Culture Magazine

Intro to Applied Theatre

By Aurorapowers @aurorapowers
Applied theatre is an umbrella term for a group of performance practices in which artists work with individuals and communities to foster social change. The term ‘applied theatre’ may be used to refer to community theatre, political theatre, youth theatre, theatre in prisons, theatre in conflict resolution, playback theatre, psychodrama, dramatherapy, theatre in education, and theatre for development (Prentki, 2009). The term ‘applied’ in applied theatre points to two predominant functions of theatre. Theatre may be ‘applied’ to a community for self-development and exploration, or ‘applied’ to an issue that is addressed through theatre (Ackroyd, 2007). This notion of ‘theatre’ is not a distinct form of art that is understood in the same way in every community and context (Ackroyd, 2007; Prentki, 2009); in fact, applied theatre may deliberately contest and purposefully transgress theatrical traditions (Jackson A. , 2009). Both these notions ‘applied’ and ‘theatre’ therefore point to performances with a similar purpose but different theoretical frameworks and approaches.
Intro to Applied TheatreApplied theatre from the Centre of Applied Theatre Research
In writing about contemporary discourse on applied theatre, Judith Ackroyd (2000; 2007) however, wonders if ‘the term is actually worth having’ (Ackroyd, 2007, p. 7). While she had previously embraced this term (Ackroyd, 2000), Ackroyd more recently argues that the discourse on applied theatre has created a hierarchy of performance approaches (Ackroyd, 2007). Ackroyd maintains that applied theatre must not be considered as an ideology or a method. Instead, as a range of separate and overlapping art forms that seek social transformation, these performances must continually reflect upon their purpose and engagement (Ackroyd, 2000). My interest lies in the potential of each form to work with communities to reconfigure gender and negotiate ethical relationships. Like Ackroyd, I am not merely interested in the efficacy of applied theatre performances in reaching their purported goals (Ackroyd, 2007); I am also interested in examining and critiquing these goals, asking if they have the potential to transform the script of rape.
Effect or Affect?
Applied Theatre has traditionally focused on social efficacy over aesthetic experience (Prentki T. , 1998; Thompson, 2009). Discourse on applied theatre promotes performances as working towards positive social change and personal growth; performances aim to assist people reflect upon and change their lives, to work through trauma, engage in learning, and depict ‘something of the truth of the lives of those involved’ (Thompson, 2009, p. 116). Performance theorist and director of DramaAidE (Drama Aids Education), Lyn Dalrymple tells that in the context of South Africa, the impact of applied theatre is primarily seen in terms of ‘the effect an activity or experience has had on its target audience’ (Dalrymple, 2006, p. 202; italics in original). In working on applied theatre projects that attempt to prevent the rise of HIV infections through raising awareness of the issue, Dalrymple cites the difficulty of evaluating the goals of applied theatre, and of attributing these changes to the project itself (Dalrymple, 2006). It may however be problematic to simply see applied theatre performances in terms of their social impact; evaluation is notoriously imprecise, and this perspective homogenises the types of performances that are endorsed (Ackroyd, 2000).
Intro to Applied TheatreWhat about the affect of applied theatre?
James Thompson in Applied Theatre and the End of Effect (2009) argues for a methodological shift that considers the affect, rather than the effect of performance. Performance may be educational and informational, or offer ways for communities to differently negotiate their social realties. However, according to Thompson, these are not the primary attributes of performance, and he quotes Claire Colebrook who argues ‘what makes it art is not content but its affect’ (Colebrook in Thompson, 2009). This viewpoint acknowledges that performance is not merely a bundle of meanings, but a force which generates individual impressions and creative force. In suggesting a move away from a focus on efficacy, Thompson is not proposing that applied theatre become politically insignificant. Instead, he claims that ‘the aesthetic intensity is in itself the propellant of political action’ (Thompson, 2009, p. 128). In Thompson’s opinion, critique of applied theatre must move to acknowledging how aesthetic experiences of performance invite intellectual engagement (Thompson, 2009, p. 130).
Richard Schechner's Efficacy-Entertainment Braid
While Brecht and Schechner make clear distinctions between entertainment and efficacy (Schechner, 1998), Thompson does not write these functions as dichotomous, but argues instead for a discourse that acknowledges their continual interweaving. Schechner arranges entertainment and efficacy into a braid, and outlines how historically, performance has oscillated between these two extremities (Schechner, 1998). Schechner writes that at ‘any historical moment there is movement from one pole to the other as the efficacy-entertainment braid tightens and loosens’ (Schechner, 1998, p. 136). Yet for Thompson the concept of affect ‘tries to turn a braid into a mesh of felt responses’ that disrupts the opposition between efficacy and entertainment (Thompson, 2009, p. 130). Performance is promoted as having sensory, experiential, and expansive affects that promote engagement. Thompson argues that applied theatre performances must be appraised for both sensation and meaning, so ‘the joy – the buzz of the participatory arts is inseparable from the total impact of the event’ (Thompson, 2009, p. 131). In my analysis of performance as a way to prevent rape I wish to explore how the experience of performance itself may be transformative, rather than investigating transformation as some future social change.

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