Using Theater Games to Drive New Product Innovation

Laurie Tema-Lyn at QRCA

Using Theater Games to Drive New Product Innovation

It’s every Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) company’s nightmare scenario: after thousands of hours of tireless development, your product launches to market to be met with a resounding “meh.” Only now does it become clear that your product did not address the pain point you sought to alleviate, or worse yet, seeks to fill a hole in the market that never existed in the first place (the USB Pet Rock comes to mind).

Consumer insights are key to developing your newest product concept, but how do you gather them in a manner that guarantees transparent, open and unfiltered thought and feedback? Writing by Design strategic partner Laurie Tema-Lyn, founder and president of Practical Imagination Enterprises, said she feels that no company should endure the sting of an unsuccessful product launch. In January, she provided some insight into one of her favorite innovation tools at the 2019 Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) Conference in Savannah, Georgia. Her presentation, “Theater Games for Energy, Insight, and Ideas,” was designed to help qualitative researchers get candid consumer insights that lead to results by getting participants out of their comfort zones through improv.

What does improv have to do with product development?

Most of us recognize improv from college campuses, theater stages, or television programs like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” but the history of this art form dates back to the Great Depression and a woman named Viola Spolin, the creator of “Theater Games.” The rules of theater games are simple: each game or exercise presents participants with a scenario, a problem to solve, and ultimately, a lesson to learn. Her work has proven revolutionary in the fields of theater, education, and business and product development. And one of the basic rules of improv—saying “yes, and” instead of “no, but”—aligns perfectly with the mindset that needs to be present in innovation development. It requires building on an idea instead of crushing one.

Laurie’s presentation at the 2019 QRCA conference highlighted specific examples of when theater games helped to spark energy, find fresh insight, and generate new ideas that provided companies with invaluable consumer insight data.

In one example, Laurie spoke about working with a pharmaceutical company as they developed a new pediatric allergy medication. “They did research and had features they wanted to highlight, but they were all straightforward and pretty typical,” Laurie said. “There wasn’t anything that stood out.”

The group was at a creative standstill which is when Laurie introduced theater games. With a “slice-of-life” scenario role play, she asked two participants to play the roles of mothers watching their children on the playground. “It was a comfort-zone shattering exercise in perspective-taking, empathizing, and most importantly, saying ‘yes, and‘,” Laurie said.

This scenario challenged participants to support one another and build off each other’s ideas instead of cutting off a potential creative lead. Rather than responding to new and challenging ideas with hesitation or outright rejection, Laurie’s use of theater games removed the negativity often present in the brainstorming process, resulting in an open and productive dialog. “They started thinking like the consumer,” Laurie said. “And they identified some really interesting language that didn’t come up earlier.”

Theater games work wonders for gathering all-important consumer insights, and Fortune 500 companies are discovering the power of putting theater games to work for their product launches.

By fostering mission-critical skills such as confidence, active listening, and workplace positivity, theater games challenge us, according to Laurie, “not to worry about being self-conscious or making a good first impression, but to get out of a self-censoring mode and garner more immediate responses.” Finding just the right solution for your consumers is the first crucial key in developing concepts that’ll sail through testing. Learn more about how we combine just the right people to help you unlock the launch gates faster.


Headshot of Laurie

Laurie doesn’t consider herself a thespian, but her passion for the creative art is undeniable. After seeing a performance of the musical Hair, Laurie knew she wanted to try her hand at theater but found herself terrified of the process.

“The next year in school I dared myself to break out and try it,” Laurie said. “I took an interpretative reading class, which meant I wasn’t performing a script, but rather reading it in an expressive fashion. I got a standing ovation and decided right there and then, I had to use theater in my career.”

Theater followed Laurie into the professional realm, working first in the advertising industry before pivoting to a consulting agency. Theater games and improv have been part of her professional repertoire in some form or another since 1983.

Laurie’s innovative thinking and tools have proven immeasurably valuable in past innovation sessions conducted jointly with Writing by Design and other strategic partners. Tapping into Laurie’s love of theater and abundant creativity, she never fails to stretch group thinking into innovative, new space. Using theater games, great ideas are only a step away and begin with saying “yes, and.”

Headshot of Dylan Fredette

With a bachelor’s degree in cinema, screen studies and creative writing and 6+ years of digital and content marketing experience, Dylan Fredette has a passion for narrative storytelling that he brings to everything he creates. Dylan has applied his skill set in multiple industries, writing blog posts, designing print and digital media, and leading video production projects for local, national, and international businesses and brands.