How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice? | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice?

How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice?


Dr Katharine Low, Lecturer in Applied and Community Theatre at the Central School of Speech & Drama, and Sue Mayo, associate artist at Magic Me co-led this research project. Sue is a practicing participatory artist of a generation who did not undertake formal training, and Katharine a practitioner who has experienced the university training route, to PhD level.

Project info:

We received an HEA teaching grant in August 2012 to investigate the different approaches to teaching MA applied theatre practice and to develop additional teaching materials. The prompt for the research came from our different routes into the field, the apprenticeship route and the academic route, and are now both teaching in academic settings. We were curious to observe what the differences were between these two routes, particularly in the current context where the field of applied theatre is becoming increasingly taught at MA level.

As part of the process, we interviewed leading practitioners in the field of applied theatre/socially engaged theatre who had not come through the 'academic' route, we surveyed the employers of freelance practitioners, and we ran research events with current students and graduates of MA courses, and with teachers of Applied Theatre practice.  We curated a roundtable to further interrogate the key findings.  In addition to the written report we produced three key teaching films (focused on particular themes) with accompanying activities. There have been two areas of impact that have arisen from our research: an engagement with the teaching films and the development of an informal cohort/network between MA graduates and teachers of socially engaged practice.


Key findings

Through dialogues and interviews with experienced arts practitioners, teachers of Applied Theatre, and students or recent graduates, and an online survey of employers we have sought to identify the strengths of the practice based and the academy based learning routes.

Three areas of learning were foregrounded by all our respondents and research partners; firstly, the qualities and skills required by an arts practitioner working in participatory and collaborative practice, and how and where these are best learned and taught; secondly, praxis, and the ways in which action and reflection can be kept in balance, and how the study of theory and context can facilitate reflection and inform action; thirdly creative risks, and the ways in which practitioners can develop responsivity and the ability to make ethical judgements, while avoiding becoming risk averse through over-analysis.

This learning and teaching takes place in what is a complex field, with a need for the understanding of aesthetics, ethics, group dynamics, social and political context, funding structures, educational and political theory, therapeutic approaches, and a broad range of theatre and performance skills. This, and the diversity of students attracted to the MAs in Applied Theatre/Drama (some coming to learn about the field, others coming with experience and looking for an opportunity to reflect on and interrogate their work) calls for a flexible approach to learning and teaching and what approaches are most suitable where.

The research points to the benefits of dialogue between the Academy and practicing artists and arts organisations, and the importance of framing academic courses in the ‘Applied’ field as part of a practitioner’s development, but not as a definitive ‘training.’ Good practice emerges as that in which practitioners are multi-skilled, reflexive and reflective, and aware that the learning they are engaged in is life long, and will come in different forms.

Links & teaching resources

Project details

Where once socially engaged practice was taught through apprenticeships and professional development, now there are a plethora of courses and training opportunities for those working in the applied field, both in particular skills, such as forum theatre or reminiscence work, and in courses such as Masters courses in University settings, which cover the theory and practice of this very diverse field.

Our project aims to examine and articulate the benefits and challenges of the different opportunities now on offer, and to attempt to uncover gaps in provision, as well as to articulate good practice, in order to identify better teaching strategies for applied theatre practice.  We are not aiming to set up a binary of ‘taught’ and ‘learned’, but rather to explore, with practitioners, the important question: How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice?

Accordingly, this project will examine how we can expand our knowledge of teaching socially engaged practice in HE. We are particularly interested in exploring what are the right settings for such settings: is it the academic? The practical? Hosted by organizations? Or lead by qualified teachers?

Project Title: How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice?

Award Holder: Dr Katharine Low, Lecturer in Community Performance/Applied Theatre & Co-Researcher, Sue Mayo

Amount: £6925.50

Dates: August 2012 - November 2013

Funder: The Higher Education Academy - Teaching Development Grant


How do we teach socially engaged theatre practice? seeks to address the following points of inquiry through practical workshops and interviews with creative practitioners, academics and students:

  • What are the different pedagogic methodologies used in formal and non formal settings?
  • How can we engage with and incorporate emerging fields and contexts such as technology and social media?
  • How can we articulate the strengths and weaknesses of such training, and who should be doing the assessing?
  • What kind of dialogues can be opened up between practitioners of different generations and what learning opportunities are there here?


Dr Katharine Low, BA, MA, PhD

Lecturer in Community Performance / Applied Theatre, The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama
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Ms Sue Mayo

Sue is a theatre maker, facilitator, teacher and consultant. Working across art forms, often in collaboration with other artists, Sue has created and facilitated a wide range of creative projects in the UK and beyond. Sue lectures at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, where she is Convener of the MA in Applied Drama, and is Associate Artist at Magic Me, the UK’s leading inter-generational arts provider. Sue works in the professional development of artists who want to work in education and community settings, and acts as a consultant and evaluator for arts and heritage organizations.
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Mr Bhavesh Hindocha

Research Collaborator
Bhavesh is the Director of Loud Minority which is a free range, feisty, film-making company. Our particular interests are marginalized groups, social issues, social history, mental health, education, music, arts and culture. Our specialism is participatory film-making. Community engagement is at the heart of our work.
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News & Events

4. Launch of Report Findings: Autumn 2013: Royal Central School of Speech & Drama

8 August 2013

Outputs & Outcomes


These outputs will be delivered alongside practical training sessions with MA students and practitioners, including a research day.


Footage will exploring the concepts of Creative Risks, Praxis, and Qualities and Skills, three key areas of focus in the research


The Pilot will include suggested activities for teaching Socially Engaged Theatre, drawing on best practice from research related to the films


It is anticipated that at this event a number of the students and practitioners involved in the project will discuss their experiences as well as presenting a first edit of the film and discussing what the findings may mean for future training in socially engaged practice.


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