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The merits of applied theatre

Posted on 25/01/2012
A miniature house created during the Home Sweet Home installation in Canning Town.

It was the desire to make a difference in the world that led Professor Helen Nicholson to forge a career in applied theatre - a move that saw her work in institutional settings with some of the most vulnerable people in society and later to dedicate her time researching the benefits of this field of work.

In her inaugural lecture at Royal Holloway, University of London, Professor Nicholson outlines the benefits that applied theatre can have on society and the differences it can make to individuals and communities.

“Applied theatre is arguably both the most public and yet the least visible of all theatre practices,” she said. “It often takes place with people at a vulnerable time of their lives and in highly regulated spaces – schools, hospitals and prisons, for example. Places leave their imprints on our minds and bodies, and I am interested in what happens when people in these settings encounter innovative theatre practices.”

Professor Nicholson’s research focuses on the difference that theatre-makers working in these contexts are making, a question she discussed in her lecture Performing Social Space, which was held at the College last night (24 January).

She used two examples of projects she has participated in, the first being an installation called Home Sweet Home set in Canning Town.

It formed a performative event that took place in London in 2010, that blurred the boundaries between artist and audience, and between the applied theatre and a public theatre event.

Participants were invited to buy a small cardboard flat-pack building (house, shop, police station, for example) that they can decorate. A street map of the local area was painted on the ground, and each building corresponded to a particular number on the map and, by extension, a building on the street outside.

The project engaged a surprising social mix of residents –the arty types, school children, a group of adults with learning disabilities, and a few bankers from Canary Wharf. Professor Nicholson argued that citizenship has emphasis on participation, something that is key in applied theatre, and is key in the Home Sweet Home project. A group of Congolese villages enjoying one of the performances.

The second example was a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, through which she was researching the contribution theatre can make on the lives of people who have been affected by major international events.

“The performance is only part of the process, Professor Nicholson said. “It is a means through which questions might be opened rather than resolved.”

She added: “The performance might be described as feel-good. But feeling good is hard to achieve in this context, and although abject poverty is not fixable by theatre, what theatre-makers can bring is a temporary re-ordering of the social space, a creative break from the grind of daily routines needed to stay alive in such an unforgiving environment.”  

Professor Nicholson explained that her decision to use these two examples in her lecture was political. “Sometimes when Western scholars and artists travel their work seems somehow more exotic and important, and there is a risk that this ignores the deprivation in their cities, the injustices in their own communities.”

She added: “We are globally networked, but don’t always know our neighbours”.


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