Simulation in training: creativity in action

Simulation in training: creativity in action

“Another obstructive misconception is that creativity is simply unfettered thinking, divorced from practicality and reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity, in fact, is hard work.” David Cropley, ‘Fighting the slump: a strategic approach to developing creativity’, The Conversation, 12 Jan. 2015

Years ago I used to be a performer.

One of the last acting gigs I had, and definitely one of my favourites, was working as a Simulated Patient during role plays conducted as part of the training for first year psychiatric nursing students at Deakin University.

I loved it, which is perverse of me as my particular role – the patient I was meant to simulate in the role plays – was based on real life suffering. Her fictional name was Elise, she had Borderline Personality Disorder, and her history (based on real case notes apart from the change of name) was absolutely heartrending. I used to think of her and the trauma she had suffered and cry on the train to the University campus, and then cry for her and others like her on the way back home.

Why did I love it then?

I had many reasons. It was great, for one, to use my acting skills to participate in an exercise – the training of psychiatric nurses – which would lead to people going out into the world and making a positive difference. It was one of the most challenging acting gigs I ever had, requiring a sustained integrity of performance where discipline and instinctive creative response had to be perfectly balanced in order for me to be both convincing within the role play for the sake of the other participant but also useful within the context of facilitating a useful training experience.

Image sourced from
Image sourced from

Because it was an exercise in using my acting skills to their highest capacity, but not for the sake of entertainment, it gave me the distance from theatre making to think about the nature of performing. I was fascinated about how the key to a useful training experience was to resist the urge to make compelling nail biting scenery chewing theatre. The students were practising communication strategies on a person in a highly agitated state and driven by poor impulse control (i.e. me); if they used these strategies well then I had to give them a win and allow them some success in calming me down. My theatrical instincts always wanted to do the opposite and to ramp the drama right up, but this would have been distorting and undermining of their learning experience.

The way role plays are set up…

The other thing I found myself considering was the nature of improvisation in performance. The way Simulated Patient role plays are set up is this: actors and other participants are given a scenario in which to interact with each other and are assigned roles. This scenario will include a setting, some kind of circumstance or set of conditions (usually designed to put some kind of pressure on the participants) and a desired outcome. In my case, the role play was set in a mental health institution and was between my character Elise and a psychiatric nurse played by the students. The context was that Elise had been found breaking house rules and the nurse’s needed to talk to her about it. Elise’s desired outcome was to get out of this conversation as fast as she could without admitting to any wrongdoing. The students / nurse’s desired outcomes were to get Elise to own up and undertake to follow the rules. A bonus would be if they could get Elise to open up about the feelings that drove her poor impulse control and self-destructive behaviour, something Elise was determined to avoid doing as her memories of her tragic past were harrowing to the point of emotional disintegration.

So as a performer there were clear guidelines that I had to follow, but the actual dialogue, the emotional arc of the role players and where the dialogue could end up were undetermined. Those of us participating in the role play had to react to each other and think on our feet.

“Creativity, in fact, is hard work.”

“Another obstructive misconception is that creativity is simply unfettered thinking, divorced from practicality and reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity, in fact, is hard work.”

I get the impression that people think that performing is a result of “unfettered thinking”, that all you have to do is be disinhibited and to let it all hang out.

Image sourced from
Image sourced from

But there is much more to it than that. Performing, like all art forms (visual, performative, literary or otherwise), actually requires a fine balance of imagination and intellect, of creative and critical thinking. When actors refer to their ‘craft’ they are not being wankers. There is a craft to it, and it must be practised. The ability to act convincingly, whether that be during an improvisational exercise or to deliver carefully scripted and rehearsed lines, has a lot to do with decision making. Yes – it also has to do with emotional display and imaginative response, but the performer has to make the right decisions as to how to harness those emotions and ideas. Good actors are able to make decisions about this very quickly and consistently and at such speed that it manifests as instinct.

As a trainer I am not crazy about role playing as a training tool if only for the reason that it is so often badly set up and people feel stupid doing it. But my experience in Deakin’s Simulated Patient program (now sadly discontinued) was different; I was well briefed, the role plays were well set up and we were able to create a strong immersive experience for the students. By being asked to participate in the role play they were being asked to experience and practise the split second decision making skills that I as a performer and they as real life psychiatric nurses would have to deploy to operate at a suitably high standard. By participating in an acting exercise they were given the opportunity to experience using emotional intelligence, intellect, creative problem solving simultaneously to cope with a difficult situation, to harness these things and not be overwhelmed by them.

Surely many occupations require a mixture or balance of these qualities, albeit under less duress that psychiatric nurses. But any job requires its incumbent to develop the right balance between intellect, feeling and imagination. What particular mix does your job require? Are you working in conditions that allow you to get the balance right?

Performers from Bertram Mills Circus in London circa 1953. Image sourced from
Performers from Bertram Mills Circus in London circa 1953. Image sourced from

This blog was inspired by a recent visit to the Building Leadership Simulation Centre (fascinating place!) organised by the Third Place meetup group. Helen Blunden, who organised the tour, wrote a blog about the visit which I highly recommend that you read.

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