Acting Class Helps Students Project Power

MBA students who thought an acting class would teach them how to charm their way through tense business situations were set straight the first day of a spring quarter elective at the Graduate School of Business. “Acting with power isn’t pretending or putting on a performance but bringing truth to a role,” said Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, who studies the psychology of power and powerlessness.


In the Acting With Power course students tried being meek, authoritative, approachable, aloof, snotty, or gracious as they applied various acting techniques to scenarios. "The tendency is for actors to think it’s all about them, but acting is really about the other person on the stage," said drama lecturer Kay Kostopoulos. "Actors need to listen to each other carefully in order to pick up cues, some verbal, some not. It’s no different in the business world."


The following is the latest installment in a journal series by Arthur Patterson that covers the progress of the 2010 Acting With Power class.


The Curtain Rises for the Finale

Week Eight – May 24, 2010

It’s show time. The Acting with Power class comes to a conclusion with pairs of business students performing their rehearsed scenes. The progress made by each duo over the past month isn’t limited to memorization of lines. It’s clear they’ve improved their timing, physical gestures, enunciation, posture, and listening, among others.

Professor Gruenfeld reviews the benefits of playing both high and low, reminding students that if in doubt, they should play just below their partner—high-status enough to be taken seriously, but not a threat. She reiterates the importance of body language in establishing one’s status.

Students note how powerful the previous week’s mantra exercise is in helping them focus on how each line should be delivered in a way that makes sense, given the objectives of the characters they played. Exercises like these have real-world applications that will last beyond the duration of the course.

Gruenfeld offers some final key insights:

• Acting is about being truthful in the moment.

• Leadership is about bringing your personal truth to a “professional” role.

• It’s not what you say, but how you say it that affects how others perceive you.

• Be present in the moment, not in the past or future.

• Get off of yourself, make it about the other person.

Honing the Craft

Weeks Six and Seven – May 10 and 17, 2010

“Don’t you dare pick up that book,” drama lecturer Kay Kostopoulos admonishes the actor as she bends over to retrieve a book her character has just tossed to the floor. “Remember, this is your story that an alleged friend stole and had published under her own name. Be angry! It’s your right.”

The scene involves two women, the original author of the book and the woman who co-opted the story, retelling the cribbed narrative in her own voice. It was one student’s idea to throw the book on the floor instead of returning it to the table after giving it a careless once over. The action heightens the tension, giving a palpability to her character’s simmering anger.

In the class’s last two sessions, the pairs of students polish their scenes, first going through lines repeatedly, and then fine-tuning expressions and intonations. The actors now use props as sensory elements to help their characters behave more truthfully, allowing the audience to more completely believe the scene unfolding before them.

Kostopoulos explains that the actors’ primary activity is what they are doing with their partner, and the secondary activity is taking actions and motions that enhance the movement of the scene. Tossing the book to the floor and leaving it there is a perfect example.

“What do you want from him?” Kostopoulos asks. When performing a scene from the movie Wall Street, she asks the actors what is it their character wants and then has them repeat that exact phrase after saying each individual line: The son seeking acceptance from his father says, “Love me, dad,” while his father repeatedly states, “Get your act together.” Hearing the same mantra becomes repetitive, but keeps the actors aware of their objective.

To try and make a character initially unapproachable, a student suggests the actor begin the scene wearing sunglasses and then take them off when he wants to become more intimate with his scene partner. Stunts like these aren’t likely to be found in offices and conference rooms around the globe, but they do emphasize ways to build status, which can also be shown through deliberate pauses, pacing back and forth, and rising from a seated position at opportune moments.

Another mantra echoed in each class is that stopping to listen to what the other person is saying, and not just thinking about what you’re going to say, dramatically changes the dynamic of a conversation. Whether it’s in the office or on stage, focused listening is effective.

Process vs. Results

Week Five - May 3, 2010

Today the class changes gears, spending less time on lecture and discussion and more on acting exercises.

Students break into pairs and play each other in the hand game rock-paper-scissors, also known as rochambeau. As the victor of a pair raises her hand and does a victory jig, the loser gets behind and starts chanting the winner's name. The victor, with a one-person cheering section in tow, finds other winners to play. The losers of subsequent rounds rally behind the winners until a sole victor, backed by an enthusiastic cheering section, emerges. "See how we changed a win/lose competitive situation for an individual into a sink/swim scenario for the whole team?" Professor Gruenfeld asks.

The result of the icebreaker sinks in as the students go through their warm-up routine. Drama lecturer Kay Kostopoulos reminds them that she's not looking for perfection in their acting but an optimal performance while under stress. "Acting is like learning scales and chords," she says. "You're not going to play a concerto off the bat." She explains that performance is not a result, it's a process. That's why she's been fine-tuning the performances of the past few weeks, having some students stand while addressing their classmates; others she has lean back and speak more slowly. "We're not here to make you an acting robot," she says. "We're just trying different methods that best express your individual personality, to help you find ways to bring you to life."

Pairs of students are assigned scenes from movies like Wall Street and Network or plays like An Enemy of the People and Glengarry Glen Ross. Not all of the scenes involve a business setting, but all center on power and status. Today each duo is asked to do a cold reading of their scene, unaware of how it fits into the entire play or movie. "Notice the dialogue on the page," Kostopoulos says. "Do the characters speak in long or short sentences? Do they cut each other off? Are there stage directions that add to the character's personality?"

She asks the actors to avoid reading along as their partners recite their lines. Instead they are to speak their own lines and then use a finger to mark their own next speaking part in the script. This gives them the freedom to listen.

"Say it like he doesn't know where New England is," she instructs a student during a scene, instantly transforming the actor from meek attorney to patronizing high-status player. "Make sure the line lands on your partner," she says.

Power from Playing Low

Week Four - April 26, 2010

The theater of politics lends itself nicely to a course named Acting with Power. Already the class has seen examples of playing high and low from the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Now, Professor Gruenfeld shows how warmth and competence factor into the way constituents size up their candidates.

The Bias Map

Image from Amy Cuddy

While running for Congress in 2006, Ron Klein, D-Fla., was having difficulty connecting with voters, despite having heavyweight campaigners such as Obama and Clinton and a history of substantial accomplishments. A hired consulting firm studied his interpersonal and oratory skills and said his smile appeared forced, and his eyebrows, which he unknowingly arched when he listened earnestly, came across as accusatory.

Whenever Klein spoke about his son, however, his face would light up and his demeanor became more natural. As a result, more potential voters could identify with him. The firm's acting coaches advised him to keep from raising his eyebrows and begin his addresses by mentioning his family life, thus connecting with his audience. As Klein began adopting the advice, his public persona became more likeable, and he ended up winning the congressional seat.

Voters saw Klein as more approachable when he spoke about his family. Teachers in this class -- based on concepts of professional acting -- describe speech acts such as this one as "playing low." The class now watches a televised Obama-McCain debate to see a prime example of Obama playing low: When asked about what he didn't know and how he will learn about it, Obama glanced over to his wife, Michelle, and said she probably had a longer list of what he didn't know. Audience laughs aside, it was a moment where Obama lowered his status and put himself on a human, common level with his viewers.

Timing of speech is also an issue. "There's so much power in letting what you say land," Gruenfeld says, noting how Obama didn't rush to finish his answer once he had deferred to his wife. "When you're going low, you're giving something away but also gaining something." She explains how empathizing and playing low are important methods toward charismatic leadership, which occurs when leaders effectively formulate inchoate sentiments deeply held by the masses. Charisma, she says, is the extent to which followers can see themselves in the leader.

Drama lecturer Kostopoulos stresses that empathizing is an important technique for getting into a role. The actor imagines what the character feels, does, likes, and dislikes. The prior week she asked students to share a life-altering experience with another classmate. Now she says: "Imagine the story told by your partner happened to you. Think of it in first person, which is called owning the moment."

The first storyteller sits in a chair, rests her elbows on her knees and begins. She sets a confessional tone, and the class listens raptly as she explains what growing up Jain, an ancient religion of India, meant to her. In reality, she's from Minnesota, but she's a convincing storyteller. Kostopoulos asks her to try again, only this time to slow down her speech, straighten her back, and rotate her head a bit. Surprisingly, it heightens the intimacy of the moment.

Subsequent storytellers stand, or drape an arm across an adjacent chair, or walk casually across the classroom. Kostopoulos suggests a few tweaks: Sit on a table with one foot on a chair. Don't smile. Address a single person in the audience. Put your hands in your pockets.

Sometimes a storyteller speeds up the pace for part of the story and slows down for the emotional parts. "There's no right or wrong way to do this," she says. "We're just trying different ways to express yourself and help you connect with your audience."

The confessional tone throughout the recounted stories unites listener and storyteller and the more natural the delivery, the greater the bond formed and the less psychological distance between the two.

Having an Objective

April 19, 2010

How can power affect those who have it? Professor Gruenfeld uses an example from her pre-academia days. In meetings she had with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, he opened a personal refrigerator, drank vodka straight from the bottle, and nibbled on raw onions.

Wenner never offered to share, and nobody on his staff confronted him about his actions, thus acknowledging his power. His behavior is an example of disinhibition, something Gruenfeld has been studying for 12 years. In a social context, disinhibitors act without concern for others' perceptions and evaluations.

Disinhibition isn't necessarily a bad thing and can make achieving goals for those in power a lot easier. One example is matching job candidates to a position's criteria. Gruenfeld's research shows that those in power are better at finding the best-suited employee because they see the usefulness of candidates and how the candidates' skills will work toward fulfilling their own goals. Because those in power have a reduced amount of sensitivity to others' interests and experiences, they often see people as a means to an end.

Drama lecturer Kostopoulos explains that all people take actions to get what they want, either through a verbal action, a physical action, or an action of will or intent. In a way, we're all actors. How effectively we act makes the difference. She asks students to form a circle and toss a ball to each other, the caveat being that the ball will explode if it hits the ground. The class chuckles and tosses the ball, sometimes carelessly, sometimes too forcefully.

"You're not believing it," Kostopoulos admonishes. She admits it's a silly exercise, but acting is about wanting something, about having an objective, just like somebody in power pursuing a goal. And right now, the students aren't believing in the situation. Immediately after saying this, a student walks the ball over to another and carefully places it in her hands.

"The audience must believe the truth of the situation," Kostopoulos says. She clarifies her point by deconstructing favorite film or television characters offered by students. One television show involves a high schooler whose main objective is to be popular. "The stakes aren't too high," Kostopoulos says, "but to this character, they are. Her objective is of utmost importance to her. The same is true with good comedy. The stakes could be very low, but if the character is committed to the absurd situation, an audience will buy in."

All students are given the same 15 lines of dialogue and are asked to pair up and act out a scenario where the objectives of the two characters are obvious. They don't have much to work with:


"Well what?"


"OK … please?"


"So." …

Despite the intentionally vague dialogue, the physical gestures and vocal inflections tell the story: a student cheating on a test, a police sniper accidentally shooting one of his own, a married couple bickering. Kostopoulos asks: What's the objective of each character? When it isn't obvious to the class, she has the duo repeat the scene to clarify the objective, which they achieve with a pat on the shoulder or a more pleading voice.

Again, actions and tonal inflections are as important, if not more so, than the words. The class is given a case study about the theater of politics as homework.

Status and Power

April 12, 2010

Professor Deborah Gruenfeld uses two well-known examples of film actors effectively playing high and low status, with Judi Dench playing the high status and unapproachable Queen Elizabeth and Woody Allen playing the low-status everyday man.

Photo from Everett Collection

Aces are low, kings are high. Students don't know which card in the deck is pressed to their foreheads, but are told to treat others according to the value of their respective cards. So the kings and queens get the royal treatment while the aces and low-numbered cards barely get a passing hello. When asked to line up in order of where they think they belong, aces on one end and kings on another, the three-dozen students stack up pretty much as expected -- save for the one or two statistical anomalies.

A student with a low-value card said nobody wanted to know her name, while another was sought out because she held a high card. The exercise illustrates the importance of status -- the extent to which others hold you in high esteem and view you with respect. Although power and authority are equally important concepts, Professor Gruenfeld notes that they can be a means to status, an essential tool to acting with power.

There are two ways to "play" status. Playing high is acting authoritative, direct, and dominant. A psychological distance is created by raising yourself and lowering others. Playing low is acting compelling, charismatic, and likeable. You reduce psychological distance by lowering yourself and raising others. "There's a tendency to think only playing high is useful," Gruenfeld says. "But that isn't true."

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama played high when answering difficult questions and needing to be an authority on subjects. However, he was able to play low one-on-one and not distance himself from a diverse group of potential voters, Gruenfeld notes. She points out that Sarah Palin capitalized on playing low, making others feel she understood them. Gruenfeld emphasizes the benefits of tuning behavior to specific situations.

Drama lecturer Kostopoulos and colleague Richard Cox perform a mock job interview. At first Kostopoulos is meek and jittery, playing low by stammering, lowering her head, and sitting with shoulders slouched and knees knocking. Cox plays high as the interviewer and appears to be in control of the proceedings until they consciously decide to switch playing high and low. Kostopoulos immediately straightens her back, speaks more slowly and clearly, and drapes her arm around the back of the adjacent chair. Cox barely can make eye contact and is hurried in his questioning.

A student sees Kostopoulos' behavior more as flirting than playing low. This is common, Kostopoulos says, especially when women play low. She points out how Cox didn't appear to be flirty when he was playing the low-status role. Other indications of playing low can be glancing around, speaking in incomplete sentences, placing hands near one's face, sounding breathless, occupying as little personal space as possible, and shouting in an attempt to intimidate.

Playing high includes speaking in complete sentences, holding eye contact while talking, slowing one's speech, occupying maximum space, moving smoothly, and having no visible reaction to what others say.

The class culminates with an acting exercise in which one student plays boss and the other, employee. The words used in each take don't differ, but the intonations and body gestures do. During one take the employee plays high, by talking too much and not letting the boss speak. To counter, the unfazed boss waits for him to finish and then begins speaking slowly and clearly. But she isn't being emphatic enough. Kostopoulos stresses that each of the boss' sentences needs to end tonally downward, not as if she were asking but telling what needs to be done. As the boss works toward becoming a more effective high-status player, her speech slows down and becomes clearer. Her pauses between requests and straighter posture elevate her status. Gone are the back pats, semi-patronizing tone, and hurried requests. In their place are a more matter-of-fact tone and succinct, confident delivery.

After 30 minutes of repeating the same scene, the boss shows marked improvement. Playing high isn't always necessary; there are times when someone should lower his or her own status to become more approachable. A student mentions meeting with Warren Buffett the week prior, and finding him extremely self-deprecating and comfortable with making goofy poses with students. Kostopoulos points out how Buffett, one of the world's richest men, lowered his status to make those around him more comfortable.

The Differences of Playing High and Low

Drama Lecturer Dan Klein and acting coach Melissa Briggs each get a chance at playing high and low status during an acting exercise.

Beginnings: "It's Not About You"

April 5, 2010

With heads down, jaws slack, and breathing heavy, the two-dozen men and women look more like zombies than MBA students. They shift their weight from one foot to the next, as if they're walking in place. Their plaintive sighs are better suited for a haunted house than a classroom. If not for the bright fluorescent lighting and whiteboards, the scene could be mistaken for a George Romero horror flick or Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Welcome to the warm-up exercises that are part of this year's Acting with Power class, where students learn to let go of what constrains them in order to communicate more clearly and effectively. The course stems from Professor Deborah Gruenfeld's studies on the psychology of power and powerlessness. In the past, when the Moghadam Family Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior lectured about examples of using power, students would come up to her afterward and say, "I could never do that." That thought lingered with Gruenfeld. Three years ago she came up with the concept of the course, which is designed both for students who have trouble "playing" authoritative roles and for those who find it difficult to share power and authority, or to defer gracefully when appropriate. Today, the spring quarter course teaches students that acting with power isn't pretending or putting on a performance, but bringing truth to a role.

So what does that mean? Stay tuned to find out. For the next eight weeks, this blog will follow how Graduate School of Business students apply acting techniques to their verbal and non-verbal communications.


The first class meeting begins predictably; Gruenfeld introduces herself and explains how the course came about and what is expected of students. She's quick to point out that good acting is not about faking it. "Acting isn't about what you think or say. It's about how you act," she says. There's an emphasis on body, voice, and movement, to where language has very little meaning. Focus is on the delivery.

Stanford drama lecturer Kay Kostopoulos leads the class in the zombielike warm-up exercises. She jokingly admits it sounds "new agey" to tell students to "go between your thoughts." Actually, it's a simple request. Aimed at clearing your mind of thoughts of things behind and ahead of you, the exercise is more commonly known as being in the moment or, in athlete-speak, being in the zone.

Once the class is limbered up, the students are asked to walk around the room, stop, and examine the face of the closest person. "You need to get off of yourself," Kostopoulos says. "It's not about you, it's all about the other person." Later she explains that for actors, and this is where reality goes against perception, the most important person on stage isn't themselves, but the other person. Acting involves a great amount of listening and picking up on cues from other actors.

The title of the class, Acting with Power, is becoming clear. When the students break into groups and get up in front of the class to conduct interviews, the non-verbal cues make a difference. In one scenario the interviewer stands and the interviewees sit. Another has three people sitting side by side, as if they were on an airliner. Afterward, the class discusses how the person standing up was perceived as the authority figure, whereas the people sitting side by side were viewed as equals. Humor, the students observe, was an effective and memorable way to communicate, and the way people used personal space also revealed non-verbal cues.

In another exercise, students are asked to get away from a classmate they have chosen as an "enemy." They do this by crouching, hiding behind others, or fluttering around. However, when they're asked to choose a student to "defend," they stand tall, puff their chests, and move more deliberately and with greater purpose. The changes in posture for each role were quite evident and came without prompting. "Some of what we are going to cover about how the body is central to power and powerlessness is already learned," Gruenfeld says.

The exercises force the students to make choices about hierarchy and authenticity in a short time. As Gruenfeld says in closing, we think of power as something we do that is forceful, out of our comfort zone, but people who have real power are comfortable wherever they are.