Theatre as research:

Convener(s): Polly Moseley              

Participants: Paul Allender, Richard Clayton, Rachel Parish, Rikki Tarascas

 Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Some key things that were said…

Contemporary Theatre Directors are all researchers in that they are exploring the unknown, stretching boundaries, testing new processes… 

Don’t think that the best way of sharing knowledge is through writing.

There is understandably a resistance to theatre as a research methodology.

Good partnerships are not about being equals but about sharing common values and about honesty, openness and clarity in communication.

A strong synergy between progressive theatre practitioners and progressive social researchers is their emphasis on process.

How theatre can improve traditional research methods

Paul gave an example of a research project he participated in last week, where a woman came to his house and asked him probing questions about his health and well-being for over 2 hours, whilst hardly giving him eye-contact and tapping answers into her lap-top. The questions included things on depression, sexuality – really personal issues – and when he asked what was happening with the responses, she said they would be accessed and used only after his death. This may sound like an extreme example, but, whether it’s benefits forms or consultation on regeneration area, there is so much bad practice in social research that drains people on both sides.

Theatre projects, which expose issues, give people a voice can be fulfilling projects in their own right as well as having the potential to contribute to research. Theatre can make the research process as an empowering process rather than a process that does not change anything for the people of the contexts.

There is a move towards more participative methods and some of the big research councils (like ESRC and AHRC) are starting to understand this more, especially in terms of work around diffuse themes like citizenship, mental health and work with “marginilised groups” (God, I hate that terminology…)

People and Their Projects 

Paul – is a performer and a researcher in social sciences at Coventry University. He did work for the Centre for Social Justice and has worked with a multi-disciplinary group in the Midlands called the Applied Theatre Group. Paul is currently assembling a digital archive for the Siobhan Davis Dance Company and exploring collaborations with Shysters in a research context. 

Polly – just having completed a 2-month research placement at the Maison des Adolescents in Paris, Polly is coming to the end of her year-long Clore Fellowship and is interested in how research can change behaviours (particularly within institutional and social contexts) and can be valuable part of artistic development. 

Richard – runs the Shysters, which is a small theatre company producing work with people with learning disabilities. Shysters works collaboratively with a range of theatres and public sector bodies and believes that research is central to their practice in constantly learning about new ways of working and questioning conventions. 

Rachel – is currently doing a Masters in Practice as Research at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her question was/is – Can you still be strong about the quality of performance in enquiry-led work? She is directing five 15-minute pieces, in each of which will use different ways of communicating with her actors and the research outcome will be the performances.

Research and partnerships 

A specific outcome for a Shysters recent partnership project was that it needed to demonstrate a culture change within the partnership organisation to be able to be considered a success. Richard talked about how no matter how much talking took place, collaborative working would always reveal differences in approach, and it was these differences that would make or break a partnership. A common understanding of shared values was what he had found to be most important. The way in which processes like Open Space can unearth some of these differences as a valid part of a partnership project.

Within big institutions, culture change can be slow but the beauty of theatre projects is that they demand engagement on a human level and that people are seen in different ways from in their daily lives, so that they allow hierarchies to be erased.

One thing that Polly had found as important was finding champions at all levels in an organisation – ideally gaining buy-in from a high-level whilst working with people on the ground so that change could be endorsed from the top as well as being demonstrated. The group acknowledged that this does not always happen and change can come from within. 

Building bilateral research and evaluation methods into projects so that partners with expertise take responsibility for measuring or showing their outcomes either in social terms or in reflection / learning is possible but is rare and when successful can show a shift in mentality on both sides.

The example of the National Theatre working with companies like Shunt and Punchdrunk was discussed as a form of research, which allows large companies to test methods whilst maintaining some distance and therefore decreasing the perceived risk.

Asking The Question 

Research projects need to state a hypothesis or ask a specific question at the outset. Creative and theatre projects may unearth new questions as part of the process and end up wanting to go down a completely different route. Paul said that in social sciences this change in direction was usually understood and could be justified. Richard talked about how smaller organisations can adapt much more easily to these changes than larger organisations.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of partnerships for research, but can usually be sorted if the values of clarity, honesty and openness are maintained.

People or institutions whose jobs or identities depend on defined, traditional research methods and managed processes will be resistant to theatre exposing hidden truths which demand responses or action and to theatre processes refusing to pre-determined outcomes

Thinking Differently

Knowledge isn’t always best communicated or acquired through the written word. People learn so much more through experience.


The Handbook of Qualitative Research, Denzin and Lincoln: a big thick book full of unorthodox research methods

The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Murakami

THANK YOU TO THE GROUP – this really helped broaden my thinking in terms of how I approach the next stage of my Clore research…. Polly x