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What do you get from an applied theatre course?

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s MA applied theatre (drama in the community and drama education) course facilitating a workshop for students with learning difficulties. Photo: Patrick Baldwin
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What does the term ‘applied theatre’ (or ‘applied drama’) mean? It’s a term you hear used with increasing regularity, and it refers to one of the most diverse sectors of theatremakers. Simply, applied theatre refers to theatre in an educational setting, work where the participants are not professionals, and often where drama is being used as a tool for means other than simply creating theatre – where drama becomes therapeutic or educational.

At some level, it is likely that any actor, director or writer working in theatre has come across applied theatre if they have worked on any educational or outreach project. During the New Labour years, there was increased funding for projects that came with tangible educational, therapeutic or social benefits. At one point it felt almost as if any theatre created had not only to be good, but also to prove that it would reduce knife crime in London at the same time.

The funding goal posts have moved considerably since then, but that doesn’t mean drama isn’t still being used in these ways.

It is one thing to run an hour-long workshop for young people in a school setting, and is likely to be something most actors could manage with only a little guidance. But more demanding projects, such as working with young offenders or using drama as a therapeutic tool, aren’t the sort of projects you can simply jump into. They require a very different skill set and training to that of an actor.

Applied theatre is a course that straddles drama schools and universities, and one that is going to be interesting to a diverse pool of people. Most students you meet on an applied theatre course aren’t particularly looking to act, and many will hate the idea of performing. Some will be interested in moving straight into formal education, others will be looking to join the community or education department of a theatre, and others go on to be freelance facilitators running projects in prisons, or for councils and charities.

Of the drama school courses, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama has one of the most established applied theatre departments. It once offered a simple teacher training course for aspiring drama teachers, and it now offers a whole range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including MAs in drama and movement therapy. At the core of the applied theatre department is the BA (hons) drama, applied theatre and education, and a similar MA course. Part of Central’s BA includes a term-long placement, which proves invaluable to future employability. Students also get the opportunity to work with visiting staff, which includes representatives from companies such as Graeae, Cardboard Citizens and the National Theatre education department.

Reflecting Central’s international outlook, the course also offers opportunities for some students to travel and explore the use of drama in diverse community settings. While those attending this course are likely not to be considering a career as an actor (in the narrowest sense), there are nevertheless opportunities to act, including a long tradition of visiting the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. The performance opportunities are always focused on the main aims of the course: performance that takes place outside traditional theatre buildings, which can bring about change and transformation with the participants who create it.

For a course focused more on acting within a community setting, then East 15 Acting School offers a BA in acting and community theatre. As the title would suggest, this course is clearly aimed at actors. The course trains you to become a professional performer, but alongside this training it also develops your skills for contemporary community practice. While there are modules in the third year around using drama within health, justice and social services settings, this is much less of a focus. The course appears to be much more geared towards youth theatre and community theatre, giving you grounding in facilitation and directing non-professional actors, as well as arts administration.

Outside London, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts has a very well-respected BA in applied theatre and community drama. This course boasts some great Unistats (the official data collected by the Higher Education Funding Council for England). These include 100% overall student satisfaction, 100% of students in work or study six months after finishing, and 60% in a professional or managerial job six months after finishing.

Those are pretty good statistics – especially when considering the types of workplace that graduates are entering. The course takes you through from the foundations of building practice as a theatre practitioner, such as using improvisation, alongside learning about the history of theatre and of applied theatre. Year two focuses on developing your skills as a facilitator, and year three lets you put what you have learnt into practice.

Outside a drama school setting, there are plenty of university courses, although it does seem that within a university, applied theatre is more commonly studied at MA level. The advantage of a drama school setting is that the theory is taught alongside practical and vocational skills-based training, and the links drama schools have to the industry means that the list of visiting tutors and placement opportunities are arguably more comprehensive.

Anyone working in theatre knows the transformative nature of the work. We may even have personal stories of how theatre and drama changed our lives, but those who work in this field experience it every day. Applied theatre isn’t simply the more old-fashioned model of theatre in education – those working in the sector may never go anywhere near a school, but you will find them working with refugees, in the middle of a field creating a site-specific piece with a community group, in community centres, prisons, youth groups, with charities tackling domestic violence, or working with children with special needs.

The opportunities to use a degree in applied theatre practice are endless. It’s a course designed for people who want to change the world, and a look at some of the graduates from the courses suggests that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Drama schools and universities offering applied courses

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama: BA, MA and short courses

Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts: BA course

East 15 Acting School: BA course

Goldsmiths: MA course

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