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Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Applied Theatre

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Applied Theatre

Applied theatre (AT) is an umbrella term for all forms of drama and theatre that exist to facilitate change. It emerged from what was known as educational drama and theatre, as practiced in the United States and the UK in the mid-twentieth century and transformed under influences from Freire, Boal, performance studies, globalization, postcolonialism, postmodernism, and the work of critical theorists who challenged assumptions about privilege, culture, gender, race, and class. In their excellent Theatre for Change: Education, Social Action and Therapy, Robert Landy and David Montgomery describe AT as follows:  “Applied theatre, as it appears on stage and page, is a praxis when all involved agree to reflect upon both the process and the product and in doing so consider its capacity to impact the lives of people within their communities. As such it functions to raise awareness within communities as to various personal, social and political realities.”

The literature on applied theatre is booming, with new titles coming out regularly. Many of them began as articles in the quarterly peer-reviewed journal RiDE Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, which includes articles on problems inherent to social justice theatre and is a valuable resource.1 Helen Nicholson, who coedited RiDE from 2004 to 2018, published one of several recent book-length studies of AT, Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre, which appears in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Theatre and Performance Practices” series and introduces the field through definitions, origins, principal practitioners, and best practices. Of particular note in this volume is part 3, “Creativity and Social Justice,” which explores human rights within a performative medium. Also valuable is Drama and Social Justice: Theory, Research and Praxis in International Contexts, edited by Kelly Freebody and Michael Finneran, which includes contributions charting the impact of Boal and Freire. Applied Theatre: Economies, edited by Molly Mullens and published in Bloomsbury’s “Applied Theatre Series,” investigates how socially committed theatre makers can support their work in capitalist economies while maintaining artistic and intellectual integrity. In Why Theatre Matters: Urban Youth, Engagement, and a Pedagogy of the Real, Kathleen Gallagher draws evidence from case studies in Toronto, Boston, Lucknow, and Taipei to build a compelling case that drama classes make a difference in urban schools throughout the world.

Jan Cohen-Cruz, who has written extensively on Boal and TO applied work, is an AT practitioner, but she prefers the term “engaging performance.” She has produced an important trilogy: Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States; Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response, which looks at socially engaged performance; and Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners, which profiles theatre artists who cross disciplines to partner with experts in medicine, healthcare, and other fields in addressing social issues.2


1. Noteworthy in this issue are Michael Etherton and Tim Prentki’s “Drama for Change? Prove It! Impact Assessment in Applied Theatre” (Jun. 2006); Jonothan Neelands’s “Taming the Political: The Struggle over Recognition in the Politics of Applied Theatre” (Nov. 2007); and Dani Snyder-Young’s “Rehearsals for Revolution? Theatre of the Oppressed, Dominant Discourses, and Democratic Tensions (Feb. 2011).”

2. Those interested in a great how-to for teacher training should look at Nancy Rankie Shelton and Morna McDermott’s “Using Literature and Drama to Understand Social Justice,” published in the journal Teacher Development [Feb. 2010, v.14, no.1] available through Taylor & Francis. Drawing from Freire’s pedagogic theories and TO, especially the exercises Boal developed for Image Theatre and Forum Theatre, Shelton and McDermott explain how to use these tools to help students engage with social justice literature in the classroom.

Works Cited