working @ PACE: day 11, On Applied Theatre and Process Drama & why I won’t be applying or processing & what a small theatre group called T-Cell is for

Today The Big Idea advertised, on behalf of the Kids 4 Drama School of Performing Arts and Productions, for a part-time drama tutor:

“Kids 4 Drama offers in school and after school drama classes for children and teenagers and also provides a wide variety of Theatre In Education contracts for local government.

“We are also leaders in Environmental Education and operate a number of Nationwide contracts in this field.

“Training is given but practical experience is important. This may be as a teacher, actor, educator or youth leader. If you are experienced using Process Drama / Applied Theatre techniques, this is a bonus but not essential.

“Email Principal Stephen Dallow [email protected] or post to P.O.Box 20509, Glen Eden, Auckland.”

The reference to “applied theatre” and “process drama” piqued my curiosity. What does that mean?

My first port of call, site of google, was http://www.appliedtheatre.co.nz, homepage of Applied Theatre Consultants Ltd. Literally, a theatre consultancy firm, like Kids 4 Drama with some, albeit heavier-duty, contracts from government departments, Applied Theatre Consultants describe theatre as a “powerful tool to foster justice, equality and citizenship.” This sounded suitably horrible, insofar as it suited my mood, so I read on:

“We believe the central role of theatre is to make sense of the world in which we all live, and that theatre and its processes should be available to everybody. Applied theatre is theatre without outside audience: as actors, participants guide the process to create drama that is meaningful to themselves.

“ATCo is an organization committed to creating high-quality aesthetic experiences with non-actors around issues of social justice and public health. We use dramatic conventions and techniques to safely investigate issues from a wide range of perspectives. Using applied theatre pedagogy, participants become actors and agents in control of the dramatic conversation. In doing so, they have the opportunity to discover what it is to be other than themselves.

“ATCo was incorporated in 1999 with two directors, Peter O’Connor and Briar O’Connor. Since then, the company has worked with the Ministry of Education, Biosecurity New Zealand, the Ministry of Social Development’s Department of Child, Youth and Family, the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Department of Justice, the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and the Office of the Police Commissioner.”
[http://www.appliedtheatre.co.nz/index.htm]

Applied Theatre Consultants linked me to The Centre for Public Culture and Ideas. “Applied theatre pedagogy,” referred to above, seemed to warrant further investigation, since it indicated the existence of a disciplinary (pedagogical) discourse in theatre with which I’d hitherto had no prior acquaintance.

Griffith University calls Applied Theatre a “new and dynamic field of academic study, covering a range of performance practices that focus on specific needs within different social groups and contexts.” The University runs The Centre for Public Culture and Ideas, “an interdisciplinary research centre. With members across humanities, creative arts and life sciences its central brief is to encourage greater collaboration between these areas, while articulating with [sic] contemporary debates in public culture and ideas.”

“We promote cross-disciplinary research that addresses the question: ‘How can cultural representations, practices and institutions promote public deliberation about questions of the common good in a pluralist society?’ Such research is intended to explore:

“How value is assigned to the strange multiplicity (Jame Tully, 1995) represented by the term ‘culture’ in a globalising world;

“The ways culture is deployed in public spaces for civic, commercial and other purposes;

“The extent to which public disagreement is a creative force, capable of producing new forms of democratic association;

“The local and particular rationalities used to settle questions about justice and cultural recognition;

“The tensions inherent in the formation of communities of belonging and communicative publics;
The ways “history” is invoked in public arenas.”
[http://www.griffith.edu.au/arts-languages-criminology/centre-public-culture-ideas]

Referring back to ATCo’s links, I couldn’t find the paper written by Peter O’Connor, published in the first edition of Applied Theatre Researcher in 2000, which looked to be seminal, at least for ATCo’s approach. Griffith Research Online gave me nine documents but not this one.

The first merely included the words “applied” and “theatre,” the second of the nine promoted the management of conflict in schools through drama. The abstract for the third suggested that ‘Impro’ theatre be used as a “technique to lessen self-awareness, heighten spontaneity and encourage humour,” a use the popularity and success of which it attributed to Keith Johnstone. Such forthright utilitarianism had the scent of Applied Theatre but was not the prey itself. “Powerpoint to the People” sounded promising. And that was it. However I was starting to get a feel for what ‘applying theatre’ and foisting drama as a ‘process’ on unsuspecting ‘participants’ might mean.

Theatre, well no, drama really, serves the State, who offers thereto its patronage, as a tool for moral edification and social improvement. Nothing new in this. Even the pretense that what is being sold to government departments, and state institutions, schools, prisons, is theatre is not new. What’s on offer here is an anaemic version of the encounter-group and psychodrama of 30, 40 years ago.

Applied Theatre and Process Drama bear witness to the influence of psychoanalysis, are tools of group analysis and have nothing to do with either theatre or drama, but from the latter borrow and corrupt the possibilities of the mask, the character, the actor. That is, they disembody theatre and drama, via the abstractions of performativity and narrativity, in order to impose psychoanalytical narratives and performances on real bodies and extract from them certain programmed virtues for their patron, the State.

Rereading ATCo’s manifest, there’s clearly more going on here than this that calls for a fuller and more rigorous treatment and possible surgery. For example, the idea that drama or theatre can have anything in common either with a practice which explicitly excludes the audience at the outset or a technique which encourages participation is not only an error in thinking but also carcinogenic for the concepts of theatre and drama. It ought to be exposed and excised and the bodies of thought from which it is extirpated will likely require irradiation before the return of T-Cells in numbers adequate to halt its further advance.