Questions for Mythodrama

Richard Olivier's QuestionsForLiving interview on May 8, 2013 centers on his questions for creating Mythodrama. Mythodrama is an innovative process for enabling personal growth and cultural transformation. Through Richard's approach theater is used as the primary medium to help participants achieve positive change and to convey important lessons about leadership and organisational culture.


QuestionsForLiving: What questions led you to the concept of Mythodrama?

Richard Olivier:  How can theater be an educational tool?  Having been steeped in professional theater, and coming from a theatrical family, I was really questioning the role of theater, specifically,  "What healing role can theater have in modern society?"

As a theatre director in the 1990's my perception was theater becoming more about entertainment and less about education. Shakespeare had Hamlet tell us that : "the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to nature", and I felt that the mirror was being veiled in a way I personally found uninspiring.  The rise of the big musical and the pressure to make money led to less risk, less creativity and less learning, in my experience.   

My original study of theatre history also pointed to the idea of shamanic practice as a foundational impulse; the origins of theater were in shamanism, the original actors were the shamans or priests of a tribe and the original stories that were enacted were the sacred stories that gave meaning to their people.

This realisation struck a personal chord with me at a family level; my father, Laurence was a famous actor and his father was a priest. SInce then I had this intuition that theater and the sacred could be reconnected and that, maybe, it was part of my job to help make it happen.

In the mid 1990's  I began experimenting with groups in personal development workshops using  a mix of Shakespeare stories, theater techniques and archetypal psychology .  Instead of a traditional theatre scenario where the audience tend to be more passive observers, we made them the participant / 'actors'. And that is where the practice of 'Mythodrama' was born.  We could take a myth and dramatize it in a way that it had direct application to the participants’ lives. Essentially  we would put the mirror of a dramatic story in front of people and ask, "what do you see? "

What if you were to reflect yourself into this story, this play, this character? 

- What pieces of the story are you most interested in? And why? 

- What dilemmas or challenges the characters go through are closest to you?

- What characters might have something to teach you, at this point in your life?

All those kinds of questions were part of the process, and this was a completely new use of theatre for me - and one I found very fulfilling. The story becomes a container that allows people to ask questions they wouldn’t otherwise ask of themselves and their lives. 


QFL:  If there were one or two overarching questions that influenced the creation of Mythodrama, what would they be?

Olivier:  "How can we get theater back to a more educational if, not soulful place?" Two other questions were: How to really reach an audience with a story or drama?  and  How could a story create a  'wake up' call for people? 

My sources for Mythodrama came from key mentors in my own development; American poet Robert Bly, archetypal psychologist James Hillman and mythologist Michael Meade.

Those three were doing really interesting work called Mythopoetic Men’s work which I helped organise in the UK in the early 1990's.  It was a way of getting men into a creatively stimulating environment where they could let go of the normal barriers and start talking honestly about the things that were really important to them. 

That time was the last recession in the UK before this much worse one and many of those showing up at these events were feeling used and thrown away by large organizations.  I was one of the helpers, trying to patch up the 'walking wounded' and I began to ask myself a bigger question: "What would it be like to go upstream and work with the people making these decisions?" Leadership decisions were affecting these people, thousands of others and having a negative impact on the environmental sustainability of the planet . That was a moment of feeling 'called' to the leadership work, though it took a few years before it happened in reality.


QFL:  Are there questions that you ask yourself when working with executive groups to ensure that they have a meaningful or transformational experience with Mythodrama? When you work with a group, what questions do you ask yourself in terms of leading them through your unique process for development and transformation?

OLIVIER:  There are two primary questions: "Where are they now?" and "What are the practical and the psychological contexts that they are operating in?"  And then based on the kind of feedback or the intuition around those two questions, I will ask myself,  "How far can they realistically go in the time we have?"


QFL:  What questions do you feel leaders really should ask themselves to be successful? Are there some universal or overarching questions that you think leaders need to ask to be successful in their function?

Olivier:  In our trainings, we are  more 'poetic generalists' than technical specialists so we would rarely proscribe a question but we certainly invite our clients to find their own deep questions - and to live into them, however long that takes.  And we use metaphor so, for example, a question we do ask at the end of our Inspirational Leadership programme, (prompted by an Antonio Machado poem) is: "What have you done with the garden that  was entrusted to you?"

'Inspirational Leadership' is based on Henry V, who after spending four acts as a Warrior leader out to conquer France then realises the Warrior cannot ' win the peace' and he needs to change. We call Act 5 ; 'Turning the Battlefield into a Garden'.  Most leaders do not get cultural permission to turn a battlefield into a garden, which is why we highlight it as an important personal challenge.  In the organizational context on a global level leaders are only required to increase shareholder value. This negates "the garden", which then has a huge impact on personal sustainability for people in leadership positions.  Many burnout, quit or effectively, I argue, sell their soul along the way - because they can’t keep themselves fully whole and deliver the organizational priorities.  So it has a personal cost.  There’s the cost to the organisation's culture because many others in the culture replicate the behaviours of those at the top. If those below see leaders taking shortcuts and living more like 'human doings' than 'human beings', they believe it must be part of the deal.  The whole culture can become toxic and unsustainable.  And then, of course, the external result has to be environmental unsustainability, because if we’re not looking after ourselves and we’re not looking after our people, we’re sure as hell ain’t going to look after the planet. 


QFL: What are some specific or fundamental questions that you feel or believe Shakespeare asked himself in the creation of his plays?  What do you feel were some of his questions that he was meditating or contemplating in his work?

Olivier:  I think some of fundamental questions that underlie almost everything Shakespeare wrote are:

  • What is humanity? 
  • What does it mean to be a human being? 
  • Why are we here? 
  • How can we engage ourselves and our lives in a way that is more likely to create love and less likely to create war? 

There’s an interesting fact about his work; every play without a strong heartfelt women  ends in death or tragedy and every play with a strong female character with an open heart ends in marriage and blessing. So to me he was an early 'psychological feminist' who knew that without appropriate balance between masculine and feminine wisdom in leadership, as well as in life, we are going to end up with 'blood on the floor'!. He seems to be clear that  when women have more influence there will be a lot more blessing and a lot less killing.


QFL:  What questions do you believe ,if Shakespeare was alive today, he would want people to ask themselves routinely?

Olivier:  "How do we connect interdependently with ever larger groups of people?" He was good about showing how an individual, can connect to the tribe and how tribes can form a nation, but in his time there was no meaningful international global community or interdependence.  I think if he were alive, he would be asking the big questions about that.  On the personal and the cultural level, he would ask "How much is enough?"  In terms of personal resource; money, luxury, whatever, in a world of finite resources, what’s enough? " And, "How can we  prompt people to ask that question of themselves in a reflective and courageous way?"  I imagine he would encourage people to ask these questions fairly regularly over the course of their lives to make sure they haven’t forgotten the answer or the check that the answer hasn’t changed. 


QFL:  Independent of your work with Mythodrama, what questions do you believe that people could or should ask themselves to make the world a happier and healthier place?

Olivier:  "How can I help?"  I think that’s a good place to start.  Also, I would expand on Kennedy's famous quote to include a broader scale,  "Ask not what the world can do for me, but what I can do for the world?"   I would also suggest, "How can I keep opening my heart despite the pain that will inevitably cause me at some time along the journey?"

 For more information regarding Richard Olivier and Mythodrama, please visit his website:


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