enter stage left...and action!
Again looking to other sectors for creative stimulation, here is a story from NESTA highlighting the effectiveness of theatre in communication and inspiration.
There is a reason why theatre is consistently used in classrooms, often in therapy and sometimes in public engagement: there are myriad papers describing the tried and tested benefits of using theatre for learning, communication and creativity. For members of the audience, performances can generate real emotional and cognitive engagement, allowing them to relate to a particular story and topic through personal experience.
The last decade saw the development of many new forms of theatre, including immersive, site-specific or participatory theatre. These new art forms are meant to create a new and different relationship between the audience and the performers, often eliminating the fourth wall which separates them in traditional theatre. As a result, the audience becomes an integral part of the story, put in the spotlight, and not merely passively observing what is happening on the stage. That allows for much more personalised and tailored theatre experiences.
In the field of research and innovation, we have observed that theatre has mostly been used for two purposes: for information or communication around a certain piece of research or information, but also increasingly for public engagement and co-creation of content.
Theatre for information and communication
As a medium, theatre is very effective in passing on a message, or in communicating around certain topics to an audience. There are many interesting examples of theatre being used to popularise science and research.
Festival of the Spoken Nerd is a great example. Through live comedy shows, the trio of comedians make science, a topic rarely presented as fun, accessible to and enjoyable for a much wider audience. The association Talking Birds, founded in 1992, has developed the concept of ‘theatre of place’, often involving and collaborating with local councils, and bringing their audience to discover unused and little-known spaces in their cities, and the stories or memories surrounding them.
Because they are nodes for the generation of new research, universities have also had to think about new ways of sharing their work. The objective is obviously not to replace academic papers, but to reflect on how the use of methods like theatre can get a different, wider audience engaged with science and research. Both the Universities of Bristol and of Hertfordshire have been producing performances and plays presenting current and new research on topics as diverse as climate change, arts and heritage, or the sociology behind the mechanism of trust.
Theatre for participation and co-creation
Theatre is also a very strong medium for audience participation and co-creation, particularly new forms like participatory or immersive theatre.
The Stage Your City project, led by the European Theatre Lab, merges participatory theatre with digital elements like augmented reality, gaming and smartphone applications to engage communities around the future of their cities. The audience is asked to explore a dystopian city, ruled by AI, and to make decisions about the world they want to live in by 2070.
The play Don’t Smile was co-produced by Theatre of Debate, in collaboration with students, dentists, adolescents, patients and artists, and using research from the University of Leeds about oral health. The objective for that project was to engage the adolescents most at risk, in a region where nearly half of all 12 year-olds have decaying teeth, particularly in areas of social deprivation. It was a very successful initiative and even won an award from the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement in 2016.
Another great example, led by a professor at the University of Strathclyde, is the use of interactive theatre to improve public opinion around nuclear waste management, a sometimes controversial topic. Key to this initiative is that each performance is followed by an open discussion, between actors and audience, providing the time and space needed for the public to really engage with the topic.
Finally, for its 2018 edition of FutureFest, Nesta commissioned the interactive performance CrimeForce: LoveTeam. Through their shows, the performers introduced the audience to the field of future studies, and in particular to scenario building, and regularly asked the audience to make decisions to shape the future and the proceedings of the story.
How this could be valuable for more informed and inclusive policymaking
We think using theatre in the policymaking process has a real potential to make it better informed and more inclusive, by introducing new and fresh ideas, but also by allowing for direct and real-time feedback from the audience.
Like any other approach, there are challenges, particularly around making sure that audiences are engaged throughout, or that the right audience is targeted. Policymakers dabbling with the approach should not simply rely on the co-creative or participatory nature of a play to improve the inclusiveness of policymaking. Successful public engagement and co-creation require high levels of trust and collaboration, and that can only be achieved if policymakers truly understand the needs, experiences and backgrounds of the groups they are targeting.