Drama in Education and Immersive Theatre

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Drama in Education and Immersive Theatre: the Nature of Participation. Look up the words ‘Drama’ and ‘Theatre’ in any dictionary or Thesaurus and you will find a plethora of definitions: mostly speaking of the difference between the process (the writing of the text or creation of the piece) and the product (all that is presented to, and experienced by, the audience). Finding ourselves, however, in Lehmann’s ‘post-dramatic’ 1 age, where the supremacy of text has given way to a wider notion of ‘performance,’ and the ‘passive’ audience has transformed itself into what Rancière identifies as the ‘Emancipated Spectator 2’, the debate around meanings seems to only widen. A growing trend for ‘immersive’ and ‘one-to-one’ theatre, where the relationship between audience and performer is increasingly reformulated, begs further questions. There is clearly a hunger, on the part of many audiences, for a different kind of experience than the one ‘conventional’ theatre offers. Audience participation, beyond the interaction that is part of any live performance, is increasingly in demand: whether this is by selecting a personal journey through a site-specific piece, as in the work of the UK company, Shunt, or by taking a more active part in the performance, to the extent of seeing the audience’s role as ‘co-creators’. At the same time it is evident that many of these productions create experiences where ‘engaging with the action’ becomes an extension of the ‘participation economy’ and the audience little more than what Woziak3 identifies as ‘individualistic’ and ‘self-interested’ consumers. In the world of Drama and Theatre in Education there has been a similar blurring of boundaries. Drama in Education (DiE) has usually been more closely identified with theatre as process; a social activity concerned with making and action: Theatre in Education (TiE) with the presentation of a final product. Sometimes the latter might involve a professional theatre company coming into an educational space to present a piece of theatre: sometimes the young people engaged in making their own performance. In reality much of the work in both DiE and TiE finds itself somewhere along a shared spectrum. On one end we might want to place learning performance skills and engaging with the aesthetics of theatre and at the other work that focuses on the reconstruction of social dilemmas in order to understand the issues involved and seek solutions. In some ways 1

Lehmann, H. (2006) Post-Dramatic Theatre, Routledge,


Rancière, J. (2011) The Emancipated Spectator, Verso


Woziak, J. (2015) The value of being together? Audiences in Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man. Participations. Volume 12, Issue 1

this is a useful way of thinking about the relationship between two different kinds of practice. But it can also mean, like participatory theatre, the terms are confused in discussion and the two approaches made to seem totally interchangeable. This is why I feel it might be useful to contextualise Drama in Education within the wider debate around participatory theatre practice: in order to tease out what I consider to be some of the important differences. In a recent volume of ‘Participations’, the Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, Breels4’ makes use of the term ‘agency’ to describe the impact of participation on the theatre audience. If we understand agency to mean, ‘the capability to act and make a difference’5 in the context of the wider world then the limitations of any kind of theatre, participatory or otherwise, are quickly apparent. In fact one might argue that in creating a new form of ‘fourth wall’ by insisting the audience wear masks and then controlling their ‘individual’ experience of the event in a tight, often ‘teasing’ framework, much immersive theatre offers audiences less ‘agency’ than much mainstream theatre. As W.B Worthen notes in his analysis of Punch Drunk’s ‘Sleep No More’ there is a certain amount of paradox in a form where, ‘we write our individualised plotlines in our own movements, but are constructed within the spectacle as realist voyeurs, watchers, and readers, not agents. 6’ As a recent publication by the DICE project7 notes, in its attempt to clarify the differences between TiE and DiE, in educational contexts it is very much about focus and intention. While: ‘theatre has the audience as its focus…. the focus in drama is on process…it creates an opportunity to probe concepts, issues and problems central to the human condition, and builds space for reflection to gain new knowledge about the world.’ It is this space for reflection, in which the participant is both actor and audience that opens up the space for ‘agency’, and creates in participants a sense of capacity for action and envisaging alternatives solutions. This doesn’t mean there is no possibility for agency in a piece of Theatre in Education: especially those plays offered by companies dedicated to taking performances into educational settings. But the ‘choices’ available to participants, even in a piece of Forum Theatre or post-show workshop, 4

Breels, A. (2015) Audience agency in participatory performance: A methodology for examining aesthetic experience, Participations, Volume 12, Issue 1. 5 Worthen, W. B. (2012) The Written Troubles of the Brain': Sleep No More and the Space of Character, Theatre Journal 64 (2012): 79-97 6

Chris Barker, Sage Encyclopaedia of Cultural Studies


Making a World of Difference. http://www.dramanetwork.eu/file/Education%20Resource%20long.pdf

have often been imagined by and contained within a clear structure, created by its authors. Very much in the same way immersive theatre might be said to manipulate its audiences, many TiE pieces are also based around participants ultimately making the ‘right kind’ of choice in a given setting. A play dealing with bullying in schools for example, like the one described by Gareth White in Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation 8, assumes the audience will quite rightly come down on the side of condemning victimisation. When this objection voices itself, however, in terms of physical aggression towards the perpetrator, as White points out, the ‘school teacher’ character is there to reprimand them and suggest the most effective solution would be, ‘speaking to him about it rather than taking matters into their own hands.’ The agency of the audience is already limited by the desired outcomes of the authors and the adult/child or teacher/pupil relationship between performers and audience. When the focus is on young people creating their own performance the choices are often even more constrained. Many school performances, although they offer young people some sense of choice in how they might play a certain character, for example, are already influenced and constrained by the choices made by the teacher in charge. The ‘best’ performers frequently get the ‘best roles’: especially when the work has to be shown to parents or a wider public. Although everyone may have taken equal part in early rehearsals, selection slowly takes place as the performance nears and children who have benefitted from dancing or music lessons outside school are offered solo spots to demonstrate their ‘talent’. Despite the fact it aims, quite sincerely, to offer young people opportunities for self-expression and empowerment in the same way as DiE, much educational theatre-making does little more than replicate existing hierarchies within and without the classroom. The process-based nature of Drama in Education allows it to offer a different kind of ‘agency’ to its participants. There is a real possibility to propose new and different solutions to the problems presented. And having offered a starting point, although this can also be suggested by participants, the teacher-in-role has to accept s/he may no longer have control of the outcomes. By being prepared to take risks and present the young people with a dramatic situation they are invited to explore through their own imaginative action the teacher allows them to create alternative realities and to see that s/he is not the one who has all the answers. This not only shifts the relationship between teachers and students it also gives young people access to a more 8

White, G. (2013) Audience Participation in Theatre, Aesthetics of the Invitation. Palgrave MacMillan

open, more socially concerned and more questioning form of education. What bell hooks, in Teaching to Transgress, defines as the teacher creating a ‘location of possibility’ for her students or ‘education as the practice of freedom.’ Or, returning to Rancière, what he identifies in his publication, ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster,’9 as ‘emancipatory practice’: a form of learning where the teacher, ‘does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but orders them to venture into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified.’ In concerning itself with experiential learning and the immediacy of the enacted moment rather than the rehearsed piece, DiE continually validates the students’ contribution. By allowing everyone to contribute to the development of the shared narrative, it creates a different sense of community and inclusion from the elite and knowing audience that much immersive or participatory theatre encourages. Young people are given permission to discuss, and even challenge, the cultural norms of their own society through a creative response to the issues. Everyone’s contribution is valued and there are no ‘right answers’. As Cecily O’ Neill explains in her introduction to the Branching Out10 project, in creating a place ‘that relies on many voices and perspectives’ it ‘provides a cultural space or forum where dialogue can flourish’ offering young people ‘a voluntary engagement in a form of democracy in action.’ The focus on participation and learning through ‘doing,’ (drama comes from the Greek word ‘dran’ meaning ‘to do’) does not mean Drama dismisses theatre skills as part of the learning process. Although the attention is often on the situation presented, the need to clarify an idea, act out a dilemma or capture the depth of an emotion encourages participants to engage with the aesthetics of theatre as much as the social content. It involves learning to grapple with signs and signifiers. E.g. ‘When I come into the space carrying this white cloth I want you to imagine I am Medea’s servant.’ It means refining gesture, language and register in order to respond to a situation in role. It means developing an understanding of the power of metaphor within storymaking and of the safe space and protective distancing from reality this offers the performer. It involves the capacity to work in the abstract as well as the real. In terms of participatory theatre it is about the doing and the reflection on that doing at the same time: perception and action, like audience and performer, are one. 9

Rancière, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Stanford University Press


Branching Out (2001) Ed. C Tiller, National Theatre, London

In order to develop these ideas a little further I want to look at a particular example. A number of years ago, I worked in Primorsko, in Bulgaria, with local young people and a group of visiting artists and experts from ex-Yugoslavia on the story of Medea. I had chosen this particular theme partly because this was a text the young people were studying, partly because of the context we found ourselves in, post Balkan conflict, and partly because, like me, Medea was an ‘outsider’. Our drama session began with the line included above. The white cloth was real, I was real and the participants were real. Everything else, the notion that I was one of Medea’s servants, they were the citizens of Corinth, this classroom was Jason’s court existed only in our imaginations. As the drama progressed ‘the citizens’ asked to meet Medea (represented on this occasion by an empty chair): they comment on her behaviour, give her advice, ask her questions she cannot answer. They listen to each other, build on each other’s contributions, and suggest action. Wanting to understand more of a woman who could kill her own children they decide to recreate incidents from her childhood, from her life before her marriage to Jason. While we, the adults, are concerned with Medea as a passionate woman, equally magnificent and terrifying in her anger and desire for revenge, the young people wanted to explore the relationship between a daughter and her father, between a young woman and her friends. In doing so they continually exchange roles. Now the father sensing danger, now the daughter pleading to be granted her own wishes, now the friend advising caution. They look at the imperative to leave her home, to travel to Corinth with a man she has just met and fallen in love with, to become an outsider, to find her way in another culture and to learn the values of another world. They imagine themselves as the servants who will travel with her, thinking about the homeland they are leaving behind them and the stories and memories they are taking along. They end the session as the sailors leaving the shore: creating their rhythms in time with the rowing. Deciding which songs they will sing as they make their way into exile. Within the drama we are constantly breaking the moment of action to reflect on what we have learned: to examine the ways in which we have decided to share moments with each other. We are always both in the story and outside it. We recognise how an empty chair has become a powerful metaphor for a Medea who in many ways is beyond our understanding. We speak about our need for ritual in our home-leaving. The need to imagine, and list, the objects we have chosen to take with us. We are both the creators of our own piece of theatre and our own spectators. At

one point a young person playing the role of the father says, ‘You cannot leave!’ ‘And if I do?’ asks ‘Medea’. Her father responds: ‘I will kill you. I’ve given you life and I will take it away.’ For a moment we understand exactly what it might mean to be both that man and that girl. Later when we speak about the piece we have created together, the young people are insistent the answer lies both in the cruelty of her father’s rejection and in her own parental disillusionment. ‘I understand why Medea killed her sons,’ one of the young participants explains, ‘she knows they are not fit to be future kings…and she is disappointed in them.’ We are back in the classroom speaking about our understanding of a character that only exists in our imagination. But through our exploration of her story, through the bringing together of both the emotional and the rational within our own interpretation of these events we are able to speak in a more open way about the complex relationships between parents and children, about leaving home, about finding oneself living in another country and about the inter-cultural tensions that are the realities of their lives at this moment. In the report of the project Play Against Violence, the partnership that first brought me to Belgrade, actor Slobodan Bestic speaks of ‘Three Medeas’. And of his own work using the same starting point with two other groups. For the teachers, psychologists and artists who form his first group Medea is a female warrior slowly losing her senses in the terrible situation she finds herself in. For the Belgrade teenagers, who haven’t read the play, she becomes an adulteress, ashamed of her behaviour and the children who do not belong to her husband. She kills them to cover her ‘betrayal’. The discussions that follow are about different realities, different concerns – but always ‘held’ within the space formed by the drama teacher and students have co-created. The challenges of the complex and increasingly unequal that we live in means traditional concepts of education, what Paulo Freire11 calls the ‘banking of knowledge’, seem to be increasingly obsolete. The growth of a democratic, humane, tolerant and free society is dependent on the education of the next generation and on those educators who wish to enable and empower them. Ljubica Beljanski-Ristic speaks12 of the importance of teachers learning to be: ‘the creators, explorers and critics of their own practice’. By allowing young people to create new worlds, explore new perspectives and, most importantly, reflect on the implications of their actions, I 11

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum Press.


Play Against Violence. (1999) Ed. C.Tiller. ECF, Amsterdam

believe DiE offers them a real sense of possibility and what ‘agency’ might really mean.