Practical Lessons from Theatre: Ground Rules for Group Work


If your middle school report card was like mine, the comments section often sported the phrase, “DOES NOT WORK WELL WITH OTHERS.” It’s true; I didn’t. I didn’t like it when people didn’t pull their weight; I didn’t like it when people told me what to do; and I didn’t like it when people didn’t do something the way I would have done it. So when I got out of school, did I hole up in a cave to work at some solitary vocation? No! By some mysterious twist, I wound up working in theatre, which is about as collaborative as it gets.

Admittedly, I’m still a recovering group-work-grumbler, but after teaming up with some skilled and generous collaborators to organize large creative undertakings, I’ve picked up a few practices that make the process much easier.

At Interactive Theatre Carolina, every performance requires the cooperation of facilitators, actors, and audience to create a valuable dialogue. Before we begin, we always establish ground rules to keep the space safe for everyone to participate:

1. Respect yourself and respect others. Respect yourself enough to know that you have valuable thoughts to contribute, so share them. Respect others by remembering that, even if you don’t agree with everything they say, their contributions are also valid.

a. This corresponds to give and take, too. If you know you’re a bold speaker, make a conscious effort to leave space for others. If you’re usually quiet, challenge yourself to step in.

2. Give the benefit of the doubt. Everyone’s somewhere on his/her/hir own learning curve. Trust that people are doing the best they can in that moment.

3. Speak from your own experience. “I” statements keep your words authentic. Used correctly, this rule can save us from making embarrassing assumptions. In the context of group work, it can also help in difficult conversations, “I’ve noticed that…”

If you have the kind of group dynamic where you can come up with ground rules as a team, this can help set the tone for the rest of the experience. If that doesn’t feel possible, even keeping these in mind for yourself is never a bad idea. It never hurts to ask, though, right? Maybe break the ice by asking group members about the qualities of their best and worst group experiences and go from there.

We can do this right here, right now. Please feel free to comment: in your experience, what does and doesn’t work for group projects?

For more group work tips, stay tuned for part 2 of this post.

You can also check out: These tips from University of the Arts and Five Collaboration Tips from Introverts


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