Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

What is Applied Theatre?

Originally posted on February 1, 2011

There’s an emerging field, a sub-set of the theatre arts, that differs from ordinary theatre in that it’s not done just for entertainment. It’s used for education, social action, community-building, recreation, personal development, therapy and rehabilitation, business, religion, and so forth. It’s been emerging for a few decades, but most modern books on theatre don’t recognize its existence. I edited an anthology, sort of an overview, in 2007: Interactive & Improvisational Drama: Varieties of Applied Theatre and Performance. Check out its table of contents.

I am interested in your feedback about which endeavors should and should not be included under this umbrella. One department chairman who supports applied theatre says that it should primarily be fictional, and the true details of a person’s life make it too much like therapy. Theatre should not be therapy. I’m encouraging him to give me more reasons. The problem is, first, theatre may not be therapy per se, in the sense of people in the sick role use the method to relieve their disease, but it is undoubtedly therapeutic, in the sense of offering a kind of catharsis that even Aristotle noted. (My explanation for catharsis is the bringing up from the subconscious levels parts of the psyche that had been split off. Seeing a play or movie that touches a chord to some extent does this: There are the emotions of laughter or tears, feelings of indignation or fear, that go with sensing resonances with one’s own deeper and blocked feelings.)

There are other aspects that haven’t been worked out. While by no means restricting my own thinking about this approach to methods that require a fair degree of improvisation or interactivity —which I confess are of more interest to me— I do include fuzzy-boundary issues, such as devised theatre (where groups put together a scripted performance that captures the issues associated with their demographic, such as being an immigrant, in the role of one who is considered mentally ill, or any other sub-group).

I suspect that applied theatre or applied drama (is there a difference?) may yet become a significant part of theatre arts. I’d like to see the topic be part of the main curriculum of theatre arts in high school—at least a 2-week unit on it in beginning drama!—or in college. For upper division students and/or elective lower division college students, I imagine such a course, using my text or one of the other (there aren’t many—which ones do you recommend?) as a basic resource for getting oriented. This whole thing overlaps with more I’ll be saying about sociodrama as a core method for learning in college, too—as noted in an article on my other website.

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