Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Developing the Capacities of Applied Theatre Students to Be Critically Reflective Learner-Practitioners

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Developing the Capacities of Applied Theatre Students to Be Critically Reflective Learner-Practitioners

Article excerpt

Introduction

'Applied theatre' is an umbrella term for a complex mix of different performance forms and styles operating in a bewildering diversity of social contexts. It encompasses theatre practice in schools, prisons, refugee camps, aged-care facilities, community centres, hospitals, historic sites and museums, housing estates and many other contexts. The term is contested in its naming and in its multiple histories, and contains as many contradictions as it does commonalities.1 Its genealogies draw specifically on radical performance work in the 1960s in the UK, USA and Australia, and are informed by the achievements of community arts practitioners internationally. 'Applied theatre' emerged as a term in the late 1980s as a convenient working title, and, as McDonald notes, was a direct response to the 'material conditions' of mis period.2 In many instances, the term emerged through the academy, as a way to provide an overarching concept which encompassed a wide array of community-based theatre practices. Consonant with changes in other fields, university courses and programmes developed under the 'applied' brand, and, in the last two or three years, there has been a promulgation of accompanying texts and academic writing on Applied Theatre as a discipline.

A recent international survey of undergraduate Drama programmes revealed about half a dozen strands focused primarily on Applied, Education or Community Theatre.3 There are also about thirty to thirty-five courses worldwide that have an element of applied theatre/drama/performance as part of a broader undergraduate Drama or Theatre programme. At postgraduate level, there are a number of specialised Masters courses in Applied Drama - for example, those at Exeter University and the University of Manchester - and/or Theatre and Development - such as the University of East Anglia and the University of Winchester. In Australia, one of the pioneer 'applied' programmes was established in 2000 by a team of researchers, academics and practitioners at Griffith University. It grew out of the strengths of the team, headed by John O'Toole, with a strong orientation to drama education; it is still part of the Faculty of Education, rather than the Arts and Humanities.

My background is very much embedded in this history, and concerns botii die development of applied courses and the familiarity with the procedures and institutional frameworks - and idiosyncrasies - of a number of different universities. These courses have included an undergraduate Prison Theatre course and postgraduate Masters in Applied Theatre (University of Manchester), a Bachelors in Applied/Community Theatre and Media (University of Winchester), both BA and MA courses in Applied Drama (University of Exeter) and, currently, a BA in Applied Theatre and Masters of Drama Education (Griffith University). I mention these experiences because, in each of the different programmes and courses, diverse educational strategies were developed in order to help create meaningful learning for students attempting to 'apply' theatre skills to complex social environments.

A common component of these programmes is, unsurprisingly, the opportunity for students to apply theatre to a particular social context. The degree of involvement and engagement varies from programme to programme, course to course, and can involve students working from two to three sessions - usually a couple of hours each - to four to six months, in a particular social context. The range of contexts is as varied and diverse as the field itself: some courses focus on work only in a specific context - for example, a prison; others intentionally give students die opportunity to work in two different contexts - such as a school and an aged-care facility - to contrast their experiences.

Applied Theatre courses present a considerable challenge for students, as they demand the development of competencies in a number of areas, including theatre facilitation, theoretical knowledge of applied tiieatre, and conceptual understanding of a particular social context - schools, prisons, special needs and so on - and involve preparation for the implicit realities of an institution and/or context. …

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