Encouraging selfishness in applied theatre students – surprises arising from a community project.

By Dr Kay Hepplewhite, Northumbria University (kay.hepplewhite@northumbria.ac.uk)

A recent undergraduate student project encouraged me to re-question approaches of training students to work in community and applied theatre contexts. This article considers how, in addition to the development of multiple skills required for applied theatre, encouraging selfish motivation enabled a deeper student learning experience. The project is discussed within a conceptualisation of applied theatre expertise and explores how my theory of responsivity informed the teaching of novice practitioners.

            Selfishness challenges more likely associations with applied theatre of empathy and magnanimity. The use of selfishness is intentionally provocative, although intended to supplement rather than contradict existing understanding of the field. The ideas here reflect emerging research rather than a professional position as educator. Nor is this a comprehensive account of how to train a specialist practitioner, more a maverick offer that may refresh the perception of skills development.

            This project collaborated with an organisation* and one of their long-standing groups for older people. The group members all live independently and meet fortnightly around creative activities; workshops in a gallery, visits to exhibitions, concerts or performances. Our negotiated ‘commission’ was to work with the group over a period of eight weeks on the topic of ‘Going Out’. The third year undergraduate Drama students (mainly aged around 20) were tasked to design and run workshops with the older people, as well as present a short performance for an invited audience at a culminating event. The workshop activity used conversational, interactive processes to explore ideas about going out; socialising, trips and holidays, getting ready and clothes. In addition, the students shared work-in-progress material, gathering feedback and comments to aid development of performance. Students also hosted a pre-Christmas visit to the university with mince pies and a guided tour.

            Although I set up and envisaged the project thoroughly and in advance with the organisation, this was specifically designed to be a responsive experience; the outcomes and product were not fixed. Applied theatre, by its very nature, adapts to changes of context. The student project was deliberately situated in the in-between place of plannable structures, creative response and improvised activity. There was a known series of workshops and final event with performance ‘sharing’ to consider but we resisted fixing outcomes or design of final product at the outset. This responsive ethos of the work, guided by the interest of the older people, created complex challenges to the ‘training’ of the students.

            Some challenges emerge for a university lecturer designing a pedagogic framework around a ‘live’ participatory project with a community group. The hybrid nature of applied theatre roles (facilitators as well as maker/performers) complicates the planning of a predictable learning journey. Students are training in many areas at once, building skills of theatre-making, group work, facilitation and how to present in non-theatre contexts. Particular attention must also be given to the community audience/participants who have specific relationship to any performed work, demanding further ethical consideration. The community group must be supported and safeguarded through the process that allows the trainees to develop, partially through trial and error.

            The project threw up many pedagogic opportunities and significant unknowns for the students and the community group, as well as myself. Performance material was to be drawn from the collaboration process, but not the sole priority of the project. What sort of presentation would the students make and how? Would any of the older people’s group want to perform? Would the material be directly personal or fictional? How would the workshops connect with the performance? What was the role for the visiting audience?

            Applied theatre is not a singular form and this project was potentially a training ground for many skills. Keeping creative possibility and aesthetic choices open means a multi-facetted practitioner is required. The forms of applied theatre are as varied and creative as any contemporary art project; techniques and related roles are therefore not fixed. Students may be building ability to perform in context, facilitate with diverse groups, use drama and theatre with others, manage play-making for, with and by (as defined by Prentki and Preston 2008:10) their participant audience. They could be co-creators of theatre-making or interpreters of the stories drawn from the collaboration. Each role requires particular relationships to be negotiated with participants, along with ethical understanding of the incumbent responsibilities.

            It is worth noting here that, although it has roots in roles that have been tried and tested for decades, there is no established training regime for applied theatre. Artists working with communities have long debated the ethics of engagement, intervention, collaboration and representation through reflection on practices. Theatre in Education, for example, shares this in-between role of actor/facilitator (latterly known as actor/teacher) and demand more than just performance skills given the educational aims for the audience. In a field that still attracts debate about its own umbrella identity, applied theatre skills are acquired diversely and without much scholarly attention.

            Training approaches could be seen as akin to other performance forms that are closely involved with their audience. Many events in contemporary arts are located in hybrid participation/performance practices, such as immersive or verbatim.  So what is different here? As applied theatre is distinguished by an imperative of intended change for the community audience/participants, training for this field is not merely about ways of working with participants. Applied theatre demands an adaptable, complex expertise of performer/facilitator/improviser that is able to be shaped by audience, as well as being alert to social/personal/political objectives for the participants. Stakeholder interests must also be considered. Practitioners’ judgements made in the moment of applied theatre activity are specifically informed by potential developmental outcomes, for example community, health, well-being, educational benefits. Ethical implications of the practice mean artists respond to, and have responsibility for, participant experience. How can all of this be trained for?

Training responsive applied theatre practitioners – factors of motivation and selfishness

My research developing theories of responsivity in applied theatre artists (see Hepplewhite 2016 and 2020 forthcoming) is an attempt to conceptualise the nature of applied theatre expertise. Through dialogue and observation with experienced practitioners, qualities were noted, such as, ‘anticipation and adaptation’ – a blend of planning and informed improvisation, and ‘awareness and attunement’ – of ethical issues relating to social and political context whilst also being focussed on the needs and interests of the group and individuals. ‘Respond-ability’ indicates how artist/facilitators expressed that they were fed by the work, and how their art is shaped aesthetically by the collaborations. Respond-ability is a way of expressing the complex development of the artist in applied theatre settings – how practitioners are trained by/through their experience of the practice. This self-focussed imperative for change suggests a different view of the applied theatre artist and disavows a presumed role of do-gooder. The motivation was expressed by one practitioner as being ‘selfish, not self-less’.

            Bringing together my research of practice with the design of teaching and learning activity, this self-development aspect of respond-ability usefully suggested that the student project embrace the notion of selfishness. As many students come to the study of applied theatre because they want to ‘help people’, their own response to the work would be more likely seen as magnanimous rather than selfish. And note, this proposition does not simply set out to encourage young undergraduates to be simply more self-centred – teaching facilitation approaches should rightfully prioritise a focus on the experience of community participants. However, this project started to infer that the students’ understanding and skills development would be aided by recognition of the benefits that they themselves were gaining through the project.

            Most frequently, students have little prior knowledge of the potential applications of theatre and drama, nor the implications for the role of facilitator/maker/performer in contexts beyond entertainment. But they often express a passion for political issues and an instinct for combatting social injustices. Learning about ethics is a vital component of training in applied theatre, building political and cultural sensitivity that considers the role of self and other, identity and purpose within a socially located framework. A module in the previous year had allowed these students to consider the basics of designing and running workshops and half the group had additional experience of a semester-long project with schoolchildren.

            Specific consideration of self was highlighted when the students were struggling to have confidence in the performance material that they were devising. One student expressed how she was worried about how to represent the older people. I suggested they consider their performance more as a response than a representation, which seemed to allay insecurity and served to motivate the final stages of shaping the performance.

            The students relaxed into their identity as co-subject, indicated in some reflections; ‘when we started we weren’t too sure how to react’ and subsequently found, ‘we were not there to re-tell a story but to create our own work.’ The final presentation included a self-reflective element that allowed their own experience of the encounters with older people to be situated within the material. Being given permission to recognise themselves as beneficiaries of the project boosted an understanding of the potential power of experiencing an artistic process – they could be empathetic by allowing themselves to see ‘what we can get from it’. They found a pleasure rather than a duty in the making and performing process.

            The students had also been guided to see a self-focussed motivation in the early, workshop stages of the project. Even when ‘leading’, the students gained greater pleasure having been encouraged to enjoy the workshops as fully engaged participants.  They found a strength in recognising the similarities between themselves and the group rather than feeling the difference that can be compacted by a traditional view of separate facilitator/participant or artist/community member. Specific connections they made were principally connections of shared class culture, gender and the surprise of a social identity that replicated itself decades later. Going Out in Newcastle was a pretty similar experience in the 1970s to the 2010s. And what was different became a topic that offered equal investment in creative material for the whole group – students and older people.

            A concept of the dialogic was encouraged throughout all process of the project, a sharing through conversation that was mutual and egalitarian. And I offered the students a conceptual model of ‘conversation’ as a structural framework, where one can grow and change through interactions with others. Positioning the project as an inter-generational experience suggested that each age group makes discoveries from the other. Creative processes used a reflective structure, which affirmed the material students produced and served to embed their own identity in the final piece. Relational encounters set around a bus stop formed the heart of the material for the final presentation – a neutral, interactive space that belongs to all-comers. There were short, conversational interactions that explored some of the themes of Going Out, including anecdotes and phrases that had been heard over the weeks of growing relationship between students and the group.       

            The focus on their own change enabled students’ understanding of the ethics of the work to become embedded and beyond mere theoretical knowledge. From the outset, students were guided through the ethos of the collaborating organisation and their aims to nurture creative aging arts experience that empowers older people and allows them to maintain their dignity, identity and independence. Initially these were new ideas to note, but they gradually became touchstones to inform creativity, shape artistic decisions for devising activities, guide workshop interactions and shape content for the final presentation.

            The ‘selfish’ elements of the performance material allowed the students to write themselves in to the content about intergenerational experiences of going out, narrating a direct and genuine relationship to the older people who were the other members of the group. They were responsible for the experience of the audience, but also able to locate themselves as artist in the creative project.  Students were able to identify themselves as co-producer, artist, participant and activist, making a case for older lives to be more visible. They invested in an aesthetic of the work that took ownership of what is produced as an ethical act.

            What was the training journey for these novice artist/facilitators? The skills they developed through the process were directly related to the collaborative experience as well as their growing understanding of the politics and ethics of applied theatre. Practice and theory grew alongside. This meant working with the community participants, as well as growing as learners who take over roles from the teacher. As facilitators, they started to make choices in the moment of the workshop that could shift and adapt because of a heightened perception of the group. They started to have responsibility for leading workshops in a way that was responding, not merely dictating or instructing without noticing the impact on group members. Their use of participation grew as a consciousness of intention, not merely a gimmicky add-on. They were able to subjugate their own performed presence in the workshop and develop better listening skills.

            What did the students learn about how to be an applied theatre practitioner? The reflective process formed a vital part of this journey of understanding. Most creative training benefits from staged points of evaluative analysis, but here a conceptual framing of the project as a dialogical exchange seemed to aid a deeper understanding of how to build applied theatre skills. From the outset, students were encouraged to recognise that the facilitator is not an invisible part of the process and students were guided to note their own response to each workshop, sometimes through creative writing that fed in to the final product. They spoke about things the group did or said, but were not encouraged to focus on the participants’ change as objectives for the work. Situating themselves (selfishly) at the centre of the study of the inter-personal exchanges enabled a more genuine, empathetic connection that enriched the work and their training journey.

*Equal Arts, Gateshead are an award-winning arts organisation who contribute to international development of innovation of arts with older people and creative aging initiatives. They run many projects with older people, including work in care homes and the national HenPower project. This group operated as part of their Creative Friends project, supporting older people to combat isolation for those who live independently.

Kay Hepplewhite (2016) ‘More than a sum of parts? Responsivity and Respond-ability in Applied Theatre Practitioner Expertise’ in Preston, S. (ed.) Applied Theatre: Facilitation. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, pp. 165-188.

Tim Prentki and Sheila Preston (2008) The Applied Theatre Reader. London: Routledge

Dr Kay Hepplewhite is a senior lecturer at Northumbria University and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Research and publication investigates the expertise of applied theatre practitioners who work in participatory and community contexts.

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