13 Applied Theatre

Krysta Dennis

What is Applied Theatre?

The term “applied theatre” became popular in the United Kingdom in the 1990s to describe theatre practices that were outside the mainstream of theatre-making, featured the goal of social justice or activism, and tended to serve communities and individuals, often part of vulnerable or marginalized groups. The term has recently gained currency outside of the United Kingdom to describe this type of theatre practice. Applied theatre has become an umbrella term that encompasses a diverse range of theatre practices, including the Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre in Education, Drama Therapy, Prison Theatre, Museum Theatre, Documentary/verbatim Theatre, and more. It is by nature a hybrid practice, with therapists, psychologists, social workers, museum professionals, sociologists, anthropologists, and more, engaging in applied theatre-making. Broadly speaking, applied theatre happens in non-traditional spaces and serves marginalized communities. Applied theatre seeks to address issues beyond the theatrical form itself.

Applied theatre often features both trained theatre-makers as well as untrained participants. Audiences are either somehow invested in the issues that are explored in the context of the theatrical intervention, or part of the community that is featured in the work.

The Predecessors of Applied Theatre

Contemporary applied theatre has as its predecessors, left-wing Radical Theatre, Theatre in Education, and Community Theatre. A variety of sources, including the agitprop and Workers Theatre Movement of the 1920s, the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht, the poor theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop set the stage for applied theatre as we know it today.

Theatre as a teaching tool became popular in the United States in the 1920s, but theatre had been produced in educational settings for hundreds of years before that— at least since the school drama of the 16th Century; for example, the play Ralph Roister Doister (1530s) by Nicholas Udall, headmaster at Eton and Westminster. Further plays for education were furnished in this time period by the “university wits” including Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), and John Lyly (1554-1606). Teachers who employ theatre-making in their curricula will attest to the valuable transferable skills students gain from working on a theatrical production, including increased self-confidence, better spatial awareness, the ability to speak in front of a crowd, the ability to meet a deadline, increased empathy and tolerance, imagination and ability to make creative choices, the ability to concentrate and focus, memorization skills, and problem-solving and thinking on your feet. They might also highlight the social benefits as well as the personal ones: children and young adults who work in theatre benefit from being part of a unified group that works together to achieve a goal, develop skills in collaboration and cooperation, and learn how to trust and be trusted by their peers. Studies show that students involved in theatre in education show improved academic performance, better attendance, better reading comprehension, and better self-esteem than their peers. Similar studies show contemporary forms of applied theatre including Theatre in Education, Prison Theatre, and Drama Therapy yield similar results.

Community theatre refers to theatre-making that is made as part of a regional community. Many community theatres are thriving non-for-profits with a great deal of active participation and local stakeholders. Community theatre can feature combinations of professional theatre artists and community members, or theatre made exclusively by members of the community. This term may include amateur theatre, which usually features unpaid actors performing a play for a local audience. In many communities, access to professional theatre is limited, and community theatre provides a theatrical outlet for performers and an opportunity to see live theatre for audiences that may not often get the chance to do so.

Historically, theatre has often provided a space in which to speak truth to power. It is an outlet in which stories can be told without necessarily featuring direct criticism of unjust social frameworks and instances of oppression. A recent example is the 2000 play The Exonerated, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, a piece of Documentary Theatre (to be discussed later in this chapter) that features verbatim stories collected by Blank and Jensen from former death row inmates who were exonerated of their crimes. While opinions about the death penalty might be extremely polarized in the United States, and Americans might find it very difficult to discuss the subject altogether, the play simply presents the stories of people who were wrongfully accused, and what it did to their lives, and how their exoneration impacted them. It allows a hotly contested subject to be explored artistically through the words of those impacted in reality. Further back in history we can see this in festivals like Carnival, where the servants played the masters, and in commedia dell’arte plays in which servants outsmart their masters. This commedia trope finds its way into the written plays of Shakespeare (King Lear’s Fool, for example, speaking truth to Lear’s power), Molière (the wily servant Dorine and her dopey and easily manipulated master Orgon in Tartuffe), and Goldoni (Truffaldino managing two masters for double the pay, unbeknownst to both, in The Servant of Two Masters.)

Playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw placed social issues of their day onstage and interpreted them through a critical lens to attempt to educate, inform, and develop empathy within their audiences. Contemporary applied theatre seeks to either undermine the status quo in the tradition of these playwrights, such as in the case of Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre in Education, and Prison Theatre, or alternately to celebrate and commemorate important events or elements of local culture, as Museum Theatre and Reminiscence Theatre do.


While traditional theatre tends to feature a script authored by a playwright, put onstage by a director, and interpreted by actors, these structures are much less rigid in the case of applied theatre. The subject matter of applied theatre is often generated by the participants under the leadership of the facilitator(s).

Applied theatre is often created with the goal of stimulating conversation and discussions of potential solutions to the problems addressed in the work, rather than seeking masterful acting techniques or creative directorial or design concepts. In many cases, a formal script is never recorded. Much applied theatre depends on verbatim texts from the community about the issue at stake or reliance on improvisation. Often, endings in applied theatre remain open for interpretation, discussion, and inquiry. The theatrical representations are meant to mirror real life. Augusto Boal, the creator of the Theatre of the Oppressed, was known to quote Hamlet’s argument that theatre is like a mirror that reflects both our virtues and defects equally.

The Facilitator

There are many terms for this person— the Joker, as Augusto Boal preferred (hearkening back to the idea of the fool, or jester, who speaks truth to power), the teaching artist, teacher-artist, or co-creator, but facilitator seems to be the most common. A facilitator must have a transdisciplinary approach, featuring not only an understanding of how theatre is made but also the ability to utilize theatre as a pedagogical tool. They must also have a good working knowledge of the context of the community they are working with in order to avoid cultural misunderstandings, or worse, creating theatrical interventions that have little value to the community in which they take place. Sometimes the facilitator takes on the role of director, dramaturg, playwright, or simply empathetic listener. Facilitation requires a good deal of skill and experience as a theatre practitioner, and, depending on the type of work being facilitated, experience in the areas of health education, therapy, social work, or other relevant expertise.

A facilitator tries to be as neutral as possible, trying not to bring preconceived notions or an agenda to the applied theatre project. One cannot, of course, be completely neutral, and facilitators must acknowledge this fact, and actively try to combat the biases they bring with them. One of the advantages of having a facilitator who is from outside the group or community working on the applied theatre project is the distance the facilitator can bring, and the ability to see a broader perspective than the localized one addressed in the project. A good facilitator must be prepared to think on their feet and keep in mind the goal of serving the community involved in the project. The facilitator’s job lies in finding the balance between aesthetics (theatrical performance) and exploring social issues. Facilitators must be ready to manage potentially complex interpersonal dynamics and walk the line between art and activism.

Theatre of the Oppressed

Theatre of the Oppressed is a theatrical form created by Brazilian theatre practitioner and activist Augusto Boal (1931-2009). While Boal began his career as a more conventional theatre-maker, he was a vocal advocate for Brazilian playwrights when he was director of the Arena Theatre of Sao Paulo. In 1964, a coup d’état occurred in Brazil, and the new military regime found Boal’s theatre practices threatening. He was kidnapped, arrested, tortured, and exiled to Argentina. It was during this time that Boal conceived of the Theatre of the Oppressed, and wrote an acclaimed book of the same name. The book details Boal’s theatre-making method based on his friend and colleague Paulo Freire’s theory and subsequent book on The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.


Headshot of Augusto Boal.
“augusto-boal11” by Tio Palhaço Ribeirinho is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Boal’s work underwent a complete shift after an occasion in which an audience member stepped onstage, breaking the fourth wall and intervening in the action of the play. After this, Boal maintained that traditional theatrical productions were oppressive, as they did not allow spectators the freedom of expression given to the artists creating the piece. Boal saw theatre as an opportunity to create meaningful dialogue between groups of people, and a pedagogical method that empowers the community and avoids an elitist “top-down” structure. Boal coined the term “spect-actor” to describe the empowered participant in the Theatre of the Oppressed, bringing together the terms “spectator” and “actor.”

Boal worked with marginalized populations around South America, and later around the world. After 14 years of exile, Boal returned to Brazil after the fall of the dictatorship in 1986 and established a Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Boal created and utilized a number of methods of theatre-making within the framework of the Theatre of the Oppressed, which he details in The Rainbow of Desire and Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Some examples of Boal’s theatre-making frameworks include Image Theatre, Invisible Theatre, and Forum Theatre. He also details an extensive number of exercises in Games for Actors and Non-Actors that he refers to as the “arsenal” of the Theatre of the Oppressed.

In Image Theatre, participants are asked to demonstrate their opinion on a global or local issue— Boal gives examples of imperialism or water shortages in the local community. The participant is asked to express their opinion without words, using the bodies of other participants as if they were a sculptor, and create a tableau that expresses their feelings on the subject. Speaking is not allowed for any of the parties involved during the exercise. After the sculpture is complete, then they discuss how the sculptor represented their opinion. The group is then able to modify the image, with the actual image transmuting into the ideal image via a transitional image. In other words, how can reality be transformed into a better version of itself?

In Invisible Theatre, spect-actors construct a short play based on an issue of great importance to them. The actors play as if playing a role in a traditional theatre for a traditional audience. It will not, however, be performed in a traditional theatre for a traditional audience— it will be performed in a public space as if it is real life unfolding. Invisible theatre shows oppression in everyday life, without the “audience” knowing they are witnessing theatre.

In Forum Theatre, which is at the heart of the Theatre of the Oppressed, the performers present a scene that features a social or political problem with a difficult solution faced by the community. The scene should be 10-15 minutes. After it has been played, the participants are asked if they agree with the solution presented. The scene is then run a second time and the “spect-actors” are invited to replace the characters and attempt to change the outcome of the scene. The performers have to improvise and consider all the possibilities presented by the spect-actors intervention. It is important that the person who suggests a different outcome does not just do so from their seat— it is important they try to enact the changes they wish to see in order to experience the potential obstacles.

The Joker is fundamental to the success of the forum theatre performance, facilitating the interactions between the audience and the characters. Boal also refers to the Joker as a “difficultator” rather than a facilitator, because they must steer participants away from simplistic or unrealistic solutions. It is not easy to change people’s minds, and not easy to change the world, and the Joker must make sure this is clear. Another mechanism helps to make Forum Theatre a useful tool for playing out potential solutions to complex problems— the spect-actors are asked to shout out “magic” if they believe a solution presented by another spect-actor to be too facile or unrealistic.

In 1992, Boal was elected to the city council of Rio de Janeiro. This led him to conceive of a new form of theatre practice that would provide a way for citizens to engage in democratic processes, entitling this form “legislative theatre.” Legislative theatre was similar to forum theatre but is directly focused on policies and laws that could solve problems. This theatre-making practice actually resulted in the enaction of some new laws in the city and is still practiced today— notably in New York City.

Forum theatre as Boal outlined, as well as other variations on Theatre of the Oppressed, abound today in applied theatre practice, and Boal remains one of the most important figures in the history and continued practice of applied theatre.

Theatre in Education

In this section, we will explore Theatre in Education (TIE) and Theatre in Health Education (THE). Theatre in Education tends to take place in the context of schools, while Theatre in Health Education can take place in a multitude of community spaces, including schools.

Theatre as an educational tool has been used since at least the 16th Century and likely before, as noted above, but the contemporary understanding of Theatre in Education (TIE) stems from British TIE practice in the 1960s. At that time, progressive government policies for community-based arts funding encouraged theatre-makers to begin working in school settings, rather than children attending the theatre in more traditional spaces. Actor-teachers began working outside the proscenium model and taking into account the student as both audience and participant, and how to work within the curriculum of the school. This also allowed teachers to work with theatre-makers and develop new theatre-based strategies for teaching their curriculum in the classroom.

Theatre in Education features teaching as its primary goal. It usually targets age-specific, but diverse, students of mixed gender and ability. TIE directly engages with the student audiences by encouraging participation on their part. Some TIE productions feature professional actors performing for students, some TIE productions feature only student performers, and some a mix of both. No matter the style, students participate actively in the theatre-making process. Both school-based theatre programs and organizations that bring their programs into schools are classified as TIE. James Hennessy, TIE practitioner and theoretician states, “Central to the TIE work…are the twin convictions that human behavior and institutions are formed through social activity and can therefore be changed, and that audiences, as potential agents of change, should be active participants in their own learning.”

Theatre in Education features differing approaches to children of different ages. For elementary school children, TIE is geared more towards play for play’s sake, rather than performance for an audience. The purpose of this theatre-making for the sake of it nurtures creativity, play, self-expression, and personal growth, as well as addresses curricular subject matter. Developmental Drama practitioner and theorist Brian Way suggests that this style is meant “to develop people, not drama.” In secondary education, drama continues to be used to develop creativity and teach curriculum subjects but is more geared toward performance and production techniques.

Theatre in Health Education (THE) takes the main methodologies and principles of Theatre in Education and applies them in a health education setting, dealing with issues of drug abuse, child abuse, parenting, safety, physical and mental health, driving, clean water, organ donation, bedside manner for physicians, and general wellbeing. Theatre in Health Education was galvanized by the global AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Traditional methods of spreading information about the danger of unsafe sex were ineffectual in many cases (particularly in parts of the world where the concept was counter-cultural), and THE was found to be an effective strategy in combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Theatre in Health Education has become a common practice in schools and communities, and is a means to educate healthcare workers in developing best practices with patients. It often addresses issues that are taboo to discuss in public, from women’s health to sexuality, and child abuse. THE often seeks to uplift suppressed voices and can use a range of theatrical devices to navigate difficult topics including puppetry, masks, presentational styles, or new twists on familiar theatrical forms.

Theatre in Health Education in Africa during the AIDS crisis borrowed from traditional African storytelling forms in order to bring a taboo subject into the public forum. Practitioners such as C.J. Odhiambo encode seemingly unrelated narratives with issues of HIV/AIDS that audiences can identify, safely couching the difficult subject matter (talking about safe sex) in metaphor and symbol. This enables his company to reach a population that is uncomfortable talking about sex in a public forum. The Problem Solving Theatre Project in Durban, South Africa, directly explores personal and practical solutions to the problems posed by HIV/AIDS in peoples’ lives by utilizing Boalian forum theatre and asking audiences to directly participate and actively discuss HIV/AIDS prevention and living with the disease.

Theatre in Health Education practices are not only used to promote healthy practices among members of the public but for members of the medical profession to develop better bedside manner with their patients. Standardized patient programs have begun to spring up around the world to help medical students and doctors learn best practices in treating real patients with respect and empathy. In standardized patient programs, professional actors play through patient scenarios in which the medical students or doctors counsel, interview, examine, and develop plans for treatment for the “patient.” The doctors or medical students then receive feedback from the actor-patient and/or from the standardized patient program.

Drama Therapy

Drama Therapy is essentially a form of psychotherapy. Drama therapists must be trained as both clinicians and theatre-makers to draw on theatre techniques as a medium for psychological therapy that may include forms of drama and theatre such as improvisation, storytelling, role-playing, puppetry and mask, and fully developed dramatic performances. Drama therapists deal with issues ranging from dementia to autism, to physical or emotional abuse, and mental health issues.

One of the earliest forms of Drama Therapy was Psychodrama, developed in the 1920s in Europe by J.L. Moreno and Zerka Toeman Moreno, then practiced and developed in the United States. Psychodrama, which is still in use today, features an action-based experiential form of therapy that allows for the exploration of past trauma or conflict through re-enacting and re-experiencing the event and working through dynamic improvements through the medium of group performance. The form was not, however, recognized as an academic discipline until the 1970s, led by universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Now, many colleges and universities offer programs in Drama Therapy that blend psychological and theatrical study. Robert Landy, the founder of NYU’s Drama Therapy program, states that Drama Therapy has “distanced itself from the medical mode of diagnosis and illness, embracing holistic models of wellness as an alternative notion of assessing clients (rather than patients) through the art form.” Though the main goals of Drama Therapy are consistent with the goals of applied theatre— positive social change or empowerment for groups or individuals— the primary difference between Drama Therapy and other forms of applied theatre is that the drama therapist is not only a trained theatre-maker but a trained and licensed therapist who follows the codes of conduct, of confidentiality, informed consent, “do no harm,” and the Hippocratic oath. Many forms of applied theatre focus on political and social change, while Drama Therapy focuses on the inner workings of the individual. While psychodrama featured a client playing themselves as the protagonist in the relationship or situation being examined, with other group members playing the other characters, contemporary drama therapists often ask the client to play someone other than themselves in the situation, or even to distill the situation down to archetypes rather than the specifics of the actual event.

Close relatives of psychodrama are sociodrama, sociometry, and Playback Theatre. Most of these forms spring from the work of Moreno, who was a physician by training. Moreno worked with veterans, sex workers, the homeless, prisoners, and people with mental health problems. Sociometry is a qualitative method for measuring social relationships. It is meant to examine the relationship between social structures and psychological well-being. Moreno believed that sociometry revealed the underlying structures of a group, and sociometric exercises can often be useful to gain knowledge about a group in tandem with Drama Therapy. Sociodrama is the group version of psychodrama— it is meant to aid a group in crisis. For example, Moreno used sociodrama at a professional psychiatric conference in order to examine the group trauma of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and attempt to create a cathartic experience for the group, assisting them in expressing repressed emotions. Moreno describes sociodrama as:

based upon the tacit assumption that the group formed by the audience is already organized by the social and cultural roles which in some degree all the carriers of the culture share…an action method in which individuals enact and agreed upon social situation spontaneously.

Jonathan Fox (who studied with Moreno) and Jo Salas developed Playback Theatre in the 1970s. It is an improvisational theatre that features communal storytelling. In Playback, a community gathers, and the conductor (the name chosen for the leader of Playback Theatre) invites a member of the community to tell a story of concern to the community. The Playback actors then recreate the story in performance, often accompanied by music. The storyteller then reflects on the performance. This is followed by multiple other storytellers building upon the communities’ stories. The main distinction here is that the Playback actors, while they might be members of the community, are trained performers.

Drama Therapy is a growing field and features many different approaches and techniques. Most Drama Therapy is a private therapeutic practice in which the clients are both the performers and spectators. The exception to this is Therapeutic Theatre, a more public form in which a population that sought Drama Therapy performs for an invited audience. This practice blurs the lines somewhat between Drama Therapy and other areas of applied theatre. Because Drama Therapy is commonly closed to the public and confidential, the practice develops within the practice of individuals and groups of drama therapists. Some consider the practice to be entirely separate from applied theatre, but often, as in the case of this chapter, it is discussed in the broader world of applied theatre.

Reminiscence Theatre

Reminiscence Theatre, or Theatre for the Elderly, is a form of applied theatre that creates a framework for the elderly to participate in theatre-making practice. Participants are asked to recall memories of a moment in cultural or personal history and to tell the story of these memories, upon which performances are developed by professional actors or the elderly participants themselves.

In contemporary culture, we often focus on youth culture, and Reminiscence Theatre practices suggest that not only is there value in making theatre from the memories of elderly people for their own sake, but for the sake of creating interesting, meaningful art. There are also multi-generational models of Reminiscence Theatre, including groups of young performers eliciting stories and memories from a group of seniors which they then perform back to the seniors, a group of senior performers might create pieces based on their memories for younger audiences, or younger theatre-makers (students, professionals, or both) come together and create the work with elderly performers with the goal of bringing the intergenerational work to the community. Antionette Ford, the founder of Double Nickels Theatre Company, states:

Reminiscence theatre is a valuable way for seniors to contribute to our cultural sustainability and creative aging efforts. We recall the events that shape what we become. These events inform the narrative, highlight that which would be marginalized, and can serve as examples of a broader history.

Ford’s work includes a project of Reminiscence Theatre that celebrated the 100 Year Anniversary of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. in which she interviewed ten centenarians and built a performance around their memories of the trees arriving in Washington. The production featured professional actors, as well as the Japanese ambassador.

Another example of a thriving company practicing Reminiscence Theatre is the Age Exchange in London, which has been doing so for nearly 40 years. Age Exchange serves people suffering from dementia and provides opportunities for them to continue to contribute to society through reminiscence arts including, but not limited to, Reminiscence Theatre (the group also provides visual art opportunities). Age Exchange works with embodied memory in a variety of art forms and reports that the technique is highly effective in working with vulnerable older people, specifically those with dementia.

Practitioners of Reminiscence Theatre argue that it is beneficial not only to the elderly but to younger generations who can learn from and foster communication with the elderly. With people living longer, healthier lives today, Reminiscence Theatre provides an interesting outlet for the elderly to remain part of an intergenerational conversation through theatre practice.

Documentary Theatre

Documentary Theatre is a form of applied theatre that utilizes previously published newspaper stories, interviews, governmental documents, statistics, and trial transcripts as its scripts, among other documents. Delivering factual information or opinions on a particular subject that showcase opposing viewpoints can create a great deal of dramatic action. While there are many styles of creating Documentary Theatre, from DV8’s physical theatre and dance-based approach to Anna Deavere Smith’s single monologist approach, this genre as a whole seeks to provoke community discussion and cause audience members to consider the subject addressed from differing perspectives, sometimes divergent from their own.

The roots of Documentary Theatre lie in Eastern European agitprop theatre (a portmanteau of agitation and propaganda— theatre that aimed to educate or indoctrinate the audience). The USSR, in the years following the Russian revolution, employed acting troupes known as Blue Blouses who dramatized current events and news stories as a “Living Newspaper.” The concept of the Living Newspaper soon spread throughout Europe and the United States, even featuring in the depression era Federal Theatre Project, started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. This style of theatre-making evolved into the Documentary Theatre projects we know today. However, rather than attempting to indoctrinate the public, contemporary Documentary Theatre provides audiences with a closer look into a particular viewpoint on a subject or the perspective of an individual who may be different than themselves.

DV8 Physical Theatre Company illustrates how documentary materials and dance can be combined to create interesting and engaging pieces of theatre. Founder Lloyd Newson has created movement and dance pieces that are accompanied by dialogue and projections that are based on interviews, current events, and statistics. Their 2005 production of To Be Straight With You explored issues of tolerance, intolerance, religion, and sexuality. The company used the same techniques for its impactful 2012 production Can We Talk About This? which addresses questions of free speech, Islam, and multiculturalism.

A subcategory of Documentary Theatre is verbatim theatre, which makes use of testimonies from witnesses or other people involved in the event or issue depicted. Some of the most well-known pieces of Documentary Theatre fit into this genre, including the work of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, Anna Deavere Smith, and Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project. Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s The Exonerated, mentioned previously, utilizes first-person narrative and legal records to tell the stories of six wrongfully convicted people who were exonerated from death row, using a company of ten actors. Over the summer of 2000, Blank and Jensen interviewed forty former death row inmates who had been freed in order to create the production. Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project, also performed in 2000, is a piece of verbatim theatre based on the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and the impact on the Laramie community. The theatre company conducted hundreds of interviews with the inhabitants of the town and built the production on those as well as journal entries written by the company members and published news reports. Tectonic returned to Laramie ten years after the murder to conduct another round of interviews, creating the companion piece The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which featured many of the original cast members. Anna Deavere Smith’s earlier verbatim work, Fires in the Mirror, is a 1992 production that explores the 1991 Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn. Deavere Smith interviewed 100 people who were impacted by the riot and crafted the interviews into a one-person show that she performed herself. Deavere Smith’s skill as a mimic allows her to personally portray a series of observers and commentators on the event with subtle costuming distinctions, such as the addition of a hat, jacket, or quick change of hairstyle.

Documentary Theatre is a growing field and an interesting artistic intervention with which to explore subjective experiences and events. This allows theatre-makers to inform audiences in a factual manner about a subject as well as engage in interpretation and promote community discussion, and even action.

Museum Theatre

Museum Theatre utilizes theatrical productions or techniques to interpret, or render accessible to a contemporary audience, the historical background of the museum. Museum Theatre includes site-specific theatrical productions, storytelling, and living history demonstrations to interpret the museum’s history and collections. Once a rare occurrence particular to specific sites, Museum Theatre has become a much more common practice. Museums that utilize Museum Theatre as their primary focus are often referred to as living history museums.

One Museum Theatre technique is first-person interpretation, in which an actor, usually a professional, interacts directly with visitors to the site as a historic figure related to the site. The performer will adapt the worldviews and knowledge appropriate to the historical figure they portray. An early example of this technique is Colonial Williamsburg. Started in the 1920s, the site features a 301-acre part of the historic district of Williamsburg, Virginia interpreted as it would have been in the colonial era. Costumed actors perform the daily lives of 18th Century Americans, often using colonial grammar and diction. While Colonial Williamsburg has been criticized for presenting a “cleaned-up” version of Colonial America and historically neglecting the stories of free African Americans, the site is an extraordinary early example of Museum Theatre.

In second-person interpretations, the audience assumes roles themselves along with the interpreters, playing a character or doing an action from the time period. This can be as simple as churning butter or making candles, to playing the role of an enslaved person seeking freedom in the “North Star” program at Connor Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana, in order to learn about the underground railroad.

In third-person interpretation, the performer does not inhabit the character strictly and can step out of the role to acknowledge the time period of the visitors. For example, at the Wampanoag Homesite at Plimoth Plantation, the costumed performer will tell visitors about 18th Century Wampanoag life from a contemporary angle while simultaneously embodying it.

Performers in Museum Theatre must walk the line between actor and historian— they must be well-versed in the history that they represent, but also have the sensitivities of actors working in site-specific settings with audience members. First, second, and third-person interpretations often feature elements of storytelling, demonstrations, and scenes or short productions that are relevant to the site. Audiences may arrive at the museum unaware that they will encounter theatre, and Museum Theatre-makers must navigate the challenges of repeating performances multiple times of day and accomplishing particular tasks, as well as improvising effectively and appropriately when addressed by a visitor. Fort Ticonderoga in Upstate New York illustrates this effectively with its combination of first-person performances, second-person activities, and third-person interpretations.

Museum Theatre provides an opportunity for communities to learn about their cultural heritage, or a part of history we hope to avoid repeating. Imagining oneself in a different time period makes for memorable experiences, and audiences are afforded an opportunity to connect meaningfully with their own culture’s history or that of another culture. Research shows that visitors to historic sites are more likely to remember what they encountered there if the information was delivered through storytelling or theatrical intervention.

Prison Theatre

Though we can trace theatrical performance in prisons back to at least the incarceration of the Marquis de Sade at Charenton Prison in France in the 18th Century, where he is said to have directed the inmates in plays, the first example we would understand as rehabilitative theatre in prisons would be Herb Blau’s 1957 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the San Quentin Prison in California, a performance that was attended by 1400 inmates. A play about feeling stuck, about, well…waiting… resonated profoundly with inmates. Theatre in prisons in the mid-twentieth century, including groups such as Cell Block Theatre, the Family, Theatre for the Forgotten, and Theatre Without Bars, mainly consisted of performing plays that resonated with inmates for therapeutic purposes.

Later in the 20th Century, however, a number of theatre practitioners came to understand that actually participating in theatre practice would be therapeutic to inmates. Rick Cluchey, a former inmate who was influenced by the production of Waiting for Godot, founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop, which produced plays performed by inmates. Now Prison Theatre programs abound, featuring the production of traditional scripts, but also Boalian forum theatre, clowning, Brecht’s epic theatre, and performances devised by the inmates themselves. There are also many companies and individuals that participate in this kind of work, for example, Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA) founded by Katherine Volkins at Sing-Sing in 1996, which now has many theatre practitioners and criminal justice professionals who volunteer to work in men’s and women’s prisons throughout New York State. Indeed, the goals of criminal justice professionals are aligned with applied theatre practitioners— working towards social change, community-building, and creating awareness around oppressive conditions.

Jefe Von Stanley produced a guide to exercises and workshop experiences for prisoners in his The Geese Theatre Handbook, based on the international Geese Theatre Company’s work in prisons since 1987. Other founding company members John Bergman and Saul Hewish have shared the company’s techniques in Challenging Experience: An Experiential Approach for the Treatment of Serious Offenders.

Shakespeare Behind Bars, founded in 1995, has also been a significant Prison Theatre company, focusing on restorative justice— a method for inmates to explore social and personal issues through theatre-making. The company was founded by director Curt L. Tuftland and psychologist Julie Barto at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. A film, Shakespeare Behind Bars, details the work of the company on a production of The Tempest in the Kentucky prison. Shakespeare’s very relevant themes of love, violence, vengeance, forgiveness, and family provide an avenue for prisoners to connect with and explore these themes in their own lives through the exploration of the plays.

Theatre practice is associated with helping the incarcerated to develop social skills, renewed self-confidence and a sense of their own worth, positive attitudes, and behavioral changes. Participants who take part in theatre programs while incarcerated have much lower recidivism rates than the general population of the formerly incarcerated.

Theatre for Development

Theatre for Development (TfD) is a form of applied theatre used in developing communities worldwide to educate audiences or promote social or political change. Many other applied theatre-making practices are employed in the context of TfD, including Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre in Education, Theatre in Health Education, Drama Therapy, and Documentary Theatre. While TfD got its start in a fairly colonial framework (Developed world educators imposing western culture and ideals on developing world populations), TfD has seen some major transformations and today features a locally driven framework with the community concerned as the major stakeholder in the process. The form has also grown from a more didactic framework to a dialogic one, moving from less interactive to empowering communities to explore solutions to their problems through theatre. While many applied theatre practices are utilized in TfD, the most commonly employed today are Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques.


Though applied theatre is a field that is geared towards positive social change and helping individuals and communities, it is not without its challenges as a practice. For example, critics from the developing world have questioned the discourse on human rights, and whether some applied theatre practices are not simply vectors for globalization— methods by which global corporations create suitable conditions in new localities for their practices through the often unwitting practices of applied theatre facilitators. The tensions over whose definitions of human rights are “correct” are emphasized by the unequal power distribution in global politics, and the tendency of applied theatre to be brought to marginalized populations by those in positions of greater power.

Applied theatre practitioners must also consider the ethics of putting the stories of real people on stage. It is important for practitioners to secure participants’ informed consent before the theatre-making begins, so as to establish an ethical environment in which to create.

Another issue for applied theatre is how its level of success can be measured. In traditional theatre, assessment is clear— productions are judged by critics and then by the attendance levels of the audience, which results in a financial return. Assessment of applied theatre is more complex. In some cases, such as reduced recidivism rates among inmates who participated in Prison Theatre, it is easy to measure the impact of applied theatre. However, how is the impact on a community measured when there are many other external factors at play besides theatre-making? While challenging to assess, applied theatre practitioners can take a number of factors into account: What was the quality and degree of participation amongst the group creating the theatre piece? What were the responses of the audience members (if different from the practitioners)? Was the plan for ethical theatre-making practices carried out? Did the community involved in the project display leadership in its creation? Did the project have a strong exit strategy? This last question is an important one— applied theatre facilitators should establish a plan of action for after their departure or the end of the theatrical intervention. How can participants take the next steps in enacting social change?

Applied theatre is practiced in order to enact social change and make the world a better place through theatrical explorations of issues ranging from the political to the personal. It is a growing field of theatre practice, and doubtless will grow and develop in the years to come, both into new and interesting forms and expansions of existing ones. It is a practice that serves to empower, educate, enlighten, and inform spectators, spect-actors, audiences, and practitioners themselves.


Applied Theatre

Augusto Boal

Documentary Theatre

Drama Therapy

Forum Theatre

Image Theatre

Jo Salas


Museum Theatre

Playback Theatre

Prison Theatre


Reminiscence Theatre


The Facilitator/The Joker

Theatre for Development

Theatre in Education

Theatre of the Oppressed



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

#TheatreAppreciation Copyright © 2022 by Krysta Dennis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book