THE ETHICS OF PARTICIPATORY THEATRE IN HIGHER EDUCATION
1. GENESIS OF PROJECT: HISTORICAL CONTEXTS AND CHALLENGES
This research is a response to a perceived absence of consensus on an ethical approach to the teaching,learning and professional practice of Participatory or Applied Theatre. This does not imply an absence of ethical practice in Higher Education; on the contrary, the research revealed widespread thinking about and commitment to ethical practice amongst teachers and learners.
The researcher’s concern has rather been to identify areas both of consensus and of debate in order to create a structure within which the ethics of this rapidly expanding, diverse, and increasingly professional practice might be theoretically and practically implemented. Recognizing that there are many points of entry into practice, participation and commissioning, the report juxtaposes frames of reference ranging between the
political, the civic, and the ethical in order to offer a field of practices in which some agreement on ethical might comfortably emerge.
The research has been based upon an action research methodology. Its aim was not to teach, impose or test a set of a priori ethical values, but to enable a dialogue with collaborators on the issue of practice ethics in PT.
In other words, to discover what values were operative, whether explicit or implicit, to identify gaps, and to attempt a provisional codification.
The aim was to produce a set of ethical guidelines for use in the HE curriculum, in teaching. In Higher Education the guidelines will raise vocational awareness for students and in the world of employment support professionalism for practitioners.
PARTICIPATORY THEATRE – A DEFINITION
In this study the term ‘Participatory Theatre’ (PT) is used to cover practices referred to variously as Applied Theatre or Drama, Community Theatre, Workshop Theatre, Role Play etc. The practice ranges between work with a performance focus to process‐based work aimed at personal group and/or social development. It takes place in a wide variety of employment, political, social and community settings and practitioners come from a
variety of backgrounds. Practitioners may be professional theatre performers and directors, dedicated trained facilitators, or professionals from other backgrounds e.g. social work or education. Participatory theatre is internationally associated with radical and popular theatre forms such as Theatre in Education, Young People’s Theatre, Forum Theatre (Theatre of the Oppressed) and Theatre for Development.
While the research emphasis has been on the interactivity of the workshop situation its considerations extend to, and are applicable to, forms that involve participants – professional and non‐professional – in creating,devising and performing in a wide range of modes and relationships.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Radical participatory theatre practices have historically been founded on a cluster of ethical/political principles. These principles have been articulated through the methods of practitioners such as Dorothy Heathcote and Augusto Boal, and through the Theatre in Education and political theatre movements and their organizations and companies and individuals.1 These ethical approaches have been recorded in varying ways over time, but have emerged from the debates and competing approaches of the practitioners largely as praxis which has been difficult to formulate and to share. The underpinning notions were strongly influenced by contexts of political and social struggle and exploration: for example the anti‐war movement and trade union struggles of the 60s, 70s and 80s; the growth of the women’s and gay movements; and the struggle for wider equalities which has grown out of these.
As the generation of originators and initiators who argued for a partisan and socially critical practice begins to give way to their successors, the absence of a consensus on what the nature of an ethical approach might be has become problematic.
It is nowhere more problematic than in HE, where PT practice is a popular part of many curricula, and where many students hope to use their skills with the widening range of marginalized and vulnerable communities.
There is also an industrial PT sector where forms such as Forum Theatre and Role Play have been appropriated in ways that may not have been anticipated by their earlier proponents. In parallel with these developments,increasing numbers of artists whose principal objective, rather than having a social orientation, is to produce their own work, are combining with a range of community groups to pursue their aims in ways which can be ethically questionable.
As a practitioner working across fields of participatory theatre and political performance, I have become increasingly aware of a build‐up of pressures around what had previously seemed unproblematic practices. In 1993, after 20 years of political theatre with the Trades Union and anti‐fascist movements, I cheerfully wrote the following:
To new generation of practitioners, the landscape is somewhat more complicated. It is for me. What seemed clear is still clear in itself, its questions valid and current but the context has shifted. The ethical project reveals itself as fragile and temporal.
PARTICIPATORY THEATRE AND ETHICS – CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES
Therefore ethics is not only an attitude of questioning, a disposition, and intention, but a project – a fallible and perishable project – that exists in tension with (and therefore bound to), a setting, history,tradition and language. Louise Lachapelle.
Participatory theatre takes place now in multiple contexts, each of which present specific challenges.
• It stands between other participatory theatre techniques with ethical codes of their own: Playback,Sociodrama, Psychodrama, Dramatherapy etc;
• Practitioners work extensively with so‐called marginalized groups and others, and must respond to statutory requirements around duty of care, equality, diversity and Health and Safety;
• It interfaces with situations where concepts of good practice are long‐established but not necessarily applicable to a creative practice, for example in attitudes to risk and challenge;
• It is increasingly used as a research tool in HE, and so encounters a range of institutional ethical codes
which are sometimes incompatible with its working practices;
• Where practitioners are employed outside the social and political fields, they can face complex challenges to the demands of creative practice in employment and funding contexts which are unsympathetic to process and person‐centred practice.
While at its most progressive, PT fosters and embodies the creative desires and commitments of practitioners and participants for ethical, equal and collaborative working, it does this without a general consensus on how these crucial elements might be identified and clustered together.
There is little to protect the freedom of competent practitioners to set working methods, agree agendas with participants, choose and develop ways of working, evaluate in appropriate ways, work creatively with notions of uncertainty, bewilderment and discovery. There is practically nothing to indicate to employers and other
practitioners by what standards competence and ethical standards might be understood.
This vulnerability, which practitioners share with some of their constituency, is exacerbated by an absence of clear ethical contracts of employment, poor unionisation, and consequent isolation and lack of support. It all adds up to poor or no professional recognition, status and trust. There is in addition a deep concern, even dismay amongst many practitioners at the wilder excesses in the application of PT by major funding bodies and institutions – for example the European Union and the British Arts Council. In response the Theatre Education Network has produced a practitioners’ ethics framework, and Equity is promoting a practitioners’ contract.
This research then is part of a wider context of concern about the application and ethics of PT practices.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
FRANCES RIFKIN / 2010
1 See Literature Review, Appendix 1 for a more detailed discussion of these issues.
SOURCE HIGHER EDUCATION ACADEMY,PALATINE