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Sunday, August 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

Once more into the breach, dear CEOs: The Bard of Avon is teaching corporate leaders their business

Seattle Times theater critic

"Oh for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!"

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The man declaiming the hallowed opening verse of William Shakespeare's "Henry V" in a theater here recently spoke the lines cogently, resonantly, with full conviction.

This 40-year-old Englishman, with his tousled black hair and trim beard, was, after all, Richard Olivier — son of famed actress Joan Plowright and the most revered Shakespearean actor of the past century, Laurence Olivier.

But the audience hanging on to his every word was not your standard matinee-theater crowd. Instead, Olivier was delivering some of the Bard of Avon's most stirring lines to a group of 50 bank and credit-union managers and social-service, arts and university administrators — not for an afternoon's entertainment, but for lessons in organizational leadership.

And when he intoned, "Once more into the breach, dear friends!" Henry V's familiar exhortation to his troops during a battle with France, Olivier reshaped it into a cry to galvanize today's employees to greater glory.

Should we be surprised by this use of the Bard's words? After all, his phrases and face have already been stamped on countless consumer items — from sweat shirts to tote bags, screen savers to coffee mugs. There is Shakespeare beer, a Shakespeare credit card.

And Richard Olivier is not the first to sell Shakespeare as a management guru. Such reputable schools as Columbia University offer business courses based on the Bard's wisdom, and at least a dozen how-to books expound on the theme, with titles such as "Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage" and Olivier's own tome, "Inspirational Leadership: Henry V and the Muse of Fire."

Such appropriations of history's most esteemed English-language playwright strike some as crass commercialism.

"I'd default these management books and courses as a dilution, a dumbing-down of Shakespeare into bite-sized homilies," says Richard Burt, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and editor of the book "Shakespeare after Mass Media."

"It's very clear from the Enron and WorldCom business scandals that this aesthetic, virtuous approach to business has little use at all," Burt argues. "It's certainly no replacement for good government regulations."

Relating plots to modern woes

But Olivier, a trained actor and stage director who has worked full time as a teacher-consultant for the past several years, cheerfully defends his "mythodrama" program. He sees no contradiction in prizing Shakespeare as both a literary genius, and as a guide to enlightened modern management.

And he has mined the plays' themes aggressively. Serving a "balanced portfolio" of corporate, government and nonprofit organizations, Olivier's firm offers courses using "Julius Caesar" (workshop subtitle: "Emotional and Political Intelligence: How to Avoid Getting Stabbed in the Back at Work"), "Hamlet" ("Managing the Edge of Chaos: How to Avoid Going Mad at Work") and "The Tempest" ("The Art of Leading Change: What to Do When Everyone Feels Shipwrecked") in addition to his "Henry V" sessions.

Coming soon: a "Macbeth" workshop. And will it relate the wisdom of that great Scot CEO who murdered his way to the throne, then was toppled in a bloody coup?

"We teach people about the leadership mistakes in Shakespeare, too," quipped Olivier.

Attendees at the B.C. workshop, hosted by Bard on the Beach (Vancouver's resident Shakespeare theater) clearly shared Olivier's belief that the Bard could be a meaningful business guide. They paid up to $365 Canadian for the half-day class with the London-based Olivier. And some paid more for a post-workshop dinner, and a performance of Bard on the Beach's staging of "Henry V."

Spicing his lesson with humor and interactive exercises, Olivier broke Shakespeare's saga of Henry V, a 15th-century British monarch who led the nation in an uphill victory against France, into a "journey" of plot points and management dilemmas.

First came Henry's "call to the imagination" and "visioning of the future" (yes, the vision thing), followed by his troubled "dark night of the soul" and incognito "walkabout" among troops before the key Battle of Agincourt. Finally, Henry "achieves the vision" (the outnumbered Brits won the day with only 25 casualties to France's 10,000) and turns the "battlefield into a garden" by uniting the two nations.

Olivier often linked young Henry's challenges to the more mundane problems today's managers face. For instance, apropos of the conspiracy and criticism Henry had to fend off, Olivier devoted part of the workshop to dealing with dissension in one's staff ranks — and how to distinguish among, and deal constructively with, a "traitor," a "naysayer" and a "critic."

Sprinkling inspirational quotes from Henry Ford, Nelson Mandela and Carl Jung into his presentation, and referring to color-coded handout charts, Olivier also outlined four "leadership archetypes," to suggest how administrators can reach lofty goals by "allocating inner resources" more effectively.

To demonstrate several types of leadership styles, he had participants engage in a frisky game of "steal the paper," break into small problem-solving groups and get to know each other better by lounging on throw pillows, conversing and munching on chocolates.

An idea comes to fruition

Is this blend of pop psychology, literary analysis and gritty advice a spiel corporate CEOs and bank directors can buy into? Yes, said Barb Rosenthal, a manager at B.C.'s Surrey Metro Savings. "It's so rich and helpful, such great advice," she commented during a break. "And I think it's the genius of Shakespeare that really brings it alive."

Gaye LePage, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency manager, concurred: "The theater is a great simile for leadership. What's wonderful about Shakespeare is how universal his themes and stories are, how much they apply to so many situations."

Clearly, Olivier's ready charm and family pedigree also helped. He candidly shared, for instance, the difficulties of being a member of a famous acting clan and finding his own "France to conquer."

"My siblings and I all tried working in theater," Olivier related in an interview. "I became a director, and was very involved in getting the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre built and under way in London. But I became aware just after my dad's death (in 1989) of my growing interest in psychology and mythology.

"I started working with (psychologist) James Hillman and (poet) Robert Bly. And as I met a lot of people who felt very burned out or used up by the organizations they worked for, I got an inkling of the impact I could have helping decision-makers do what they do."

But the idea didn't jell for Olivier until 1997, while he was at the Globe directing "Henry V" — a play, incidentally, that his father triumphed in onstage, then starred in and directed in an Oscar-winning film version.

With Globe artistic head Mark Rylance, Richard Olivier "got together some business leaders and managers in a rehearsal hall, and told them Henry's story. We focused on his leadership decisions and actions, and asked what they'd do in his place. Later, these people told us they'd learned more from the play than from 10 years of management workshops."

So Olivier Mythodrama Associates was born.

Given the executive-suite scandals at top U.S. firms recently, Olivier sees more need for the Bard's wisdom than ever.

The Bard's universal reach

"Shakespeare gives us a great excuse to talk about ethics and morality in business," he contends. "At first in our workshops, morality was the last thing people wanted to discuss. Now they're more prepared to grapple with such complex issues as corporate responsibility."

Yet some scholars, such as Professor Burt, even question the premise of using Shakespeare's complicated heroes as ethical models. "It's problematic, because Henry is a very ambivalent character in the play," Burt suggests. "On one hand, Henry's a heroic figure who inspires his troops to win at Agincourt. But Shakespeare also saw him as a Machiavellian leader using religion to achieve his own political gains."

Olivier counters that he presents the English monarch in "mythic terms, as an archetype." And at least one highly seasoned Shakespeare theater veteran, Barry Kraft, finds nothing amiss in bringing the Bard into the boardroom.

"In this secular age we don't all have the Gospels to lead us anymore," says Kraft, a longtime actor and scholar-in-residence at Ashland, Ore.'s prominent Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "Shakespeare's a guy whose words have lasted for over 400 years. And it seems natural that his success would inspire others to use his words in their attempts to become successful too. If someone responds that way, why not?"

Even Burt agrees that the Bard's reach into modern-day culture, his "market penetration" as inspirational figure, icon and brand name "is quite a marvel."

"Shakespeare really is at the center of our culture. He shows up everywhere," Burt notes. "Just look for him, and he'll be there."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com.

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