Applied Theatre for Social Change and Self-Understanding with Warwick Dobson

The oldest form of applied theatre

Theatre is more than just a form of live entertainment. When theatre is applied–to education, social justice and social change, community building efforts, conflict, disaster relief, and so on–the power of its technique and its content can transform our social relationships for the better. This is Applied Theatre.

Usually coming in the form of participatory theatre created by people who would not usually make theatre, Applied Theatre can be scripted or improvisational. It combines the use of the participant’s indigenous knowledge and practice with the toolkit of drama and theatre: myths, plays, devised performances, dramatic technique, and so on.

In the 12th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I have a fascinating conversation with Dr. Warwick Dobson who is the University Scholar in Applied Theatre at the University of Victoria. We talk about reminiscence and intergenerational theatre, how to throw your plan out the window and improvise, how myth can be used to help a community better understand it’s shared past, and so much more. Dramatic technique, it turns out, is a vast storehouse of content and approaches that can be used to facilitate working together, no matter the context.

I believe that Applied Theatre, or Community Theatre for some, is an under-recognized social innovation. And as I am wont do do, I like to read Social Innovation quite broadly. It’s not just about some sort of feel-good, do-good, “socially” and “environmentally” innovative thing in the for-profit, non-profit, NGO, or government sectors. Buy one shoe, give one shoe, and so on. I’m (mostly) on board with Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan’s definition:

“…new ideas that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations… innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act” (The Open Book of Social Innovation, p. 3).

I say “mostly” because there’s nothing new about these ideas. Sure, they can be considered new combinations of old ideas, but that’s splitting hairs a bit. Social Innovations are ideas as old as the hills. Nothing illustrates this better than my conversation with Warwick about how acting and performance can help a community gain perspective on their world. By becoming someone who you aren’t, or by re-enacting intense memories that you and your community share, the present and past are defamiliarized. A group of people, once bound by the conventions of the quotidian, are now a group of performers and participants undergoing group therapy, using ancient myth, fairytales and folklore as a wedge to open up possibilities for social change. Perhaps this is a new thing, but perhaps this is also just what good theatre has always been.


Some Big Ideas Exchanged: Persephone, Applied Theatre as Group Therapy; the “Middle Role” and more!

“Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, who was condemned to spend six months of the year in the underworld and six months of the year with her mother… she has to transition all the time… back and forth…”

What does transition between two worlds mean? What does condemnation mean?

Therapy is modern. It’s about singular and individual experience in conversation and analysis with the therapist. Of course, I’m ignoring Catholicism’s long history of confession, the Zen Koan and a whole bunch of other non-modern and non-contemporary forms of one-on-one “counsel”. But you get my point.

To take my oversimplification further, myth and theatre are premodern. They’re about a story that we play out together. They tell us something about our past, present and future together. They incite social change by holding up a mirror. They reflect the community as it always has been, as it is now, as it could be in the future. They are not movies. And it may not even be possible to experience theatre in it’s pre-modern mode… we are now all hopelessly enmeshed in the conventions of “movie-goers”.

Applied theatre is therapeutic for a community or a group, because it helps us shed our conventions around entertainment (to sit as an individual and watch). It helps us experience and enact the story as commentary, reflection, sense making, and so on. Instead of being entertained and watching, we perform, participate, observe and reflect. The myth of Persephone becomes closer to myth in the premodern key. The exact opposite of a hyped-up, CGI overwrought, Hollywood Blockbuster version of Persephone.

“[Teacher in role is] where the teacher steps in and out of the drama in terms of their role… [for example] we’re doing a drama about Cinderella. I set up a series of conventions which helps to establish the household within which Cinderella lives and works, and I take on the role of the lord chamberlain of the household. Not the head of the household, I’m not the duke, I’m someone that’s in the middle. The idea is that I can step in and out of the role, if I need the role of the chamberlain, I can do it. If I’m orchestrating the different elements of the workshop, I can do that too…. I use students in role as part of the workshop as well.”

I love this notion of the middle role, and how it offers the ability to flip from participation to orchestration. The middle enables the meta. The middle reveals the conventions that come with hierarchy, both to the middle role and to the participants when the middle becomes the orchestrator.

I think that facilitative leadership is easier to achieve from the middle role than from the top. But even if you are at the top of a hierarchy, you can practice facilitative leadership by empowering someone in the middle to use “teacher in role”.

This can be done easily at special events and workshops, but how can it be done on a day-to-day basis?

How can organizations create roles that enable meta-analysis and meta-action?

“You constantly need to be reading the group. You need to be keeping field notes. You need to be noting down: “they seem comfortable with these kinds of activities, they weren’t quite prepared to make that leap yet, etc.” […] you have to know what approaches you’re going to try. You have to be aware that they’re not all going to work. And one of the things that you always need to be able to do is change direction… throw the plan out the window.”

Again, advice that is broadly applicable to many instances of working together. What would it mean to think like a theatre director when engaging a group of folks? What would it mean to practice similar conventions as a facilitative leader?

“What are you going to leave behind? What’s your exit strategy? You can go in there and do you workshops… but what happens when you leave? What happens then? Do you leave something behind that is a reminder and an impetus to continue? So, one of the things you always need to bear in mind is what your exist strategy is.”

So many initiatives are one-off because capacity building was not taken seriously. Whenever we are doing engagement work with communities, there needs to be an exit strategy. Some strategy or approach, agreed to by all the parties, that leaves behind something more than an experience. One’s informants and collaborators need to undergo a metamorphosis: they need to become the theatre director or identify who in the community is best suited to carry forward the work.


References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *