Can you bottle it…?

By Sara Marie Jackson, Cast Theatre / The Joseph Rowntree Theatre ([email protected])

This blog-post looks at the role of personal energy and intuition in Applied Theatre Practice and how this can be trained, reflecting on how training affects my practice as a freelance community director, director of The Joseph Rowntree Theatre (a community theatre) and as a practitioner at Cast Theatre.

The role of the Applied Theatre practitioner is complex, working across different social contexts, simultaneously developing participants’ performance & personal skills or addressing issues. They must develop effective communication with participants who don’t always speak the same language and create a safe and trusting environment in communities where they often don’t exist, all the while dealing with the financial stress of freelance life; this is often completely underestimated. It is widely assumed that if you have a theatre or drama background, that you can be an applied theatre practitioner, and if you have worked in one institution you can easily work in another – an assumption which led to me standing in a maximum-security prison at 19 years old having just finished my first project with EYFS.

It is, I think, fair to say that all Applied Theatre projects have some commonality; placing their audiences at the centre of their own learning, pressing home challenges while simultaneously communicating the belief – and trust – that audience members are sufficiently intelligent and sensitive (and intelligently feeling) to think and act autonomously to find their own solutions. (Jackson 2013:6)

Hepplewhite’s examines ways to conceptualise the role comparing it to a model of skilful ethical comportment, drawn from nursing training to illuminate how professional capacities can be identified and acquired in the development of expertise. The role emerges as responsive, dialogically negotiated, embodied, and not prescribed. (Hepplewhite:2013)

Over the years I have come to understand that “the right energy” is key to a successful applied project. I’ve often been asked “Where do you get your energy, and can I bottle it?”. In the reflection that follows, I ask what an “intuitive” applied theatre practitioner looks and feels like, and therefore how do we train one? Which qualities are valued by a ‘good’ practitioner in addition to the crafts of theatre?

Reflecting on my own formal training; BA, MA in performance, plus a PGCE then supplemented with stage combat training, and short courses in directing the chorus, script writing, devising, directing, stage managing, costuming, prop sourcing and producing, all prepared me as a theatre maker for the widespread disciplines required in applied theatre. With funding for these projects being so low the practitioner at the centre is required to fill all roles necessary to bring the project to completion.

Most practitioners (not all) start with formal training. To be Applied Theatre or socially engaged, there needs to be a professional artist, with professional training, involved. Then we need to learn how to work with non-professionals, members of the community from a vast range of backgrounds. Communities are created around something they have in common or something they share (ethnicity, housing, beliefs). Arts are those arts that are created wholly or in part by a community of people (however lightly defined), often not from an Arts background; at the least, they must arrive in the hands of the people in an unfinished form so that the gathering of the people has a clear part in the completion of their product. Such products cannot be pre-packaged; the process must still be ongoing, and the products must bear the clear imprint of the community for which they were intended. (Gregory 1980: 20)

Training that begins with theatre-making skills then needs to diversify to reflect the needs of differing communities. Reflecting on your work in a project and striving to adapt to each new challenge is how we develop the abundance of skills and knowledge necessary for our practice.

The applied practitioner is not just a theatre maker. While working as a practitioner I have undergone numerous additional training programmes: 12 step programs (Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous), Sign language & Makaton, LGBTQ+ awareness and sensitivity, Autism awareness, Prison rehabilitation, Disability Equality, e-safety, anti-bullying, and others; it is vital to keep up to date with current events and politics.

Schön describes the ‘swampy lowlands’ of practice with complex problems that defy technical solution, which could bog down the professional in action unless effectively negotiated. A developing professional is trained, claims Schön, to have a capacity for higher level reflection to build senior expertise following on from their basic ‘know-how’. Schön (1987, p. 157)

At the very least practitioners should have, on top of formal training in a creative discipline, a good working knowledge of the UK education system, a DBS and the ability to drive, which many graduates are leaving training without. When working with children, understanding SEN and how to adapt to a range of additional needs is necessary. When working with adults, children or both, it is very useful to know basic first aid – training which is often provided by large organisations but can be costly for a freelance artist.

With every project comes a new challenge and a new skill to engage with for the practitioner. We are like chameleons, constantly changing and adapting to become what our participants need in each moment.

Political and ethical aspects of the work impact on the composition of the practitioner. As a female practitioner I am passionate about the empowerment of women through creative practice, but along the way, I have learned that I still need to have respect for other cultures. Walking into a community and disrespecting or disregarding their cultural beliefs will always set you off on the wrong foot. Education and empowerment are much better achieved through exploration, and an intuitive practitioner needs to know when to question things, and when to let things lie.

This intuition is learned through experience and, for a good practitioner, will make up the crux of a project. Embodied and tacit knowledge leading to hunches for creative outcomes can appear like magic but are based on skills, knowledge, and experience that is built up over time. Exploring issues through the project in a gentle and progressive way should lead to the shared authorship that is at the heart of applied theatre. There are symbiotic learning and growth for the practitioner and for the participants. As a group together, you will negotiate your way through your ‘swampy lowlands’. Their lived experience combined with your skills and knowledge will lead to moments of brilliance, of tension, of empathy, and a range of emotions that you will use your intuition to assess the correct course of action for, until a unique moment of creativity is achieved.

A more experiential and less “taught” approach to applied practitioner training is required for the development of Community Practitioners. We have recently seen the development of courses in association with theatre companies. Applied Theatre courses should be developed in this way with opportunities for placement in companies where these skills can be developed without risking mistakes in vulnerable communities. Companies in the industry should make it a priority to create more opportunities for mentoring and trainees, that is not solely available to students but also as development for established artists.

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Johnston, C. 2010. House of Games: Making Theatre from Everyday Life, London: Nick Hern Books.

Neelands, J. 2007. Taming the Political: The Struggle over Recognition in the Politics of Applied Theatre. Research in Drama Education, 12(3): 305–317.

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Kay Hepplewhite (2013) Here’s one I made earlier: dialogues on the construction of an applied theatre practitioner, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 4:1, 52-72.