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All the Business World's a Stage, Say Some M.B.A.'s

Business students say acting courses have taught them about teamwork, public speaking, and leadership.

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Shakespeare is continuing to evade curtain calls at business schools, where the latest leadership training course that features the Bard compares a character from The Tempest with Steve Jobs.

Christine Kelly, a senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, says her class, EnActing Leadership: Shakespeare and Performance, requires students to study Shakespeare's ideas and to further explore them by acting in a live performance, which "adds an element of risk." 

"There is a growing realization that leadership and business school curricula need to address values and the art of leadership. The arts appear to help us deepen the discussion," Kelly says.

Many business school students and executives with acting experience say the stage can be a great dress rehearsal for a variety of board room scenarios from public speaking to coalition building.

[Learn about innovation-focused design M.B.A.'s.]

"If somebody were to [say to] me, 'Tell me about a time that you faced a challenge'—to be able to go and write a play in 30 hours and present it to an entire auditorium of business school administrative faculty members, that's a pretty big challenge," says Lee Goldfarb, a second-year student at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

Goldfarb was one of 24 students who recently completed an intensive, one-week course at Darden titled Leadership & Theater: Ethics, Innovation, and Creativity. The person with the most theater experience in the class had acted in a high school play, he says. "I am far from an actor or a person who gives speeches or a playwright or anything like that," he says. "I knew this was definitely going to challenge me." 

In addition to forcing him out of his comfort zone, Goldfarb says the course showed him how to achieve a daunting goal through tangible steps, share "critical, constructive, and concise" feedback, and refine his presentation skills.

[Check out 15 strategies for giving oral presentations.]

Sara Sajadi, another member of the Darden class, describes the course as "the case method in its finest form," referring to the approach of putting M.B.A. students in real-world business scenarios. Several other schools with theater coursework—including the University of Maryland—College Park's Smith School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business—also aim to place students in practical decision-making roles, according to their websites.

Career coaches and hiring managers say this kind of training is not only more than just a gimmick, it can actually help M.B.A.'s get hired.

"I have often found that my clients who are most successful professionally are those who have taken an acting class or two in college. They learn how to project an image and a level of confidence that may not, in fact, actually exist," says Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide

Jo Trizila, an M.B.A. student at the School of Management at University of Texas—Dallas and president of the Dallas-based public relations firm TrizCom, says stage experience can help distinguish job candidates.

"Whenever I'm looking at résumés, and I look at quite a few ... I'm always looking for something that stands out from the ordinary, because it adds a little more to the person's background. Whether that be Shakespeare or captain of the swim team, it's something different than just pure academia," says Trizila.

[Learn about how M.B.A. students are getting on-demand career coaching.]

Beverly Butler, vice president of public relations for the internet services group at Wells Fargo & Company, agrees that recruiters like to see job applicants with a range of experiences.

"Many recruiters like seeing a breadth of experience, especially background in the arts, rather than an M.B.A.'s singular focus on one thing like financial services, technology, or data analysis," she says.

"In the corporate world, we need to interact with so many different kinds of people. Having the theater arts background helps bridge gaps, and who doesn't like a good Shakespearean quote during a three-hour meeting?"