Centre stage: the vital social role of applied theatre
Applied theatre tells a story not for the purposes of entertainment but for social, economic, political or therapeutic reasons. EU-funded researchers have been examining the growth and impact of this form of theatre across the world.
© Kristin Flade, 2015
Over the past few decades, applied theatre has been growing in popularity. It can be performed in a variety of spaces, often by people who are not actors. It can be used to help people process traumatic experiences, resolve conflicts in local communities, select staff for leadership positions and prepare juvenile offenders for reintegration into society. Now, even more traditional theatre is turning towards such issues.
Despite its outstanding cultural and political significance, applied theatre has so far largely been ignored by theatre studies. The EU-funded AESTAPP project undertook an international comparative study of applied theatre to understand how aesthetic, political and ethical aspects interact.
The project team examined its role in South Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Europe. Key goals included gauging the opportunities and risks involved in applied theatre while trying to assess its long-term development. The project also sought to examine the ethical issues involved.
From a European perspective, it was impressive to see that applied theatre outside Europe, such as in South Africa, often has a longer tradition and is far more differentiated and elaborated, explains Matthias Warstat, the projects principal investigator. This means there are a lot of experiences in the world of applied theatre from which we in Europe can learn.
The project team found that some forms of theatre can resonate with audiences worldwide and across cultural boundaries. However, the use of applied theatre does come with some risk, especially when working with patients, prisoners and other vulnerable groups.
AESTAPPs assertion is that no one can know how the confrontation between actors and an audience is going to evolve. Therefore, the tension of every theatre project has the potential to be both fascinating and dangerous.
The project team was keen to foster dialogue between theory and practice in the field of applied theatre. Through workshops, interviews and field research, they found out what theatre practitioners and artists thought about their own work and its impact on target groups.
Using these findings, AESTAPP has devised a model for analysing applied theatre projects, which is now being used for academic teaching. The methodology takes into account the complexity of applied theatre and its difference from more mainstream performances.
More than a performance
When it comes to theatre projects in youth work, in prison or in hospitals, the final performance is often not the most important element. In some cases, there is no performance at all, because the theatre work was about topics that are confidential or not intended for a larger audience, says Warstat. Therefore, a comprehensive analysis of such projects has to consider many other dimensions, including the institutional framework, funding policies, rehearsal processes, accompanying discussions and subsequent public debate.
AESTAPP also aimed to find innovative ways of communicating its results. For instance, film-maker Janina Möbius was part of the project from the beginning and created a film about theatre in Mexican prisons that will be shown internationally to promote dialogue between researchers, theatre-makers, prisoners and prison authorities.