- The Applied Theatre Reader
Almost as soon as theatre entered the academy as a distinct discipline, efforts were made to classify its variants. One of the most vexed definitional arenas concerns what has been explored in these pages as "social theatre" (TDR 48:3 [T183] Fall 2004). Related practices include community-based performance, process drama, and theatre for development — to name only a few. Tim Prentki and Sheila Preston name many more in their comprehensive anthology, wryly noting the perhaps "reluctant" grouping together of such categories under the rubric of applied theatre. Rather than focusing on taxonomy, however, The Applied Theatre Reader posits conceptual lenses and curates case studies that reflexively highlight the complexities and contradictions inherent in applied theatre practices.
Prentki and Preston grapple up front with the historical conditions that influence applied theatre's emergence as a field, including post-World War II global development initiatives laid out by the US and UK in particular. They incisively note that any assumptions about how cultural and political life should be organized — whether progressive or conservative — are prescriptive. Such prescriptive ends are in tension with the [End Page 169] more dialogical means of applied theatre practices grounded in liberatory pedagogy. This tension begs several questions: Who initiates, participates in, facilitates, and critiques the work, and towards what ends? Most of the anthology's authors sustain a rigorous exploration of these questions. Yet, in practice (with a few noteworthy exceptions), the documentation and discussion of applied theatre in global settings remains in the hands of scholar-facilitators from the UK, North America, and Europe, the majority of whom have university associations.
Indeed, Prentki and Preston dedicate the Reader to their students whose "needs inspired the project" (xv), and to be sure, the anthology offers a much-needed tool for those students and for other scholars and practitioners in the field. In addition to 26 commissioned global case studies, the Reader skillfully maps key paradigms (such as "transformation," "border-crossing," and "participation") via excerpts from previously published interdisciplinary theories. These range from political science (Mouffe, Gramsci) to cultural theory (hooks, Chomsky) to critical pedagogy (Freire, Giroux) set alongside relevant 20th-century theatrical theorists (Boal, Bond, Brecht, Heathcoate, Mda, wa Thiong'o). Case studies are designed to render these frameworks concrete by wrestling with the theoretical complexities introduced.
The first two sections, exploring poetics and ethics, exemplify this agenda. The editors alternate in introducing the sections, and in "Poetics," Prentki highlights such challenges as privileging local knowledge while resisting global monoculture. He additionally sets up a key trope that reappears throughout the anthology: the Fool or Joker as a mediator between official and popular rhetorics. Historical excerpts from Mikhail Bakhtin and Bertolt Brecht follow, elaborating on the potential (and problematics) of the carnivalesque and the necessity of creating theatre that foregrounds social contradictions. Canadian scholar-practitioner Julie Salverson vividly animates these theories through an inquiry into a clown opera about the atomic bomb, a project on which she served as librettist. Salverson proposes that clowning can limit the dangers of sentimentalizing tragedy and trauma, while working as a generative tool for participants with less conventional training as actors. The essay operates pedagogically not only by discussing the way the clown opera worked with students, but also by teaching through its writing — engaging the reader in the revelations produced by good storytelling while modeling a self-reflexive ethics of applied theatre.
Other case studies in this section work through juxtaposition as well as exemplification. Andy Watson and Lois Weaver write of their work with, respectively, incarcerated men and women. Watson focuses on raising awareness in individuals about their self-contradictory behavior through mask and metaphor while Weaver explores the existential potentialities of fantasy. Weaver's essay, in particular, moves adeptly between the personal and social, the UK and Brazil, provoking questions in the reader about incarceration as a contextual political phenomenon rather than only as personal failing.
"The Ethics of Representation" elaborates on a conundrum woven into the very fabric of the anthology — that...