How can we create more politically engaged British Theatre?

Convener(s): Matthew Austin

Participants: Alan, Lyn Gardner, Dan Danson, David and others who came towards the end of the discussion

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

This was a fairly rambling discussion, but here are the main points:

  • When is it too late or too soon to create theatre which responds directly to political events?
  • How can theatre become more immediately responsive to world events, rather than always assuming a retrospective viewpoint, or is it good for us to have a longer view, with the benefit of hindsight?
  • It seems that graduate companies currently stay away from creating explicitly political work, that new work from young artists is more concerned with aesthetics and style
  • Some discussion about needing to make work, and that companies often feel that they are on a treadmill where they just continue to churn out new shows because promoters and audiences expect it, whereas perhaps it’s much better to stop and think about what needs to be said or made and then acting on that, rather than making a show for the sake of making a show
  • That creating new political theatre is seen as ‘uncool’, particularly in devised work, however companies like The TEAM, seem to be able to make work which taps into how it is to live in America now, but without being ranty or overly didactic. Perhaps this new way of approaching politics and world events will filter down to those just starting to make new work…
  • Some discussion about theatre as an act of provocation, that the act itself is the political moment
  • Much political theatre in the UK is preaching to the converted – rooms full of white liberals who understand the issue anyway, and perhaps the challenge is to find alternative view points which provoke and disturb rather than reiterate. Politically engaged work should work with both, or many, sides of an argument, rather than marginalizing the point of view we don’t agree with
  • We have to find ways not just to draw the middle-classes into a debate, ways to stimulate other groups in engaging with work
  • That to make properly political work we need to look at the context in which it is presented, and manage how people engage with it, and that if people understand the context, artists can begin to make work which is genuinely provocative
  • Also some discussions around how minority groups could find ways to ‘own’ stereotypes surrounding their particular group, and that by doing that can really find empowerment


  • Perhaps we are suffering from political apathy in society as a whole, that we’re just not political people anymore, so it’s very hard to mobilize young theatre makers to enagage in politics if society as a whole views it with indifference
  • That all levels of society, on the whole, are fairly docile and are not ready to engage with activism or protest, because we actually feel powerless to be able to make a change (indeed, it was pointed out, that there is now legislation preventing many forms of demonstration, and therefore it is hard to make an immediate protest as we have become squashed into apathy)
  • That younger people have been raised in a very comfortable society where credit and the allure of fame mean that we just accept the status quo as ‘just the way things are’, yet do feel we can make a difference by voting on things like X Factor etc etc