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The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre

Final Report Summary - AESTAPP (The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre)

The project systematically compared five different types of applied theatre in six regions of the world. Specialised knowledge relating to aesthetic means, structure, work processes and institutional involvement was gained for each of the five types - theatre in education, community theatre, theatre for development, theatre as therapy and corporate theatre. However, it is the overall results in all five types that should be the focus of this summary, in order to provide a deeper understanding of contemporary applied theatre as a global trend in general. The comparison began from a decidedly contoured theatre-studies perspective: aesthetic questions served as a starting point, the focus was on rehearsal processes and forms of performance. The investigations carried out in Germany, Greece, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, South Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the USA, and the subsequent comparative studies, yielded the following results:

Applied theatre is characterised worldwide by a great diversity of aesthetic forms, techniques and practices. That's why it does not make sense to conceive of an applied theatre as a theatrical form in its own right. Rather, applied theatre should be understood as a functionally defined type, which may include very different forms. Beyond the finding of great inner diversity, some common distinctive features can be noted: applied theatre projects typically fall back on simple, easily understood forms that are already familiar in the region where the project is located. This simplicity and familiarity helps ensure that the projects are also accessible to people who are not involved in theatre every day. This is important because the target groups of applied theatre are often not a priori theatre-affine. Target groups are almost always clearly defined in the run-up to a project. From an aesthetic point of view, the target group focus is reflected in a clear, often explicit address of the audience - for example by a narrator, mediator or presenter figure.

Perhaps contrary to expectation, applied theatre by no means always emphasises interactive forms of presentation. In any case, the performances usually maintain a differentiation between actors and audience. Opportunities for interaction and participation usually arise before the performance, namely in the rehearsal process. The positive effects of applied theatre are not promised to the audience but to the actors. People from the target group are involved in the rehearsal process right from the start. They are meant to learn new courses of action by actively participating in the rehearsal process. For this participation to be possible, the chosen forms of theatre must be interculturally understandable, or at least adaptable. From this point of view, it is particularly interesting which forms are used most frequently across the different regions studied. On the one hand, there is a tendency towards epic elements, such as the narrator figures mentioned above, which act as a mediator between actors and audience. Secondly, borrowing from the tradition of modern documentary theatre is in evidence, because documentary techniques of biographical presentation are used where autobiographical experiences of the actors are meant to flow into the production. Thirdly, in contrast with individualising role representation, choral forms are often used that allow the depiction and processing of group-dynamic processes.

Elaborated philosophical concepts of the aesthetic have proved problematic in examining and describing these forms, especially those that derive from an idealistic tradition. The predominantly European root of aesthetic concepts repeatedly presents difficulties in exploring a global phenome-non like applied theatre. The danger of simply projecting Eurocentric ideals of impact onto other world regions is always present when using a decidedly aesthetic vocabulary. The claim of an aesthetics of applied theatre was therefore pragmatically translated into the principle of precisely describing formal aspects of the projects studied, and not limiting the notion of form to the elements of the performance, but referring instead to the entire theatrical process (including rehearsals).

Theories that conceptualise the aesthetic and the political as interlocked have shown themselves to be particularly productive for the research project. Here, the aesthetic becomes tangible as a politics of dealing with sensual experience (Ranciére). What is important, then, is the question of who has access to the sensual experiences that the aesthetic promises. In the field of applied theatre, it has been shown how strongly the inclusion and exclusion mechanisms of a theatre project depend on its institutional framing. Analysing the political dimension of applied theatre therefore requires a profound understanding of institutional politics.

The politics of applied theatre greatly consists in tactically adopting, adapting and modifying the strategies of state institutions and NGOs. In dealing with overarching institutions, there is a parallel between applied theatre and recent artistic traditions such as Institutional Critique and Relational Aesthetics. However, practitioners' interactions with the institutions that fund them are understand-ably seldom characterised by open criticism. Rather, they are concerned with developing the great-est possible freedom for their own projects within the strategic guidelines of the institutions. Often, practitioners also see themselves as mediators between the programmatic guidelines of the institutions and the local situation in the target area. To understand the interrelation between institutions and practitioners of applied theatre more precisely, it was important to understand the financing of the projects and the flow of money behind them. At this point, the need to break up and expand a purely aesthetic view of applied theatre becomes particularly clear. An awareness of the agency the actors have in relation to the institutions is also important: the guidelines of the financiers characterise the individual projects, but conversely, the promises made in the practitioners' applications and reports also influence the financiers' guidelines. On-site, practitioners often have considerable freedom in the use of budgets and in the modification of their objectives.

The politics of applied theatre has proven to be a global policy that often connects different regions of the world over great geographical and cultural distances. Practitioners often come from far away into local contexts to solve problems using the means of the theatre. There is still the very traditional constellation that facilitators from Europe or North America are employed in formerly colonial areas of the South. More often, however, practitioners now come from regional metropolises into rural areas and villages, whose cultural imprints they are already familiar with. The missions retain an interventionist character even in this less postcolonial constellation: interventions come from outside into local areas - with all the advantages and disadvantages that externally controlled work brings to conflicts. From a political point of view, the question of the demonstrable effects of applied theatre appears especially urgent. Again and again, it is the practitioners themselves who desire academically validated evaluations of the effectiveness of their projects. Theatre studies lacks the empirical and sociological methods to measure (especially longer-term) effects. Performance analysis methods certainly are able to identify effects that manifest themselves directly in the performances.

The results of the research project confirm a current development in the arts that has been designated an ethical turn. The worldwide increase in the significance of applied theatre means an ethical turn in theatrical practice in general, in the sense that ethical considerations in the direction and evaluation of theatrical work are increasingly given precedence over aesthetic considerations. The dominance of ethical concerns and claims is particularly evident in numerous theatrical projects that endeavour to find truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of violent conflict. Great ethical sensitivity among actors is conspicuous from discussions with practitioners of the applied theatre, which often exposes open scepticism about their own practice. In addition to such sensitisation, the ethical turn in the field of applied theatre also brings its own problems. All the problems of the ethicization of politics are tangible in the field of enquiry: a lack of actual material change; a tendency for personal finger-pointing; and, associated with that, some blindness to the structural dimension of problems. It is also irritating that the ethicization of applied theatre is leading to the re-establishment of a global understanding of theatre that strongly refers back to the European theatre of the 18th century: with empathy, compassion and moralising as its key objectives.

Many of the ethical difficulties of applied theatre result from the fundamentally public nature of theatre, and are therefore directly related to political and aesthetic issues: the theatre exposes target groups, communities, patients, clients and other actors of social, political or therapeutic projects. This exposure is often associated with the public disclosure of private experiences, making ques-tions about privacy and privacy protection urgent. At the same time, however, public disclosure undoubtedly represents one of the most important opportunities for applied theatre to have an impact: this type of theatre creates a public arena for political concerns and personal needs, and enables societies, both large and small, to engage in open communication about the concerns of individual actors and groups.