Children’s Role Taking in Participatory Theatre

Children’s Role Taking in Participatory Theatre

Our Artistic Director, Deborah Pakkar-Hull and Freelance Drama and Theatre Consultant, Geoff Readman have written a paper exploring the children’s role taking in Participatory Theatre and Education.


In this paper, we begin by offering a definition of TiE which places audience participation at the centre of the process. However, we also wish to acknowledge the rich potential of learning offered through other forms of theatre engagement, not covered in this paper. We identify three concepts which we believe are central to participation which is both immersive and critically reflective, within the here and now of fiction and reality: critical spectatorship; protection; the adoption of role by audience participants.

TiE offers radical alternatives for children, artists and teachers. It is still the case that TiE at its best has shown, in perhaps the most complete way yet, that theatre and learning need not be incompatible bedfellows (Jackson, 1993).


Theatre in Education

TiE is a powerful hybrid of theatre and education devised for a particular age group, in pursuit of both aesthetic and learning objectives. It is marked by the participation of children, who are asked to adopt fictional roles within a collaborative process in which the actor- teachers have expertise in presentation, facilitation and, crucially, relevant pedagogy and children’s perspectives are an integral dimension of the art.

The intentions of theatre-making in TiE are to engage children in complex problems in order to raise questions both through and within aesthetic and social forms. It does not seek to arrive at pre-defined solutions or achieve specific outcomes. It explores difficult issues through concrete dramatic action which portrays human behaviour in sharply-defined social contexts.

Participation is one of the key strategies through which TiE seeks to nurture a critical spectatorship with participants. The contribution of participation needs to be carefully considered, result from a shared purpose and be clearly communicated. Any temptation to include participation for functional, ad hoc or superficial reasons, will obscure the intended learning focus. It is recognised that different forms of participation create their own unique opportunities for reflective engagement. The process of connecting participatory theatre forms with the school, community, pupil age and social context for which they have been devised is succinctly defined by the phrase ‘negotiation of the aesthetic with the everyday’ (Prendergast and Saxton, 2009: 13). It is this ‘negotiation’ which, in many ways, defines an important aspect of the TiE practitioner’s role.

It is the ‘negotiation’ of the theatre through participation that characterises the performer- spectator relationship and fuses the role of ‘spectator and actor’ (Neelands, 1990: 5). In the first book to be published about TiE, O’Toole claimed that participation, when relevantly conceived, has the potential to offer a holistic, complementary experience, in which participation and theatre feed each other, growing together into a fusion of personal experience and projected identification… more thoroughly affecting than any presentation (O’Toole 1976, 88). He went on to articulate that there were three categories of participation:

Extrinsic, where the element of participation is separated from the theatricality;

Peripheral, where the audience is invited to contribute in order to add to the theatricality without affecting either the structure of the play or its own basic function as audience;

Integral, where the audience perspective becomes also the perspective of characters within the drama, especially when the audience members act as well as being acted upon. The structure of the dramatic conflict, the audience’s relative position to it, and therefore the total experience are altered. The element of theatre is no longer central (O’Toole 1976, 88).


Critical Spectatorship

In TiE, a different kind of spectatorship is being created, one which beckons involvement, interrogates and questions. It is a critical spectatorship that is potentially possible through watching a performed scene or from giving direct advice to an actor in role. In order to interrogate this notion further, we draw upon theory from broader fields in order to clarify this relationship between fiction and reality.

TiE companies make decisions relating to the balance of reality and fiction, the physical proximity of participants to actors, role portrayal, genre, physical and eye contact. All of these factors influence the nature of the engagement, the depth of the exploration and the degree to which groups feel comfortable with participation. One of the ways in which participants feel exposed is confusion; there needs to be clarity with regard to the fiction and reality of the context. Boal’s concept of ‘metaxis’ defines a dual consciousness, a capacity to hold fiction and reality together simultaneously; ‘the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different, autonomous worlds’ (Boal, 1995: 43). Boal draws energy from this state of mind, in a dialectic rather than didactic engagement.

Vygotsky’s play theories remain highly relevant for participatory theatre practice, with the emphasis on implicit rule-making, social networks and the abilities of children to endow objects with symbolic meaning. These theories centre on a state of mind in which a child can play, adopt role and create a fiction. A mindset in which she/he ‘weeps in play as a patient, but revels as a player’ (1976: 549). The knowledge of play theory informs processes in which participants, and/or actors, adopt and sustain role for the purpose of examining issues relevant to their personal lives.

Taylor (2003) articulates that participants simultaneously understand the nature of their real experience whilst remaining aware of their participation in the fiction (2003: 06). Neelands and Goode endorse participants’ ability to ‘respond in the moment’ whilst recognising the implications of their (adopted) role’s actions and stance. There is much common ground shared by Brecht’s mainstream articulation of ‘critical attitude’ (1964: 190) and Bolton’s DiE perspective ‘I am making it happen; it is happening to me’ (1983: 53). From the field of Drama in Education, Heathcote argues that she is searching for a state of mind which reflects ‘critical spectatorship’ through social, physical, emotional and intellectual engagement; reflection is explicit in the process.

Drama teaches people by demonstrating interactive social behaviour, and encouraging critical spectatorship, because art releases the spectator/action possibility in people (Heathcote, 1984: 192)

In TiE, practitioners value critical spectatorship for its potential in theatre-making that indicates alternatives, provokes dialogue and invites considerations for change.



Audience-participants are often exploring emotional contexts which are close to their own reality. TiE often examines contentious, issues with children in their school context. It is the practitioners’ ethical responsibility to ensure that children’s personal security is a priority in the theatre-making. The skill is not protecting children ‘from emotion’ but protecting them ‘into emotion’ (2010:87). Bolton argues that the notion of protection enables participants to engage safely by using structures which never over-challenge or disturb participants with regard to ‘self-esteem, personal dignity, personal defences or group security’ (2010: 87).

One of the ways in which children can feel exposed is when they are confronted with confusion; there thus needs to be clarity with regard to expectations, procedures and challenges of their role taking.


In Conclusion

There have been many attempts to categorise specific participant roles in TiE. Readers will no doubt be familiar with examples of generic roles for children; villagers, psychiatrists, explorers, advisers or decision makers. The activities of in role participation have been identified as questioning, advising, creating new scenes, discussing alternatives and becoming specific characters. We propose a set of categories which not only define a range of roles, but also indicate the precise purpose for which such roles were devised.

The following table, Children’s Role-taking in the Participatory Process indicates this recent research; we are both directors who have worked recently with Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah, in Leeds and The Play House, in Birmingham. The Table is far from being definitive; it is one which would benefit from further analysis. We believe that the learning potential of participation warrants deeper investigation and we would be delighted to hear responses or to engage in further conversations about this unique process.


To download the full paper, please visit our resources page.