Theoretical Foundations of Strategic Narrative Embodiment

The Playing Mantis Strategic Narrative Embodiment Techniques are derived from a model for facilitation and coaching that we call the Strategic Narrative Embodiment Model: SNE Model.

A man is always a teller of tales; he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others; he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1964: 56

Since we began calling our work “Strategic Narrative Embodiment Techniques”, we have been asked about the theoretical grounding for the work. This article attempts to track the development of the process and to honour all the thinkers and practitioners whose work has influenced ours.

The Strategic Narrative Embodiment Model developed in three stages. It began with my (Petro’s) undergraduate studies in Theology and Philosophy, was further developed in a model I created in my PhD in Applied Theatre and the work Burgert did in his Comm. in Industrial psychology using Applied Improvisation. The final stage was its refining and application in the world of Personal, Leadership and Organisational Development in our work over the last 7 years.

Origins in Philosophy

In my academic search I identified a need to understand and describe the social context of living in South Africa and the world in the early 1990s and of being human in general. I searched, like most scholars in the Humanities, for the ‘rules’ of what it means to be human.

Five main ideas began to shape my thinking:

  1. World mythology seems to follow certain patterns (Levi Strauss 1963, Campbell, 1988a and b) but rather than pointing to a blue print for human existence, these patterns point to a function of the human brain
  2. Even if there was a blueprint for what it means to be human, it would be inaccessible thanks to the idea that we are always and forever caught in the reality of our own cultural interpretation of the world. (Derrida, 1978, 1979, 1997; Foucault, 1972, 1975, 1988, 1990a, 1990b; Rorty, 1979) and the contingency of knowledge in time (Heidegger, 1962; Nietzsche, 1961, 1989).
  3. One could look for and find truth without the need to locate The Truth through the notion of self-reflexivity; that is, the ability of human beings to gain distance from themselves and observe themselves in action, thought or feeling. (Van Niekerk, 1987, 1989a, 1989b, 1993, 1994, 1995a, 1995b; Van der Merwe, 1992, 1994)
  4. Under the self-reflexive gaze of a thinker, patterns emerge from the ebb and flow of signs in the complex network of language games and systems that make up our understanding of life. Even though the identification of the patterns may be subjective, by virtue of the self-reflexivity of the human thinker, it is always possible to find a way of describing the standpoint from which the pattern is identified. (Cilliers, 2001; Cilliers, Van der Merwe and Degenaar, 1999)
  5. Instead of using The Absolute Truth, which is unknowable, as a standard for what is good and right; it is possible to use the utility or practicality of an idea as one of the measures of its ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’.   In the field of Applied Ethics the utility of some philosophical solutions can make the lives of human beings flow with a greater degree of harmony between them and their world and between themselves and others (Macintyre, 1981; Nussbaum and Sen, 1989; Rescher, 1969).

Yet, for me, philosophy was not useful and practical enough for the everyman on the street who now had to deal with an ever changing reality where his Absolute Truths were questioned and where the answers to his questions became less obvious, less given. My search led me away from the ivory tower to find solutions that could function there, where people were living working, expressing and surviving.

Applied Theatre and Industrial Psychology

In Applied Theatre I found not only the principles for making meaning in drama and theatre, but also the useful and practical patterns that could help Everyman to frame and understand his own struggles in everyday life. It occurred to me that the same things that help us make fictional stories are the things that help us write our life stories. If these principles were combined with the powerful ability of self-reflexivity, it could lead to a methodology that could help Everyman everyday in his struggle for making sense of his world. Furthering my studies in this field could lead me to discover the techniques and principles in drama that could be used to teach people about themselves and their social contexts.

Most instructive in this quest for story patterns that can help us frame reality was the work of drama therapists like Robert Landy (1993, 1994 and 1996) and Applied Theatre practitioners like Augusto Boal (1979 and 1992). I found the same structures in the work of Dorothy Heathcote and others (O’Neil, 1995 and Kanira, 1997) in Educational Drama. Then, when I compared these patterns to the idea of the mono myth in Joseph Campbell’s work (1988a and b), the similarities were undeniable. Seeing how the mono myth further related to the ideal of ritual and community, I augmented the work by adding the notion of social drama delineated by anthropologist Victor Turner (1968, 1982 and 1990).

In summary this means:

  1. A workshop participant in a well crafted Applied Theatre process experiences the same transformation that a fictional hero experiences in the context of his story:
    1. Like a hero that leaves his Ordinary World to enter the Special World of adventure and danger in a story, the participant in an Applied Theatre workshop leaves her ordinary life to enter the world of the workshop.
    2. As the hero meats a mentor, finds friends and enemies and faces tests and trials in the world of adventure, the workshop participant does the same.
    3. As the Hero faces his nemesis and overcomes his enemies, so too does the workshop participant.
    4. Finally, as the Hero returns to his Ordinary World with an elixir, like Prometheus with fire from the gods, so too can the workshop participant.
  2. While this Hero’s Journey structure of a learning experience could be true of any workshop, Applied Theatre processes are far more intentional in its story shaped design.
  3. Furthermore, for the design of the workshop to be successful, fictional story is used in the design of the process so that the learning and the transformation of the workshop participant can be deeper, more holistic and more lasting.
  4. The Hero’s Journey is by no means the only story pattern that is useful; Applied Theatre is riddled with fictional patterns that relate to real life situations. Theatre and drama form a complex network of iterating patterns that people could use to make sense of life and existence.

During this same period Burgert and I began to collaborate. He was studying industrial Psychology, and was experimenting with a local Improvisation acting group on the side called “Lagnes”. He became intrigued in the parallels between improvisation theatre principles and the principles that are needed for team collaboration and innovation. He noticed a pattern between the skills improvisers need in order to perform well on stage and the skills teams need in order to perform well in organisational contexts. (Kirsten 2009, Cremer, 2009, Corsun, Cheri, Young, McManus and Mehmet, 2006, Gibb 2004, and others)

In an Applied Improvisation workshop, improvisation theatre becomes a metaphor for the work-life of the delegates:

  1. Like a troupe of improvisers on stage delegates too must work with their team under high pressure responding to what emerges in the moment through action.
  2. Their aim is to satisfy the needs of their audiences, in this case clients (internal or external), in a fresh and innovative way.
  3. To get the best out of one another they must do this in a respectful manner while at the same time building rapport with the client.
  4. They have to incorporate input from the audience (client) with input from one another towards providing the best possible product and service.
  5. Like the ‘performance games improvisers play out on a stage, delegates too must do all this within the boundaries of strict rules and parameters guided by ethical considerations and compliance models.

These parallels between improvisation theatre and the world of work provide the basis for using Applied Improvisational exercises to support teams in times of transition and uncertainty. Business schools across the globe are seeing the value of Applied Improvisation and it is gaining in popularity in South Africa.

Story patterns and improvisation principles became the two building blocks for our Strategic Narrative Embodiment model.

Attend a course in Strategic Narrative Embodiment Techniques

Refining the model in Personal, Leadership and Organisational Development practise

In our practical interactions with clients we became exposed to the latest research in neuroscience especially the work of Daniel Siegel (2010a and b) and David Rock (2009a and b and 2013). Of particular interest to us is the idea of the narrative circuitry (NC) and the direct experience circuitry (DEC) of the brain. The NC’s soul function is to make sense of experience by relating each new event into a pre-existing narrative pathway. Every new experience is interpreted through these pre-existing circuits formed and strengthened through prier interaction with the world. This pathway can only be changed by focusing on our direct experience circuitry – a second type of brain function that uses information from our senses and uses this direct experience to make sense of events rather than using the preconceived narrative. This helps us to describe how people might shift their beliefs and, perhaps, their behaviours, if they are able to create a new narrative for viewing themselves and their group. Such new narratives could be found by accessing the senses and focusing on direct experience.

Through improvisation we can access direct experience to find connections and insights which we can bring back into our narrative circuitry to build new stories. This explains why the SNE Model relies on experiential processes and embodiment. These processes do three things:

  1. Spontaneous embodiment mirror to us hidden aspects of our narrative belief systems that are buried in our unconscious
  2. Through the body and the senses we access our direct experience where we find material for building new narratives and
  3. The behaviours linked to the new narrative can be ‘rehearsed’ through enactment of possible future situations.

The above tracking of the SNE Model accounts for the narrative and Embodiment aspects of the theory, but not for the strategic aspect. It was in our practical work with individuals, leaders and organisations that the real power of the work was unlocked. Each of our clients individual, team, leader or organisation, had a strategic context within which the work unfolded. The client’s needs and goals for each workshop or intervention became the frame within which the work could be brought alive. A dynamic tension is created every time someone wants something and his or her reality provides obstacles that frustrate the strategic objective.

Jonathan Gottschall writes in his book The Storytelling Animal (2012) that stories at its most basic level consists of three things:

  1. a character that wants something,
  2. obstacles that are in her way of getting it, and
  3. an attempt at extricating what she wants in spite of the obstacles.

This same idea was brought forth in Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years – How to live a better story (2009). When a person wants something and another opposite force hinders him, story happens.

The person who has the strategic intention meets reality that embodies the opposite of what he wants and so narrative happens. This is the essence of the Strategic Narrative Embodiment model. If we can work with what we want and what we have through story, we may be able to close the gap so that we can want what we have and have what we want. This means we can act on our intentions with greater awareness and accept our realities with greater compassion.

SNE model

Between the intention of the strategic objectives of a client and the reality of his work-life context, the story unfolds. Between the head that plans and the hands that take action lays the treacherous landscape of the heart. It is treacherous because this is where opposites and contradictions dance in a mad whirl of ambiguities, fall in and out of love and learn to coexist in the unfolding paradox, indeed the story, of life.

Against this background Strategic Narrative Embodiment Techniques are designed to help clients navigate the story that unfolds as their objectives meet their reality: a reality that includes other people, with other objectives and other perspectives on the world. In this kind of world strategic self-reflexivity, the ability to discern new narrative patterns and openness to direct experience through the body are invaluable skills.

Attend a course in Strategic Narrative Embodiment Techniques


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