<Book Review>
Applied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice, 2nd edition
Monica Prendergast and Juliana Saxton, Eds.
[Bristol: Intellect, 2016. 270 pp.]

Edited by Monica Prendergast and Juliana Saxton, Applied Theatre is an introductory volume of international case studies in applied theatre. Including edited versions of over 30 case studies reprinted from a variety of journals and books, this text provides readers with a broad overview of different types of applied theatre. The first edition of Applied Theatre won the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s Distinguished Book Award in 2010, and the second edition has built on this and kept true to its subtitle by adding two new chapters (one on story and storytelling, and the other on documentary theatre) as well as 17 new case studies. The book is intended to be an introduction, so Prendergast and Saxton take a similar approach to other introductory works on applied theatre—like Tim Prentki and Sheila Preston’s The Applied Theatre Reader—by dividing the book into four parts: “Theories, History, and Practices of Applied Theatre,” “The Landscape of Applied Theatre,” “The Locations of Applied Theatre,” and “Challenges for Practice.” Across the four parts, readers can expect to find chapters on ten different areas of applied theatre practice: popular theatre, documentary theatre, theatre in education, theatre of the oppressed (TO), theatre in health education, theatre for development, prison theatre, community-based theatre, museum theatre, and reminiscence theatre. This breadth facilitates Prendergast and Saxton’s goal of assembling “the diversity of applied theatre practices,” particularly for those who are “new to the field or seeking examples of experience” (p. xx). Each chapter begins with an introduction to the relevant area of applied theatre practice and concludes with practical activity and internet resource suggestions, useful for instructors and students alike.

In Part 1, “Theories, History, and Practices of Applied Theatre,” Prendergast and Saxton begin with a brief outline of what they mean by each of the aforementioned ten types of practice. There is also a short history of applied theatre, a practice they characterize as “inclusive” and “not carry[ing] any limited fixed agendas” (p. 6). Furthermore, the first chapter highlights a list of some essential threads of applied theatre, including a “focus on multiple perspectives” and “endings that remain open for questioning” (p. 11). The next chapter considers the role of the facilitator and scripting, with a brief consideration of the interaction between the two. It also offers four key areas for effective applied theatre, including participation, aesthetics, ethics/safety, and assessment. The interrelationship between these is at the heart of applied theatre, issues that Prendergast and Saxton return to in Part 4. Part 1 concludes with a chapter new to the 2016 edition that focuses on story and storytelling. Effective storytelling reflects challenges of engagement, shape, tension, voice, and gesture. Helpfully, the chapter on storytelling also considers some of the ethical issues with using story, particularly in terms of “potentially negative repercussions” (p. 37).

Part 2, “The Landscape of Applied Theatre,” begins the examination of case studies that serves as the heart of this text. It features four forms of applied theatre: popular theatre, documentary theatre, theatre in education, and theatre of the oppressed. First, the chapter on what Prendergast and Saxton call popular theatre—also referred to as “grass-roots theatre” that “draws on mythologies and folk tales” (p. 43)—considers it as spectacle in the UK, puppetry with at-risk indigenous youth in Australia, comic performance in Bangkok, and street theatre seeking to reduce mercury pollution among artisanal gold miners in Zimbabwe. Second, the chapter on documentary theatre—a practice that seeks “to inform audiences and to provoke community discussion or action on a wide range of issues” (p. 63)—draws examples from the post-colonial context of Angola, a fascinating project involving translators serving South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a verbatim project with British mothers of sexually abused children, and testimonial theatre with asylum seekers in Australia. Third, the chapter on theatre in education involves case studies about human rights in the former Yugoslavia, disability and inclusivity in South Korea, a program aimed at countering radicalization in the UK, and attempts to prevent child abuse and family violence in New Zealand. Finally, the chapter on TO—a genre made famous by Augusto Boal—includes an interview with Boal, describes the use of forum theatre regarding sexual harassment in Canada, considers a project involving forum theatre with former refugees in Canada, and recounts a two-day TO workshop with medical school students in India.

In Part 3, “The Locations of Applied Theatre,” readers are exposed to theatre in health education, theatre for development, prison theatre, community-based theatre, museum theatre, and reminiscence theatre. As regards health education, examples include the use of theatre in Nigeria to discuss HIV/AIDS, an innovative play around prenatal screening in the UK, and a process of making theatre with medical students in Ireland. Examples appearing in the chapter on theatre for development—which involves “making and performing of plays in developing communities worldwide” (p. 137)—include using indigenous performance forms to condemn human trafficking in Bangladesh, explaining a new national constitution and its voting process in Uganda, promoting women’s rights in Pakistan, and undertaking environmental education in Nigeria. Then, the chapter on prison theatre considers a citizenship project in an Israeli prison, the use of a forum theatre course in a US maximum-security prison, work on death and dreams in a US women’s prison, and human rights issues in a Brazilian prison. Next, case studies about community-based theatre—that which is “rooted in a very particular setting within which context, participants, and issues are all local” (p. 177)—include a large-scale community play in the UK, the challenges of doing theatre in rural Sweden, working with veterans in the US, and dreams and house demolition in China. The chapter on museum theatre—a practice that complicates what a museum’s function is—explores work done in the National Coal Mining Museum for England, the reconstruction and contestation of history through interpretation work at Colonial Williamsburg in the US, and the creation of a play in a Canadian museum based on a local canal. Finally, the chapter on reminiscence theatre—which invokes the “memories and experiences of the elderly” (p. 215)—describes a project in the UK that considers stigma around divorce, one in Taiwan regarding domesticity, another UK-based project working across generations, and a process in Australia that considers widowhood.

Part 4, “Challenges for Practice,” concludes the volume by returning to the four key areas mentioned in Part 1: participation, aesthetics, ethics/safety, and assessment. It reflects on these themes, inviting readers to think about the ways in which these four issue areas emerge in their own work. Then, Prendergast and Saxton curate a conversation by invoking a number of thinkers who consider the challenge of these arenas. Part 4 wraps up the text with an Afterword that urges practitioners to engage in reflection when undertaking applied theatre work. A staple of experiential education that applied theatre practitioners are encouraged to leverage, reflection involves looking back on a process that has just unfolded “to consider the moral attitudes, principles, and beliefs that lie beneath actions and to see these in relation to the views, actions and feelings of others” (p. 247).

As an introductory text, Prendergast and Saxton’s Applied Theatre offers readers an incredible array of practices to consider. The diversity of examples, combined with the helpful discussion questions and resources that conclude each chapter, should be seen as a springboard for a more critical and in-depth analysis that can occur in classrooms and among practitioners. Those looking for a text that engages with applied theatre in critical fashion may be disappointed—Jenny Hughes and Helen Nicholson’s recent Critical Perspectives on Applied Theatre is better for this—but the work that Prendergast and Saxton do to assemble numerous forms of applied theatre make their text a useful starting point for students of applied theatre. Readers will have to bring their full powers of inquiry to the fore when reading the text, for none of the chapters of case studies offer concluding remarks that draw out themes from among the cases—this is a task that is left to Part 4. Inquisitive readers may also wonder about the justifications for placing particular cases within certain categories of applied theatre. A short conclusion wrapping up each chapter of case studies would have been useful in this regard. Nonetheless, Prendergast and Saxton’s Applied Theatre is a helpful overview of the wide assortment of work that constitutes applied theatre, offering a valuable introductory and first step into a constantly shifting and dynamic world of artistic practice.

     — Reviewed by Asif Majid, The University of Manchester


Hughes, Jenny, and Helen Nicholson, eds. Critical Perspectives on Applied Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Prentki, Tim, and Sheila Preston, eds. The Applied Theatre Reader. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Asif Majid is an interdisciplinarian who researches, teaches, and performs at the intersection of conflict and performance, particularly in terms of devising, improvisation, and applied theatre with marginalized communities. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a self-designed BA in Interdisciplinary Studies (Global Peace Building and Conflict Management) from UMBC, earned an MA with Distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, and is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..