wide range of work place consulting, especially in the social services sector.
Dramatic Solutions currently has about 200 clients and the partners work out of home-based offices. Their goal is to land more national accounts in the future.
"It's a wonderful way to make a living," said White. "We end up getting as much out of the sessions as our audience does."