Article was originally published in ‘Teatro žurnalas’ no 15, author Ramunė Balevičiūtė.
Kristina Werner is a German theatre artist and has been involved in various creative projects in Lithuania for few years. She has led a trainings in Applied Theatre for Lithuanian stage art professionals, and was the director of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre performance “Green Meadow”. Together with Artscape, Arts Council, the British Council and the Goetheʼs Institute, she implemented a new theatre project called „Namai“ (engl: home). With her, we are talking about the features, value and power of applied theater.
Could you please tell a bit what is your cultural and professional background?
I am a theatre maker and creative arts facilitator in education and community settings working in the UK, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Germany. I was part of the creative team of Žalia Pievelė, a documentary theatre production about the closure of Ignalina Atomic Power Plant, which is shown in the National Drama Theatre Lithuania. In 2015, I graduated from the MA Applied Theatre in London, in which I explored the ways in which theatre and performance is created by diverse groups of people. Over the past ten years, I have worked across art forms in projects with young people with learning disabilities, intercultural groups, old people in care homes and with refugees. My purpose is to facilitate greater access to performance arts and to give opportunity to voice each person´s concerns in their own terms.
How did you get interested in applied theatre?
I remember myself after graduating highschool that I had no clue what I would like to work in the future. I had interests in anthropology and visual arts but not at all in theatre. In school our theatre club was very traditional, rehearsing only the classics and theatre in my home town was all about acting right and real. For me, creativity emerged when my friends and me discussed about us and our past experiences – I remember, that me with some class mates created a performance for our graduation celebration. The basis for that play were the roles in the literature we had to read in school and linked them with true people we met during our school history. This process was beautiful as it happened to be very organic and full of joy – without any constraints of feeling judged or limits about how theatre should look like, as we already graduated 🙂 We gone wild and enjoyed performing in front of the audience. This experience showed me another way of creating theatre pieces…
In Applied Theatre I found an approach to people that is fun but also generates meaningful interaction – through theatre I found a way to interact in which we can play with status and hierarchy, to get to know all the nuances of yourself, finding your self-expression so we can “talk” about things on the basis of content rather than from your social roles you find yourself – often limiting your own potential.
Could you please give our readers a brief introduction what is applied theatre? Do you treat it as a professional art form or as education?
The term applied theatre started to being used in the 1990s to describe forms of activity that primarily exist outside conventional theatre institutions, and which are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies. There is a wide and diverse range of dramatic practices, for example, drama education, theatre for development, theatre in prisons, community theatre, intergenerational theatre and reminiscence theatre. Each of these forms of theatre has its own theories, debates and highly specialised practices which often are rather different from one another. Although there there are many different facets of applied theatre, practitioners in this field share a common belief: a belief in the power of the theatre form to address something beyond the form itself.
Other academic disciplines that use the preface ´applied´ often contrast it with ´pure´. In mathematics, for example, pure mathematics is abstract and theoretical, whereas applied mathematics is concerned with using theoretical models to solve practical problems. Most practitioners working in applied theatre are motivated by individual or social change and there is, therefore, a similar interest in the effects and usefulness of the work.
The term applied theatre is intensely problematic if it is seen in opposition to theatre as an art form, particularly if this implies that its production values and status in the academy are diminished. I´d like to quote Bjørn Rasmussen regarding this topic: “I never found the expression “applied” drama or theatre quite sound, because I always found it somewhat downgrading, implying that the applied stuff is second best, not quite as genuine as the essence (…) I thought the concept of “applied” amplified a low status position in the power play.”
I also often feel that artists downgrade applied theatre and call it social work rather than art, creating a binary opposition between “applied” and “non-applied” theatre. In this context there is the risk of emphasizing the usefulness of applied theatre at the expense of its artistic and aesthetic qualities. But all forms of drama and theatre rely on aesthetic engagement for their power and effectiveness, and applied theatre is no exception.
For me theatre spaces should be everyday utopias as I understand art that is capable of to transcend spaces and places how I would like the world to be. Of course, engaging people from different backgrounds doesn’t make an artistic process easier, but by opening up possibilities in creating art for everyone I move a step further to a world I´d like to live in. So that I not only see one perspective in theatre, but many different ones that also show the variety of people who live in our society. Applied theatre encompasses the notion of creating a society of equals through artistic practice. So for me, applied theatre is not only an art form, but a political methodology in active citizenship.
Another note on the question whether to treat applied theatre as a professional art form: Recently the term “social term” has gained currency in the contemporary art scene. Jackson wrote a book about this trend called Social Works. performing art, supporting publicswhere she describes “social term” as a term that combines aesthetics and politics, as a term for art events that are inter-relational, embodied, and durational, the notion of “social practice” might well be a synonym for the goals and methods that many hope to find in the discipline of experimental theatre and performance studies. Social practice celebrates a degree of cross-disciplinarity in art-making, paralleling the kind of cross-media collaboration across image, sound, movement, space, and text that we find in performance. Whereas for many the word “social” signifies an interest in explicit forms of political change, for other contemporary artists it refers more autonomously to the aesthetic exploration of time, collectivity, and embodiment as medium and material.
How do you treat theatre for communities? What changes can theatre initiate inside of them?
In the heart of applied theatre there lies a struggle, an attempt to balance an irresolvable tension – between the ideal of a radical, just and inclusive democracy for all and a respite for local circumstances, the social contexts of the participants and cultural differences. Making a difference is a struggle and it depends on breaking old certainties and creating new artistic methods to represent changing social circumstances.
Here I quote Brecht: “Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change. Nothing come of nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new. The oppressors do not work in the same way in every epoch. They cannot be defined in the same fixed fashion at all times.”
So, applied theatre is tied to contemporary questions about the politics of context, place and space, and this means that working in theatre often brings into focus questions of identity and belonging. In turn, questions arise about how conceptions of citizenship, culture and community might be constructed and understood. At the same time practitioners working in educational and community contexts have to ask themselves what ideas of humanity, identity and selfhood they assume and how they might negotiate different world-views in their work.
As I worked with different communities I was always interested in the question how arts practitioners can work creatively with communities they do not belong to. Based on our background, where and how we were raised, and the experiences we made in life, inform us how we perceive the world and the people around us. So we assess and judge on the basis of our normed points of reference we constructed (or clichés). The more another person´s norms deviate from mine, the bigger is the initial mutual scepticism. The more differing our social environments are, the more there is as well a possibility of misunderstandings in communication – on verbal and nonverbal level. So, how can we overcome our own bubble and develop a setting where different conceptions and perspectives are seen and appreciated, so collaborative work on an equal footing can really happen? For me, workingbiographically can be a way of getting to know others´ perspectives in a creative and reflective way, enabling the participants to work out the universality of their themes and to find an aesthetic form that reaches the audience. And when we understand that our perspective is one of a million possible perspectives of seeing the world we are ready to learn from each other.
So, the cardinal responsibility of arts practitioners in community settings encompasses the creation of such spaces. It is not about giving minorities a voice, but to create space that enable the participants´ voices to be heard. Authentic Movement is a movement practice that supports this idea and practically shows the main consideration for practitioners. The aim is to create a space where individuals are being witnessed as an approach to enable people to explore their creative potential and to express their own original ideas. In this practice, the people who move are being seen in totality rather than as a limited extract of whom they represent or how others imagine them to be. Especially when I worked with refugees I recognised the importance of not labelling people according to their current status as it only shows a small part of them, only an extract of what
they represent or perhaps what they present from themselves. Not being treated as a label is really important because if they are treated what they represent rather than who they are, then they are always in this kind of space of uncertainty, of expectations that they have to perform refugeeness, perform young offenderness. Being acknowledged for who they are; that takes time.
Considering the politically, culturally, socially and educationally diverse experiences of the participants who join projects offered for migrants and refugees there is a palpable tension centred on the freedom of expression. Participants who have grown up in an oppressive culture where, for example being gay or lesbian is illegal, and they never had the opportunity to question that, might express this perspective as their truth. By expressing it they make it difficult for somebody who is gay or lesbian to express their truth for fear of judgement. Therefore a limitation of expression is essential in a project with migrants and refugees when the purpose is to create a safe space where everybody can open up.
Groupsettings may empower individuals through the sense of belonging the group creates by a collective vision and trusted relationships. Theatre may even expand individual expressiveness. The practitioner´s key priority is to enable all participants to be heard in the same way in order to ascertain the unique expression of the group, which consists of the common world of all those present, or in other words, the group´s culture. To enable individual autonomy, the task for practitioners is in the arrangement of the settings: Creating settings in performances which allow engagement with the audience members and providing opportunities for further skill development, depending on individual needs and interests.
The recognition of self-expression as a process allows individuals to experiment with it. A temporary project may turn into an ´everday utopia´ in which self-expression can be freely explored, as in ´everyday utopias´ individuals have the possibility to create a space that resembles the world just how they would like it to be. This testing-ground enables participants to gain more confidence with their expression, which may result in a different perception of marginalised individuals from society. Thus, participatory arts are able to contribute to social change, where equal rights are respected and protected.
Could you please tell a little bit about your project NAMAI? What is your experience? Has it somehow corrected your understanding (about theatre, communities, teenagers etc.)?
Artscape invited me to train some young theatre makers in applied theatre so they are equipped in doing community theatre projects. I directly liked the idea as I feel that there is a need of applied theatre training in order to do participatory arts projects. Sometimes I heard artists saying that they use their expertise in theatre to go to communities, but it still needs special training to be aware of all the pitfalls on the way.
The idea of Namai is very simple, yet powerful. Theatre makers get three workshops in theory and practice of community theatre and directly apply this knowledge in their home town, doing a three months theatre project with a class of the school they graduated from. In our group are young theatre practitioners Miglė Remeikaitė, Artiom Rybakov, Adelė Šuminskaitė, Marija Lenko, Virginija Kuklytė, Aidas Jurgaitis from Visaginas, Vilnius, Klaipėda, Dieveniškės ir Radviliškis.The advantage we saw to go back to your home town was that they wouldn’t be outsiders of the community, they would connect much quicker with the students and understand their issues on a personal level.
The theatre project the practitioners did in their communities was divided in three phases.
The first phase was about creating a safe space through games and conversation. The creation of a physical and metaphorical safe space occupies high priority in the field of participatory arts as it is considered an important precursor to any collaborative activity. The term describes the transformation of a specific location into a space in which participants feel safe to learn new skills and to develop a way to express themselves. In this sense practitioners were trained to cultivate safe spaces which ground and protect as well as provide opportunities for participants to be creatively mobilised in order to develop self-expression. There are different factors which are crucial to build safe spaces in participatory art settings, but the most relevant one for our purpose were the consideration of rules for engagement that scaffold the creation of new work and invite a greater degree of aesthetic risk and therefore, encourages experimentation. During the first phase the practitioners explored the question which rules of engagement enables their participants to express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. From my previous practise and research I found out that the practitioners attitude towards how to communicate with participants, that emphasises mutual understanding is an important consideration. This is grounded in humanist psychology, especially based on Carl Rogers´s humanist theory on personality as well as the concept of communication in Gestalt Therapy. Although mutual understanding is a never-ending process as people change, just as the common world where people meet changes, the concept can be understood as a basis for further experimentation. As soon as the practitioner understands the participant´s needs and interests, he/she may create an adequate environment in which participantscan experiment.
The second phase focused on finding a topic the group likes to work on and engage in a discovery of both their own vision and the group´s vision of the purpose of the project. Is a safe space created within the group, the participants may take risks; they also may explore and focus on things they have not yet worked on, both personally and creatively. The projects the new practitioners facilitated used various drama techniques, like role-play, storytelling and physical theatre to engage the participants in an emotional, intellectual and physical way. The participants described the theatre activities as inclusive, enjoyable and highly creative. The notion that there is no right and wrong was crucial for the projects. Some practitioners used reflection so that the participants get a greater awareness about themselves, because when you start talking about a piece of work and what it meant to you, you are gaining insight of yourself and what matters to you and why it matters to you, what things resonate to you and why. The art psychotherapist Malcolm Learmonth illustrates how important reflection on own experiences is when he states: ´An unwitnessed story will tend to become stuck, and tell itself again.´By witnessing, which requires the preconditions of being present and suspending judgement, the participants are really being seen and heard in an active and interactive way. The engagement in drama exercises is central to the empowerment of the participants involved in the project, as they gain drama-related skills like creative thinking, voice, and physical training. They also have the opportunity to apply these skills in accordance with their personal and collective goals. Here, theatre enables the participants to become aware of and to connect to themselves. As this relation suggests, giving participants the space to explore their inner feelings might empower them to raise their voice.
The last phase in the project focuses on the performance, the interactions between the performers and the local community during the performance events and analyses the impact of engagement in the participatory arts project. The very act of performing is legitimising the performers´ right to share their work as well as offering them up as worthy of contemplation. The ethnographer Dwight Conquergood states that he ´began doing this kind of work focused on performance as a way of knowing and deeply sensing the other.´As spectators and performers occupy the same space during a performance, so whatever the performers do has an effect on the audience, and whatever the audience does has an effect on the performers. The result is a collapse of the audience-performer binary, and furthermore the notion of who is the subject and who is object in the performance dissolves. The fusion of the subject-object opposition creates what Victor Turner calls the liminal zone.Liminality is characterised as a passageway between two spaces rather than a space itself, where the normative structure is reversed, which Turner defines as anti-structure. Performances mark sites where conventional structure is challenged and provide ´a site for social and cultural resistance and the exploration of alternative possibilities (…) seeking a strategy of social engagement not offered by the more culturally-bound structures of the conventional theatre.´Therefore, any performance has the potential to create the liminal zone, which liberates participants from conformity to the general norms of society and stimulates interactions between all participants.
In Dieviensikes the performance of the students showed two sides of the area: the personal stories as well as situations which happen in this area. The audience members were impressed by the high quality. For me, it reflects the connection between engagement, expression and empowerment. A performance is impressive when the performers are feeling what they are performing; when they feel comfortable and safe and when their play has meaning to them. A practitioner can never direct performers to display this inner sensation, but he/she creates the spaces which allow this to happen.
In Radviliskes the performance event invited the audience members to sit in a half circle and engaging them in activities exploring what means home to them. The participants themselves lead some of these activities, for which the audience needed to stand up, placing personal objects on scales or moving around the space. It was a place in which audience and performers shared feelings and thoughts and created new meanings.
The performance in Visaginas was an interactive walk through the city, in which the performers showed and explained landmarks of their interest, invited the audience to take part in games and in the end the audience themselves were directed into a scene on stage. The young performers turned themselves into guides, leaders and directors, sharing their vision how to engage with the city from their perspective.
These performances were an enactment of reality, a liminal zone where all those present socially engaged with each other and created meaning. These dynamic conditions of social interplay are essential to communicate with and generate competence for interactions with people with unfamiliar backgrounds. Even without engagement between audience and performers the performance may enable social sharing, collective meaning-making and a way of communicating with the unfamiliar.
Not all projects in NAMAI achieved this level of engagement with the pupils and audiences. Due to the nature of each group and practitioners we discovered that the projects need more time to evolve as creating a safe space is a slow and subtle process. In our NAMAI team Renata Matkeviciene, evaluates the social impact of the project – so soon we will have more insights on the impact and will gladly share these with you 🙂
Artscape plans another round of NAMAI next year, involving new young artists who are interested in applied theatre and engaging with their home community creatively. This time we´d like to focus more on people from the community by having the pupils interviewing them and inviting them into the process of making the performance event.
Thank you for the interview.
Helen Nicholson, Applied Drama. The Gift of Theatre (London: Palgrave. 2005).
Bjørn Rasmussen, ´Applied Theatre and the Power Play – an International Viewpoint´, Applied Theatre Journal, 1 (2000)
J. Willett (ed.), Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (London: Methuen, 1964), p.51.
 Malcolm Learmonth, ‘Witness and Witnessing in Art Therapy’, Inscape , vol. 1 (1994), p.20.
 Dwight Conquergood, ‘Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance’, in The Community Performance Reader , ed. by Petra Kuppers and Gwen Robertson (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp.60/61.
 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (London: Routledge, 1969).
 Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2004), p.20.