Opening the Space: Investigating responsivity in the expertise of applied theatre practitioners

  • Elizabeth Hepplewhite

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis investigates the expertise of applied theatre practitioners and proposes a concept of 'responsivity' to define their skills, knowledge, qualities and understanding. Practice-responsive research methods were devised to analyse how artists make decisions in-action in a range of applied theatre practice in community, education and health contexts. Research included the use of reflective dialogues following observations of practice, stimulated by joint researcher-practitioner reflection on a video recording of the observed session. Working from detailed analysis of this observed practice and dialogic reflection, new vocabularies are introduced and developed, with the aim of better articulating particular skills and approaches. The role of applied theatre practitioners is multi-faceted and primarily focussed on facilitating positive outcomes for the participants. Planning activity is informed by projected outcomes for the work and the context of practice, such as environment, nature of the participants, individual identities, etc. Practitioner skills build on art form knowledge and the ability to guide activity to create performance outcomes, alongside a concern for aesthetic and ethical issues of the work, as well as social and political awareness of the context. Adaptations to moment-by-moment activity reflect their ability to facilitate engagement and nurture interactive exchange. I suggest that, to manage these multiple demands, practitioners demonstrate heightened attendance to issues of inter-subjectivity and empathy, thereby developing an enhanced expertise in response to the work and the people and contexts involved in that work. The thesis proposes that responsive approaches are common to practitioners and enable her/him to make good choices within the moments of practice. Applied theatre's responsive-ness is indicative of a prioritisation of participant experience, however, the research also revealed the way in which a responsive ethos impacted and enriched the practitioners through supporting their own generative engagement with the work. The critical framework of responsivity proposed in this thesis acknowledges the importance of impact for all participants, including the artists. Whilst the methods and outcomes of applied theatre have received scholarly attention, this research focusses on how practitioners themselves define their expertise, embracing a consideration of skills learning and development. The concepts of response and dialogue informed this investigation in a number of significant ways, and as a result responsivity is proposed as a key methodological imperative for applied theatre research as well as the substantive focus of my thesis. This mode of operating as artists and researchers is particular to applied theatre's overarching aims to be socially responsive, politically engaged, ethically considerate and emancipatory. Responsivity is offered as a way to distinguish applied theatre practice from other performance participation and as an underpinning ethos for understanding the expertise of applied theatre practitioners.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJennifer Hughes (Supervisor) & James Thompson (Supervisor)


  • drama in education
  • theatre in education
  • women and theatre
  • arts and dementia
  • community theatre
  • arts and mental health
  • participatory
  • theatre and learning disability
  • dialogic
  • practice-responsive research
  • artists
  • facilitation
  • practitioners
  • applied theatre
  • responsivity

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